The People
Peoples of Mauritania: Two main ethnic groups inhabit the West African nation of Mauritania. The majority of Mauritanians are Moorish descendants of Arabs and Berbers. Some Moors live in cities or villages, and others are nomads who travel the desert in search of water and pastureland. Political, commercial, and environmental changes have forced many nomads into urban areas. Black Africans, Mauritania’s second ethnic group, are primarily farmers in the country’s south. Most of this group lives in small villages along the Sénégal River in tents or in round mud-brick dwellings.
Remnants of Stone Age cultures have been found in northern Mauritania. Berber nomads moved into the area in the 1st millennium AD and subjugated the indigenous black population. The newcomers belonged to the Sanhaja Confederation, which long dominated trade between the northern parts of Africa and the kingdom of Ghana, the capital of which, Kumbi Saleh, was in southeast Mauritania. The Berbers, in turn, were conquered by Arabs in the 16th century. The descendants of the Arabs became the upper stratum of Mauritanian society, and Arabic gradually displaced Berber dialects as the language of the country.French forces, moving up the Sénégal River, made the area a French protectorate in 1903 and a colony in 1920. In 1946 Mauritania became an overseas territory of the French Union. Under French occupation, slavery was legally abolished. In 1960 the Islamic Republic of Mauritania became fully independent.The majority of the population consists of Moors (of mixed Arab and Berber ancestry), many of whom lead a nomadic existence. More than 90 per cent of the population lives in the southern quarter of the country. About 30 per cent of the people are black African farmers, who live in the Sénégal Valley.Mauritania is divided into 12 regions, each administered by a council, and one district, which contains the country's capital and largest city, Nouakchott. Other principal towns are Kaédi, a farming centre on the Sénégal River; Nouadhibou, a fishing centre and seaport; and Rosso.
Arabic and French are the official languages, and Poular, Wolof, and Soninke are recognized as national languages.
Islam, the state religion, is practised by more than 99 per cent of the people.
A constitution approved by referendum in July 1991 declares Mauritania to be an "Islamic, African, and Arab republic". The constitution provides for an executive president, elected for a six-year term, and for a bicameral chamber legislature, consisting of a national assembly and a senate.The highest tribunal of Mauritania is the supreme court, which sits in Nouakchott. Islamic law plays an important role in the Mauritanian judicial system.
The Mauritanian economy is predominantly pastoral, with mining and fishing increasing in importance. Mauritania depends heavily on foreign aid.The most important agricultural activity is the raising of animals, and including sheep, goats, cattle, and poultry. Crop farming is mostly restricted to the south. Leading crops are millet, sorghum, rice, dates, watermelons, yams, and corn.Mauritania produces iron ore—the country's most important resource and export—mainly from rich deposits in the Fdérik area. Copper mining, once an important industry, was discontinued in 1978. Manufacturing accounts for only a small part of Mauritania's economic base and is limited primarily to fish processing and the production of other foodstuffs.Major imports are food products, machinery, construction materials, petroleum, and consumer goods. The monetary unit in Mauritania is the ouguiya.
Mauritanian Highlands: Sandstone plateaus rising to 3,000 metres (9,842 feet) run through the centre of Mauritania, from the northern frontier to the Sénégal Valley. Because rainfall is scarce, settlement is restricted to oases, where springs emerge at the foot of surrounding escarpments. Iron-ore deposits near Fdérik and copper mines at Akjoujt are the mainstays of Mauritania’s economy.
Mauritania completed the Trans-Mauritanian road in 1985. A railway links Nouadhibou to the Fdérik ore fields. Deepwater port facilities and international airports are located at Nouadhibou and Nouakchott. The country has one daily newspaper, the Chaab, published in French and Arabic in Nouakchott.
Sénégal River of Mauritania: Passengers and cargo are loaded onto a small boat at Rosso on the Sénégal River, Mauritania’s only river. The river forms Mauritania’s southern border with the country of Senegal and empties into the Atlantic Ocean at the town of St Louis. Most of Mauritania’s people live in the fertile areas of the extreme south, and the highest concentrations are along the Sénégal.
The government of Mauritania attempts to provide free primary education. The effort, however, has been hindered by the nomadic character of the people. Estimates from the early 1990s suggest that only half the eligible children attend primary school. Higher education is provided by the University of Nouakchott and by a college of public administration, also in the capital.
African Elephant
Loxodonta africana Giant African elephants, whose tusks alone can weigh more than 45 kilograms (more than 99 pounds), are remarkable not only for their size but for their unique means of communication. Adults can “talk” to each other over vast distances using ultra-low-frequency sounds beyond the range of human hearing. These tones, which the elephants can hear over distances of hundreds of kilometres, may be analogous to the ocean songs of whales. Elephants once ranged through most of Africa south of the Sahara, but they are now seriously threatened by habitat destruction and ivory poachers. Between 1973 and 1980, Kenya’s elephant population was reduced by 65 per cent, mainly because of rampant poaching. In 1989, in response to the growing threat of extinction, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the world body that regulates wildlife trade, banned the sale of ivory. The effect of the ban has not been determined, but biologists predict that African elephants will survive within protected areas throughout the continent.
Cape Hunting Dog (or African Wild Dog)
Lycaon pictus Enormous ears and conspicuous colours enable individual cape hunting dogs to locate each other quickly and to hunt as a pack, bringing down prey as big as twice their size. Like many other dogs, the cape hunting dog is very sociable; it roams the African grasslands and savannas in groups of as many as 60. Also known as the African wild dog, these animals were once quite common but are now seldom seen. The decline in their numbers results from predator-control efforts, habitat destruction, and a decrease in available prey.
Acinonyx jubatus The world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah has been clocked at speeds of more than 105 kilometres per hour (more than 65 miles per hour) while running in pursuit of prey. Active during the day, these graceful animals are solitary hunters on the savannas and woodlands of Africa south of the Sahara. Despite their fierce appearance, cheetahs often lose small gazelle kills to more aggressive predators such as hyenas or lions. As a consequence of habitat loss and poaching for their prized skins, cheetahs are endangered throughout their range.
Peregrine Falcon
Falco peregrinus Famous for its mastery of flight, the peregrine falcon has been clocked at 100 kilometres per hour (62 miles per hour) in level flight and more than 320 kilometres per hour (199 miles per hour) when diving after avian prey in midair. The impact of the falcon’s grasping claws is usually enough to kill its prey. The peregrine falcon is found all over the world and has the most extensive range of any bird species. The species is in peril, nevertheless, because pesticide poisoning has thinned the shells of peregrine eggs. In the early 1990s, only about 500 pairs of the North American subspecies remained, mainly in the western United States.
Giraffa camelopardalis At 6 metres (19.7 feet) tall, the giraffe feeds on tree shoots and leaves that other animals on the African savanna cannot reach. A male will eat up to 91 kilograms (up to 201 pounds) per day. The giraffe’s long legs allow it to reach speeds of 58 kilometres per hour (36 miles per hour), but because its legs must be folded or awkwardly splayed to each side when it wants to drink, the gentle animal becomes easy prey for lions, hyenas, and leopards. Ever vigilant for predators, the giraffe succumbs to a true sleep for only 20 minutes each day. Each giraffe’s spotting pattern is unique, just like a human fingerprint.
Spotted Hyena
Crocuta crocuta The hyena’s long, muscular neck, furry round ears, and long front legs combine to look like a cross between a dog and a giraffe. However, the hyena belongs to the cat family, hunting at night and sleeping in the day in dug-out caves on the plains of eastern and southern Africa. Persistent and opportunistic, a pack of hyenas will spend hours wearing down their prey before closing in for the kill. The hyena is also adept at stealing other animals’ kill.
African Jacana
Actophilornis africanus This African water bird lives on the floating vegetation of ponds, lakes, and slow-moving streams, nesting on flimsy piles of weeds or lily pads. The male jacana must often hold the eggs under its wings when it roosts because its weight alone submerges the nest. Despite its aquatic home, the jacana rarely swims.
Greater Flamingo
Phoenicopterus ruber Thousands of these magnificent birds, which stand 1.2 metres (3.9 feet) tall on spindly legs, live together in the shallow brackish lakes and lagoons of southern Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. In Africa, flocks can reach 1 million pairs. The flamingo feeds with its head upside down under water, filtering tiny plants and animals from the water. It constructs nests of heaped mud on the water, leaving the young vulnerable to changes in the water’s level.
Upupa epops Reaching 30 centimetres (11.8 inches) long, with a fan-shaped crest and black-and-white striped tail and wings, the hoopoe is easy to spot. This elaborately decorated bird from southern Europe, Asia, and southern Africa spends its days probing the soil for insects and grubs. Although timid, the hoopoe can elude most birds of prey. The bird’s nest is easy to identify by its foul-smelling accumulation of faecal matter.
Mediterranean Monk Seal
Among seals and sea lions, only the monk seals inhabit waters that are warm year-round. The Caribbean monk seal is believed to be extinct, and the Hawaiian and Mediterranean species are considered extremely rare. It is believed that fewer than 500 Mediterranean monk seals, Monachus monachus, remain, widely scattered among rocky islets and rugged shores that extend from Turkey and Greece to northwest Africa. Like the young of most seals, the monk seal pup grows rapidly. By the age of five or six weeks, it sheds its black, woolly infant coat and soon begins feeding on its own.
Pandion haliaetus The long claws and narrow wings of this large bird are adapted to diving for fish. The osprey circles the water at heights up to 30 metres (98 feet) and then drops feet first to snatch prey. It can carry more than its own weight in flight. Because the young osprey must teach itself how to hunt, many starve once they leave the nest. Native to North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, the osprey is on the decline due to habitat loss and pesticide residues in their food which interferes with reproduction.
Red Fox
Vulpes vulpes A crafty hunter, the red fox is known to charm its prey. It begins its pursuit by playing wildly, chasing its tail and jumping around. Baffled birds and rabbits will stop to watch the antics, not realizing until too late that the fox is drawing nearer. The 60-centimetre (23.6-inch) red fox prefers the wooded and bushy areas across Europe and Asia. It lives in shallow holes and communicates through a wide variety of calls.
Small-spotted Genet
Genetta genetta This swift and graceful catlike mammal is a skilled nighttime hunter. It prefers arid, bushy areas in Spain, southwest France, and Africa, avoiding rain forest and Sahara areas. Upon reaching a new home range, the genet memorizes every twig and branch. It walks its territory slowly at first, gradually increasing its speed until it can run through the area in the dark. Half of the genet’s 1-metre (3.3 foot) length is its tail.
Wild Cat
Felis sylvestris While this nocturnal hunter from the mountains of Europe looks like a large domestic cat, it is one of the fiercest of all cats and is untamable. Growing up to 75 centimetres (29.5 inches) long and weighing up to 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds), the wildcat is stouter and longer than a domestic cat. It hunts rabbits, grouse, and poultry, and it zealously defends its home territory.
There are only a few thousand of this rare desert antelope still left in the Sahara, scattered in isolated populations from Mauritania to Sudan. An addax, Addax nasomaculatus, can go for weeks without water and can withstand an internal temperature as high as 46°C (115°F). Its broad feet are adapted to walking on sand.
Dromedary Camel
Camelus dromedarius Domesticated some 2,000 to 4,000 years ago for their ability to haul people and cargo, the camel is amazingly well adapted to life in the harsh deserts of Southwest Asia. Its two rows of eyelashes, slit nostrils, and hairy ear openings help keep out sand. While it cannot store water, it can drink more than 160 litres (more than 42 gallons) at a draught, and it can drink sea water. Its urine is highly concentrated, and its dung so dry it can be burned immediately. Camels drop their body temperature at night, which prolongs the heating-up period the next day. No wild camels remain in Asia, though an introduced population has gone feral in Australia.
Desert Jerboa
Jaculus jaculus Resembling a miniature kangaroo, this tan-coloured rodent is well adapted to the deserts of Asia and Africa. It feeds on water-bearing roots in wetter periods, but during droughts, it can live on dry seeds without water for three or more years. Its urine is highly concentrated. In very high temperatures, the jerboa lies dormant in its burrow, which is plugged to block out hot air. Its long rear legs enable it to jump 3 metres (9.8 feet) at a bound and to travel 24 kilometres per hour (14.9 miles per hour).
Spiny-tailed Lizard
The fat, barbed tails of this lizard are a delicacy among the Bedouin people of North Africa. An inhabitant of the Sahara, the spiny-tailed lizard, Uromastix acanthinurus, differs from many desert dwellers in being active during the day, although it rarely moves. Adults are vegetarian, while the young will consume insects as they mature.
Although considered outstandingly ugly by humans, a boar warthog, Phacochoerus africanus, looks just fine to the sow who loves him, warts and all. At mating time, those fibrous protuberances, which are much more prominent in the male, protect him from being injured by the tusks of other males when they engage in ritualized duels. In much of Africa south of the Sahara, the warthog shares its habitat of grasslands and open woodlands with the aardvark, whose burrows it frequently usurps. An adult warthog may back into one of these burrows to face a would-be predator with its formidable sharp tusks. When not deterred by this defence, lions or African wild dogs may enjoy a hearty warthog meal.
European Robin
The European robin, Erithacus rubecula, is common in forests with dense understories of shrubs, where it announces its presence by singing through most of the year. The robin is the national bird of the United Kingdom, where it is equally at home in parks, gardens, and orchards.
Official name Islamic Republic of Mauritania
Area1,025,520 square kilometres 395,955 square miles
Major cities (Population)Nouakchott 550,000 (1992)
Nouadhibou 70,000 (1992)
Population2.3 million (1995)
RegionWest Africa
Population growth rate2.5 per cent (1990-1995)
Population density2 persons per square kilometre 5.2 persons per square mile (1995)
Per cent urban53.8 per cent (1995)
Per cent rural46.2 per cent (1995)
Life expectancy, female53 years (1995)
Life expectancy, male50 years (1995)
Infant mortality rate127 deaths per 1,000 live births (1990)
Literacy ratesTotal 38 per cent (1995)
Female 26 per cent (1995)
Male 50 per cent (1995)
Ethnic divisionsMaure (Arab-Berber) 80 per cent
Fulani, Wolof, other 20 per cent
LanguagesHasaniya Arabic (official)
Wolof (national)
ReligionsMuslim 100 per cent
PartiesLegalized by 1991 constitution; Social Democratic Republican Party (PRDS) is the party in government; Union of Democratic Forces (UFD), Rally for Democracy and National Unity (RDUN), Mauritanian Renewal Party (PMR), Social and Democratic Popular Union (UDSP), Democratic Justice Party, Progressive People's Party (APP), Union for Progress and Democracy (UPD)
Independence28 November 1960 (from France)
Constitution12 July 1991
Voting rightsUniversal at age 18
GDPUS$1.03 billion (1994)
GDP per capitaUS$591 (1991)
Government expendituresUS$220.2 million (1988)
Government revenuesUS$299.7 million (1988)
Government deficit/surplusUS$79.5 million (1988)
Monetary unit1 ouguiya (UM) = 5 khoums
Major export partnersEuropean Union (EU) countries, Japan, former Soviet republics, Côte d’Ivoire
Major import partnersEU countries, Algeria, China, United States
Exports Iron ore, processed fish
ImportsFoodstuffs, consumer goods, petroleum products, machinery, transport equipment, building materials
IndustriesFish processing, and processing of iron ore and gypsum
AgricultureAccounts for 33 per cent of GDP (1991), including fishing; largely subsistence farming and nomadic cattle and sheep herding except in Sénégal river valley; crops are dates, millet, sorghum, rice, pulses, root crops; livestock and livestock products include cattle, sheep, goats, meat, milk, hides and skins; fish products are the primary export; there is a large food deficit in years of drought.
Natural resourcesIron ore, gypsum, copper, gold, phosphate, sulphur, peat