Massawa coast

Country/territory: Eritrea

IBA criteria met: A1, A3, A4i (2001)
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Area: 31,000 ha

Site description (2001 baseline)
The site consists of the coastal plain around and to the south of Massawa. The combination of records from Massawa itself, from Dogoli, just inland and from Herghigo, 10 km to the south of Massawa town, indicate that the area merits IBA status on several counts, but further work will be required to define the boundary of one or more IBAs. Records from the immediate offshore islands, including Batsii (Massawa), Taulud and Sheik Said (Green) Islands are also included in this site account.The coastline itself is arid and sandy with occasional small rock promontories and extensive white dunes composed of tiny coral fragments. Acacia sp. thorn-bush spreads on to the dunes in many parts and behind the dunes there are belts of woodland and thorn scrub (e.g. A. spirocarpa and A. mellifera, with Balanites aegyptiaca, Capparis decidua and Cadaba sp.), and grassland with Suaeda sp., Zygophyllum simplex and Dipterygium glaucum. There are belts of the succulent Suaeda on marshy areas sometimes inundated by high tides, immediately behind the dunes. Underlying the dunes are ancient raised coral reefs which form a low, 1.5 m cliff along the beach in some places, especially north of Massawa and may also appear as an underwater shelf. There are also live offshore coral reefs in some places, partly blocking small bays, which leads to an accumulation of saline mud covered in mangroves (dominated by Avicennia marina). Numerous wadis run down from the Eastern plain to form small, tidal inlets. No permanent running fresh water reaches the coast and the wadis are usually dry for most or all of the year. During the ‘winter’ rains, some of the coastal areas can become marshy and seasonal vegetation (sedges and Statice sp.) grow on the dunes. The port of Massawa is constructed partly on the mainland and partly on the two islands of Taulud and Batsii, which are connected to the mainland by causeways. Very large areas of mud- (and sand) flats are exposed on shore and near these two islands at low tide, attracting large congregations of waders. There are palm-groves (Hyphaene sp.), together with Acacia and Zizyphus sp. and cultivated shrubs in some gardens on Batsii and on Taulud Islands. Green Island has extensive mangroves and some scrub. The numerous islands of the Dehalak Archipelago (part of ER002) lie offshore.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Table 2 for key species. Larus leucophthalmus was said by Smith (in the 1950s) to be ‘the commonest wintering gull along the coast, with flocks of hundreds at Archico [= Herghigo], along sandy beaches’. More recent records (e.g. 100 seen at Massawa in 1969) suggest that this species is still likely to be regularly occurring in numbers in the hundreds. This is the only site in Eritrea from which there are recent records of Geronticus eremita. Smith and other authors report the species as a winter visitor along the coast and near Massawa; numbers in the early 1950s were said to be ‘consistent with the size of the Turkish colony’ (600 to 800 pairs) at that time. The most recent record is of five adults observed feeding near the cemetery at Herghigo (15°31 N 39°26 E) on one day in February 1997 (they had gone the next day) (Dewhurst pers. comm.). Phoenicopterus minor occurs in small numbers (10s of birds) and irregularly (perhaps one year in three) at Massawa and along the coast, when there has been heavy winter rain, and areas just inland become flooded, forming shallow pans of brackish water for them to feed in (Hillman pers. comm.). Smith records Circus macrourus as ‘common’ on the Eastern Plain, near Massawa, along with ‘kestrels’.

In addition to the six Sahara–Sindian (A02) biome species recorded within the site, Hirundo obsoleta is known from a location further north along the coast (recorded as vagrant or a scarce resident at Wadi Lebka, which reaches the coast c.70 km north of Massawa—the only Eritrean location record for this species) and might be expected to occur. This is the only IBA in the country with records for the Sahel biome species, Passer luteus and it also has records of two Afrotropical Highlands biome species and six Somali–Masai biome species; see Table 2. The site is also important for a variety of seabirds and waders, the latter especially on the large areas of mud- and sandflat exposed in and around Massawa harbour at low tide. In addition to the large numbers of Larus leucophthalmus, L. hemprichii is recorded ‘in large numbers in ports like Massawa and Jeddah’ and ‘about 100 observed in the port’. Sterna anaethetus has been observed frequently in large numbers, including a flock of c.2,000 feeding on a fish shoal off Massawa. Occasional Anous stolidus are also reported feeding on shoals of fish offshore at Massawa. Phoenicopterus ruber appears regularly along the coast and islands in winter where there is a reasonably shallow shore and Milvus migrans is very common in the site, including a roost of several hundred birds on Green Island. M. migrans also breeds here and nesting waterbirds, also on Green Island, include Pelecanus rufescens and Threskiornis aethiopicus. Around 100 species of birds have been recorded from an artificial wetland created by the Ministry of Fisheries at Gurgusum beach in Massawa, but there are no details of species or numbers (Bein 2001).

Non-bird biodiversity: The waters and coral reefs off the Eritrean coastline support several hundred fish species, many of which breed and several of which were previously fished commercially, e.g. anchovies, sardines and tuna. Commercial fishing almost stopped during Eritrea’s war of liberation and most fishing is now artisanal, carried out by local fishermen from villages on both the mainland and islands. Five species of sea-turtle are recorded from the waters off Eritrea, including Chelonia midas (EN) and Eretmochelys imbricata (CR) (which breed in this site, on Green Island, and in the Dehalak Archipelago, part of ER002). Dugong dugon (VU) is found in significant numbers along the coast in suitable habitat—seagrass beds in shallow water. Also reported from ‘the Eritrean coast’ (and hence probably occurring within the proposed IBA), but with no information on location or numbers are ‘dolphins, porpoises and whales’ (FAO 1997). Baboons Papio hamadryas (LR/nt) are said to be common along the road between Massawa and Asmara.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Important Bird Area factsheet: Massawa coast. Downloaded from on 11/12/2023.