Geography & Wildlife

The ‘River of rivers’

The River Niger is the key geographical feature of Mali. It enters Mali from Guinea in the southwest and crosses right through the country to the east. In the middle, the river splits into several channels and land is flooded yearly.River Niger

Away from the river, to the north and east, vegetation can be sparse. But acacia and baobab trees grow in the semi-desert conditions. Indigofera bushes (or indigo plants) also thrive in arid regions.

Indigo dye is made from one species of indigofera bush (Indigofera tinctoria). The dye is used to colour woven cloths, for example in the Dogon region and in Djenné. The Tuareg people are especially known for wearing robes of bright indigo.

The encroaching Sahara

The main source of dust is...

The Sahara generates nearly two-thirds of the world’s dust each year – an estimated 300 million tonnes. Much of this dust is blown across West Africa by the harmattan winds.

Beyond the River Niger’s most northerly bend, the Sahara desert takes over. Here, the landscape has huge plains and shifting ‘seas’ of sand known as ergs. This is one of the hottest and most inhospitable places on earth.

The Sahara (the world’s largest desert) is expanding southwards, threatening the water supplies of those living north of the River Niger. This process is hastened by overgrazing and deforestation, as trees are cut down for firewood. Once plant and tree cover has gone, the soil has no protection and can be blown away. Then the sands take over.

With much of the land used to graze livestock, wildlife in Mali has been squeezed out, except in the country’s reserves and national parks. Here animals such as elephants, monkeys and hippos can be seen. Mali also has over 600 species of birds, with the Mali firefinch special to the region.

Spectacular cliffsHombori mountains, by VladaQ (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Mali is mainly flat. But the land rises to over 1000m in the Adrar des Iforas range to the north-west (along the Algerian border.)

However, Mali is best known for its highland areas in the south. Visitors come to see the dramatic scenery and unusual rock formations of the Hombori Mountains (see photo) and the cliffs and escarpments of the Dogon Plateau. They also come to visit the villages of this region. Find out why in the Tourism and Communications section.