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Kunene-Namib (Kunene-Tigres)

Kunene-Namib is a transboundary EBSA shared between Namibia and Angola, which spans the Kunene River mouth and includes the Tigres Island-Bay complex. Although separated by 50 km, the Kunene River outflow influences the salinity, sediment, and productivity within the Tigres Bay. The Tigres Island-Bay complex forms a rare coastal wetland that plays an important role in the life cycles of many marine and terrestrial fauna, and is an Important Bird Area. The Kunene River mouth and adjacent habitat is also an Important Bird Area, additionally supporting the highest density of green turtles in Namibia, and containing many marine and freshwater reptiles and fish, crustaceans, and transient marine mammals. Many of the species represented are threatened and/or endemic.

Note: The name change of this EBSA is pending, following revision of the EBSA boundary. It is proposed to be renamed Kunene-Namib or Namib-Kunene. In the interim, Kunene-Namib is used here.

EBSA Description: Kunene-Namib

General Information


Kunene-Namib is a trans-boundary area shared by Namibia and Angola. The Kunene River, its mouth and associated wetland, and the Tigres Island-Bay complex are integrally linked by physico-chemical processes. Although separated by ~50 km, the Kunene River influences the salinity, sediment and productivity within the Tigres Bay north of the river mouth. The Kunene-Namib area is highly relevant in terms of its uniqueness, importance for migratory birds, nursery functions and high habitat and species diversity.

MARISMA updates

The site description has been updated, but may need more revision after the new boundary and EBSA name have both been finalised; changes to the delineation are complete on the Namibian side, and are being discussed for the Angolan side. 

Introduction of the area

Adjacent to the arid, mostly uninhabited, and fairly remote 100 km of the southern Angolan coastline is an area of limited geographic but notable ecological prominence. Tigres Island and adjacent bay are a remnant of the pre-1970s peninsula formed by sediment discharged from the Kunene River. These features form a rare coastal wetland that plays an important role in the life cycles of many marine and terrestrial fauna (Simmons et al., 2006, Paterson 2007). The predominantly sandy island, measuring ~6 km at its widest point and ~22 km in length, has withstood the weathering effects of the Atlantic since the breaching of the isthmus in 1973, and has become an important site for a number of migratory and resident aquatic fauna (Morant 1996b, Simmons et al., 2006, Dyer 2007, Meÿer 2007). Approximately 50 km south of Tigres Island is an ecologically significant natural marine-freshwater feature: the Kunene River mouth. Although discharge volumes are erratic, this sub-tropical, perennial river may discharge up to 30 million m3 of fresh water per day into the sea. This has pronounced physicochemical influences on the adjacent marine habitat (sublittoral to littoral coastal region) to an extent of ~100 km from the river mouth, mostly northwards, but also southwards during certain times of year and during abnormal climatic events, such as Benguela Niños (Simmons et al., 1993, Shillington 2003). A lagoon extends 2 km south from the river mouth (Simmons et al., 1993). These features provide foraging, roosting and breeding habitat for a range of fauna, including sea- and shorebirds (Braine 1990, Simmons et al., 1993, Anderson et al., 2001, Dyer 2007, Simmons 2010), marine and freshwater reptiles (Griffin & Channing 1991, Simmons et al., 1993, Griffin 1994, Carter & Bickerton 1996, Griffin 2002), crustaceans (Carter & Bickerton 1996), marine and freshwater fish species (Simmons et al., 1993, Hay et al., 1997, Fishpool & Evans 2001, Holtzhausen 2003), as well as resident (Meÿer 2007) and transient marine mammals (Paterson 2007). Thus, based on these factors and the fact that the Tigres Island-Bay area is integrally linked to the Kunene River mouth and the immediately adjacent environment, Kunene-Namib is described herein as an area meeting EBSA criteria.

Description of location

The delineated area extends along the shore approximately 100 km north of the Kunene mouth into southern Angola (24 km north of Tigres Island), and 40 km south of the Kunene mouth into northern Namibia, with an offshore “tongue” extending a further 14 km south. The maximum offshore extent is approximately 100 km, although the Namibian sections extend only 30 km offshore. The focus area includes the Tigres Bay lagoon and approximately 12 km of the Kunene estuary. Kunene-Namib is well within the national jurisdictions of the two neighbouring countries it straddles (i.e., Angola and Namibia), with >80 % of the area falling within Angolan jurisdiction. In Namibia, this EBSA borders the Skeleton Coast Park; and in Angola it borders the Iona National Park.


Area details

Feature description of the area

Tigres Bay is approximately 11 km at its widest point (northern region of Tigres Bay) and ~8.5 km at its narrowest point (southern limit of Tigres Island from the mainland), with a longitudinal extent of ~60 km. Past surveys of the area have recorded 26 bird species with abundances of around 13000 individuals (Simmons et al., 1993, Simmons et al., 2006, Simmons 2010). Several bird species breed on Tigres Island or along the bay (including globally threatened Cape Cormorants and Damara Terns, and locally threatened Great White Pelicans and Caspian Damara Terns; Simmons et al., 2006; Dyer 2007; Simmons 2010) and Cape fur seals breed on the island (Meÿer 2007). The Kunene River mouth and adjacent marine habitat supports a lower bird density (~4000 individuals) than does Tigres Bay, but a higher species richness, and serves as a refueling and resting area for Palearctic migrant bird species (Simmons et al., 1993). At least 119 bird species have been recorded at the Kunene River mouth (Paterson 2007), and there are records of 381 species in the EBSA area, of which 2 are Critically Endangered, 3 are Endangered, and 9 are Vulnerable (OBIS, 2017). The adjacent Iona National Park in Angola is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area. Furthermore, the Kunene-Namib area is known to support the largest density of green turtles in Namibia (Griffin & Channing 1991; Simmons et al., 2006). Habitat heterogeneity is relatively high, with 15 habitats present in the EBSA. These include representation of two threatened habitat types: the Endangered Kunene Outer Shelf, and Vulnerable Kunene Shelf Edge. These threat statuses were determined by assessing the weighted cumulative impacts of various pressures (e.g., extractive resource use, pollution, development and others) on each habitat type for Namibia and Angola (Table 1; Holness et al., 2014).

Feature conditions and future outlook of the proposed area

Due to the remoteness of the Kunene-Namib focus area, limited human impacts (apart from current mining/exploration) on the marine and coastal areas have resulted in this area being relatively pristine. However, threats to the pristine nature of this ecologically important area include industrial interests upstream of the Kunene River mouth (including proposals to dam the river for power generation) and recent increases in fishing, mining and tourism interests on both sides of the Kunene River mouth (Simmons et al., 1993, Paterson 2007). The Namibian portions of the area are generally in good condition, although most of the Angolan area is in fair condition, primarily due to the high intensity of artisanal and commercial fishing taking place there (Holness et al., 2014). Consequently, 63 % of the overall area has been identified as being in fair condition, and 25 % in good condition. 


Assessment of the area against CBD EBSA criteria

 Uniqueness or rarity


Rank: High

The Kunene-Namib area is unique in the sense that it is the only sheltered, predominantly marine, sandy bay with a link to a perennial river for a 1500 km stretch along the Namibian coast and a 200 km stretch along the Angolan coast (Simmons et al., 2006). Being both geographically and biologically isolated, this area is ranked amongst the most threatened in Namibia (Simmons et al. 1993, Carter and Bickerton 1996, Barnard and Curtis 1998, Bethune 1998, De Moor et al., 2000) and supports reptilian fauna unique to Southern Africa (Kolberg & Simmons 1998). Furthermore, the Kunene-Tigres wetland is globally unique as it is the only freshwater input area that is located adjacent to an upwelling cell, viz. the Kunene upwelling cell, and wedged within the longitudinal range of a warm-cold water frontal system, i.e., the Angola-Benguela frontal system (Lutjeharms & Meeuwis 1987, Paterson 2007).


 Special importance for life-history stages of species


Rank: High

The Kunene-Tigres wetland serves as resting grounds for Palearctic migratory birds that use the area to build up energy reserves during their seasonal migrations (Simmons et al., 1993). The area (particularly Tigres Island) also serves as the breeding site for several bird species (Simmons et al., 2006, Simmons 2010). In addition to a colony of Cape fur seals, a number of other marine mammals (in particular Heaviside’s dolphins, long-finned pilot whales, bottlenose dolphins, beaked whales and Atlantic humpback dolphins) have also been recorded in the general area (Dyer 2007, Paterson 2007). However, little research has been done on cetaceans there, and they are currently considered to be only transient visitors to the area (Paterson 2007). Kunene-Tigres is very important for green turtles, with high densities of these animals known to occur in the area, which also represents the southern-most distribution of the species along the African west coast (Carr & Carr 1991, Griffin and Channing 1991, Carter & Bickerton 1996, Branch 1998, Griffin 2002, Fretey 2001, Paterson 2007). Furthermore, Kunene-Tigres is an important spawning area for many marine fish species found along the northern and central Namibian coast (Hay et al., 1997, Holtzhausen 2003).

 Importance for threatened, endangered or declining species and/or habitats


Rank: High

The EBSA contains portions of two threatened habitats, assessed by determining the weighted cumulative impacts of various pressures (e.g., extractive resource use, pollution, development and others) on each habitat type for Namibia and Angola (Table 1; Holness et al., 2014): the Endangered Kunene Outer Shelf, and Vulnerable Kunene Shelf Edge. Further, the Kunene-Tigres area (including the island, the bay, the river mouth and adjacent marine environment) supports threatened and/or regionally endemic bird species – in particular the Great White Pelican: Pelecanus onocrotalus, Cape Cormorant: Phalacrocorax capensis, Lesser Flamingo: Phoeniconaias minor, African Black Oystercatcher: Haematopus moquini, Hartlaub’s Gull: Chroicocephalus hartlaubii, Caspian Tern: Hydroprogne caspia and Damara Tern: Sternula balaenarum (Barnard & Curtis 1998, Anderson et al., 2001, Simmons et al., 2006, Simmons et al., 2015). Cetaceans that are endemic to the region (e.g., Heaviside’s dolphin: Cephalorhynchus heavisidii), or are threatened (e.g., the Vulnerable sperm whale, Physeter microcephalus; OBIS 2017) also make use of this area during their life cycles (Paterson 2007). Other threatened species in the area include the fish and condricthian species: Squatina oculata and Squatina aculeate (Critically Endangered); Argyrosomus hololepidotus, Rostroraja alba, and Sphyrna lewini (Endangered); and Thunnus obesus, Mustelus mustelus, Rhinobatos albomaculatus, Oxynotus centrina, Oreochromis macrochir, and Centrophorus squamosus (Vulnerable; OBIS, 2017).  The resident edible freshwater prawn: Macrobrachium vollenhovenii is also believed to be geographically, ecophysiologically and morphologically distinct here due to the physical characteristics of the Kunene River mouth (Carter and Bickerton 1996, Patterson 2007).  Large aggregations of green turtles, Chelonia mydas, found in the area further support the significance of the area in relation to this EBSA criterion; Vulnerable olive ridley turtles, Lepidochelys olivacea, are also present. This criterion is ranked as medium because the cetaceans listed are probably non-resident here, and there are other areas along the Namibian coast that are considered more important in terms of supporting threatened and endemic bird species.

 Vulnerability, fragility, sensitivity, or slow recovery


Rank:  Medium

The Kunene-Tigres wetland is believed to be vulnerable to environmental change mainly as a result of anthropogenic stress from activities such as fishing, mining and industrial development (Schneider & Miller 1992; Simmons et al., 1993; De Moor et al., 2000; Paterson 2007). Historically, dams constructed along the upper reaches of the Kunene River (six in total) have not had significant negative impacts on the flow characteristics of the river and naturalness of the adjacent wetland (Paterson 2007). This may be linked to the fact that the six dams have never been in operation at the same time due to structural damages sustained during the historic civil unrest in the region. This, however, may change as there is a proposal for a new hydroelectric dam to be built in the vicinity of the Epupa Falls (Dentlinger 2005), and potential still exists for the renovation of the existing six dams (Paterson 2007). Limited fishing occurs in the area that poses threats to vulnerable species such green turtles (which are often targeted by small military contingents near the Kunene River mouth) and marine mammals, which can get entangled in gillnets used by the fishers on the Angolan side of the border (Paterson 2007). On the Namibian side, diamond mining poses a threat to the area; prospecting taking place some 10 km south of the Kunene River mouth (Schneider & Miller 1992; Paterson 2007). There has also been a proposal for a deepwater harbour at one of two locations (viz. Cape Fria or Angra Fria), which are located roughly 160 and 130 km south of the Kunene River mouth, respectively (Paterson 2007). There have also been calls for the investigation of aquaculture viability at the Kunene River mouth, focusing on the edible freshwater prawn that is resident to the area (Paterson 2007). Furthermore, limited tourism interests are already established on the Namibian side and with tourism gaining momentum on the Angolan side, this industry could also pose a threat to the naturalness of the area if not properly regulated (Simmons et al., 2006, Paterson 2007).

 Biological productivity


Rank: Medium

The Kunene-Namib area is considered to be moderately productive due to its unique geographical location. It is situated within the moderately strong Kunene Upwelling Cell, within the longitudinal range of the Angola-Benguela frontal system (Lutjeharms & Meeuwis 1987, Paterson 2007), and at the mouth of one of only two perennial rivers in Namibia. The nutrients carried by the Benguela Current are supplemented by nutrient inputs from the Kunene River, providing a rich food supply that supports a diverse fish community in the area (Paterson 2007).


 Biological diversity


Rank: High

Habitat heterogeneity in Kunene-Tigres is high, with 15 distinct habitat types present in the EBSA (Holness et al., 2014). The Kunene-Tigres wetland also supports a high diversity of species, including terrestrial, freshwater and marine fauna (Paterson 2007). Over and above freshwater and marine reptiles (e.g., Nile soft-shelled terrapin, Nile crocodile, green turtle and Nile monitor), and cetaceans, the area also supports a large colony of Cape fur seals (Griffin & Channing 1991, Simmons et al., 1993, Carter & Bickerton 1996, Patterson 2007). The Kunene river mouth is also one of Namibia’s most diverse bird areas, with a total of at least 119 bird species (including 8 resident waders, 22 palearctic waders, 32 wetland-, 19 marine- and 38 non-wetland bird species; Ryan et al., 1984, Braine 1990, Simmons et al., 1993, Anderson et al., 2001, Paterson 2007). In terms of ichthyofauna, 65 freshwater fish species (five of which are endemic to the area) and 19 marine fish species have been recorded in Kunene-Tigres (Hay et al., 1997, Holtzhausen 2003, Paterson 2007).




Rank: Medium

In Namibia, human impacts on the Kunene-Tigres area have been limited due to its remoteness. However, historic and current fishing activities, combined with dam construction, mining and prospecting activities in and around the area have had some impacts on the local naturalness (Simmons et al., 1993, De Moor et al., 2000, Paterson 2007). Much of the Angolan area was identified as being in fair condition by Holness et al. (2014) largely due to the high intensity of artisanal and commercial fishing. Consequently, overall 63 % of the area is in fair condition and 25 % in good condition.



Anderson M.D., Anderson R.A., Anderson S.L., Anderson T.A., Bader U., Heinrich D., Hofmeyer J.H., Kolberg C., Kolberg H., Komen L., Paterson B., Paterson J., Sinclair K., Sinclair W., van Zijl D., van Zijl, H. 2001. Notes on the birds and other animals recorded at the Kunene River mouth from 6-8 January 2001. Bird Numbers, 10: 52-56.

Barnard P. Curtis, B. 1998. Sites of special ecological importance. In: Biological Diversity in Namibia: a Country Study. Barnard, P. (ed.) 1998. Namibian National Biodiversity Task Force, Windhoek. Pages: 74-75.

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Carter R., Bickerton, I.B. 1996. Chapter 5 Aquatic Fauna. In: Environmental Study of the Kunene River Mouth. Morant, P. D. ed.). CSIR Report EMAS - C96023. CSIR, Stellenbosch.

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De Moor F.C., Barber-James H.M., Harrison, A.D., Lugo-Ortiz, C.R. 2000. The macro-invertebrates of the Kunene River from the Ruacana Falls to the river mouth and assessment of the conservation status of the river. African Journal of Aquatic Sciences, 25: 105-122.

Dentlinger, L. 2005. Namibia, Angola eye reviving Kunene hydropower plans. The Namibian. Wednesday, August 17. Dyer B.M. 2007. Report on top-predator survey of southern Angola including Ilha dos Tigres, 20-29 November 2005. In: Kirkman, S.P. (Ed.), Final Report of the BCLME (Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem) Project on Top Predators as Biological Indicators of Ecosystem Change in the BCLME. Avian Demography Unit, Cape Town, pp. 303–306.

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OBIS. 2017. Summary statistics of biodiversity records in the Kunene-Tigres EBSA. (Available: Ocean Biogeographic Information System. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO. www.iobis.org. Accessed: 2017-07-27).

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EBSA criteria met at a high (red), medium (orange) or low (yellow) rank. 


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