Cape Verde - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Cape Verde: the Bradt Guide

When the first island of Cape Verde erupted from the ocean hundreds of kilometres from the African coast, the archipelago’s fate was sealed. For, overwhelmingly, the islands’ unique and often tragic history has been the result of their position. Their history is one of use and abuse by nations from the four corners of the Atlantic. The world has changed around them and has found fleeting uses for them: they have served until they are exhausted and then they have been forgotten until another convulsion in world affairs has produced a new use for them.

The archipelago’s story has been a sad one but it has begun a hopeful chapter. For now the Cape Verdeans have their own identity, proclaim their own culture and, most importantly, govern themselves. Since the 1970s they have been able to act strategically. At the same time, the outside world has changed and has found new uses for Cape Verde: white beaches to serve the interests of mass tourism, and abundant fish when other seas are severely depleted. Whether the archipelago will be able to exploit these riches for itself, or whether the 21st century will be just another chapter in which it is sucked dry and thrown away, it is too early to tell.

Natural history

Many species on Cape Verde exist nowhere else in the world – the phenomenon known as endemicity. Unlike other islands such as the Caymans, which were once part of a bigger landmass and carry species left over from the greater continent, life here has arrived by chance. Which species completed the extraordinary journey was a lottery and the winners were a peculiar assortment. In addition, these species have had millions of years of isolation in which to branch out on their own, adapting to suit the oddities of the habitat. The grey-headed kingfisher (Halcyon leucocephela), for example, in the absence of much inland water in which to live up to its name, dines on insects instead.

The closest relatives of some of Cape Verde’s plants are found in East Africa rather than the west. Scientists think that they were borne here from West Africa, which then itself became so dry that they disappeared from there.


Cape Verde has probably never been profusely covered in greenery. Lack of research and poor early records mean we know little about what it was like before humans arrived. The lower slopes were probably grassy and treeless (steppe) or with low vegetation dotted with trees (savannah). There are a few indigenous trees that still survive: the lovely blue-green, gnarled, flat-topped dragon tree (Dracaena draco), fast disappearing except on São Nicolau; the tamarisk palms, known locally as tamareira (Phoenix atlantica), that fill the lagoons and sunken deserts of Boavista (though some believe that it is just a feral version of another palm tree, Phoenix dactyl); the ironwood tree; and perhaps a species of fig tree and one of acacia.

The indigenous plants are adapted to dryness (having small leaves, for example) and are small and sturdy to cope with strong winds.

Over the last 500 years, plants have been introduced from all over the world, and people have tried to cultivate wherever they can. Shrubs and trees have been cleared to make way for arable land. Poor farming techniques and the ubiquitous goat have combined with these forces to oust most of the original vegetation. The result is that, of the 600 species of plant growing in Cape Verde (aside from crops), only a quarter are natural to the islands and about half of those are endemic. Some of the endemic plants, such as Língua da vaca (Echium vulcanorum) are suited only to ranges of crazily small dimensions, as frustrated botanists will tell you. Since independence in 1975, people have been making Herculean eff orts to plant trees. The roots form a matrix that traps earth so that heavy rain cannot wash them away, and the branches prevent the wind scattering the precious soil. The trees are also supposed to create a moist microclimate. The reafforestation figures have been almost unbelievable: over some periods about three million new trees have been planted each year, or 7,000 a day. The result is pine trees, oaks and sweet chestnuts on the cool peaks of Santo Antão, eucalyptus on the heights of Fogo, and forests of acacia on Maio.

Flora on Monte Verde, São Vicente, Cape Verde

Flora on Monte Verde, São Vicente, with Calhau in the background © Frank Bach/Shutterstock



Cape Verde has a dedicated following of ornithologists and amateur birdwatchers who can be found wedged into crevices high up mountainsides or, before new restrictions came into force, trying to secure passages with local fishermen across wild stretches of sea to some of the uninhabited islands. Their dedication stems from the fact that Cape Verde abounds in endemics and some of the seabirds living on cliffs around the islands are particularly important. The archipelago lies on the extreme southwest corner of the western Palaearctic region and is thus the only place in that region where certain species, mainly African or tropical, can be found to breed regularly. There are about 130 migrants for whom Cape Verde is an important stopping point on their long journeys. Some 40 use the islands for nesting. The archipelago has played host to three threatened marine bird species: the magnificent frigatebird, brown booby and red-billed tropicbird. The previously endangered Cape Verde shearwater has won a welcome reprieve.

However, as with the plants, much of the natural birdlife has been wiped out, particularly by hungry locals tempted by succulent seabirds or by fishermen treading on their burrows as they search for shellfi sh along the beaches. Feral cats also pose problems for some species. A more modern threat comes from actual and proposed tourism developments close to important wetland areas, such as Rabil in Boavista and the now-abandoned Salinas development in Maio.

The most prized birds to discover in the islands include the raso lark (Alauda razae) and the magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens), both with extraordinarily restricted breeding areas. The population of the former is thought to be around 1,500. The entire eastern Atlantic population of the latter were to be found on the islet of Curral Velho off Boavista, but the extinction of the species may already be a reality. The Cape Verde petrel (Pterodroma feae), or ngon-ngon bird, is disappearing fast and the elegant red-billed tropicbird, or rabo de junco (Phaethon aethereus), with its red bill and streaming white tail, is also plunging in numbers. More common birds include the colourful grey-headed kingfisher (Halcyon leucocephala), known locally as passarinha. It can be found on Santiago, Fogo and Brava, and has a red beak, and orange, black and blue plumage.

You will also see plenty of helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris) on mountain slopes but the distinctive white Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), previously abundant at high altitudes, is also fast disappearing, if not actually extinct. Waders frequent the few lagoons and saltpans, on Sal, Maio, Boavista and Santiago. If you miss the brown booby (Sula leucogaster) – known locally as the alcatraz and also an inhabitant of the islet of Curral Velho in Boavista – take a look at the 20-escudo piece. The Cape Verde red kite (Milvus milvus fasciicauda) is probably now extinct and the Cape Verde purple heron, or garça vermelha (Ardea purpurea bournei), leads a particularly precarious existence in possibly just two trees in Santiago’s interior. There are 25 birds in one tree and even fewer in the other. The Cape Verde cane warbler (Acrocephalus brevipennis) (endangered and brownish) lives mostly in Santiago, with about 500 breeding pairs left there, though a significant population was also found in 2004 in Fogo.

 Some of the most compelling sites for rare birds in Cape Verde are the islets. On the Ilhéus do Rombo can be found Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii), known locally as João-petro. These are known to breed only on Raso island, which is near São Nicolau, and on Ilhéu de Cima. They are almost totally black with a strip of dark grey stretching along the middle of their wings.

The Madeiran storm petrel (Oceanodroma castro) is known locally as the jabajaba or the pedreirinho, and breeds only on these islands and on Branco, Raso and islets off Boavista. It is black apart from a white bit just before the tail. The Cape Verde shearwater (Calonectris edwardsii), once imperilled by a mass annual culling of its chicks, now thrives again on Raso island, thanks to the sterling efforts of conservationists. 

More information can be found on the partially bilingual website of the Sociedade Caboverdiana de Zoologia and the English-language website of BirdLife International.

Other fauna

There are no large mammals and no snakes, but several species of bat can be found, and green monkeys inhabit Santiago and can also be found on Brava. There are also many small, brown, endemic reptiles, geckos and skinks. The Cape Verde giant skink (Macroscincus coctei) – delicious, sadly – became extinct in the 1940s. Many interesting endemic insects and beetles live on the islands and there are collections of them in the Natural History Museum in London.

Marine life 

According to the World Wildlife Fund, we are still ignorant of the riches that may lie in Cape Verde’s waters. But the marine life here is probably globally significant. There is a high degree of endemism, which is unusual for oceanic islands, and the sea is full of corals – not true reefs but slabs, pinnacles and, importantly, coral mountains reaching up from the ocean floor and providing rare mid-ocean habitats at all depths.

One study concluded that Cape Verde has one of the world’s ten most important coral reefs – though that claim has since been disputed by other experts. The highest levels of marine biodiversity are around Boavista, Sal and Maio, which share a marine platform. Meanwhile, despite its aridity, Boavista hosts one of the largest wetlands of the Macaronesia region.

So far, scientists have catalogued 639 species of fish including mantas and whale sharks. More than 17 species of whale and dolphin have been reported, including the humpback whale, which breeds in Cape Verde. Five species of turtle frequent Cape Verdean waters, including the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) for whom Cape Verde is the third most important nesting ground in the world.

Marine life is more tropical than would be found at the same latitude of mainland Africa, on the coast of Senegal. This is because the archipelago is sufficiently far from the mainland to escape the cold ‘winter upwellings’, in which the turning of the globe causes water from deep in the ocean to surface at the coast. This would otherwise decrease the temperature of the 21°C waters to about 10°C.

Marine life in Cape Verde is probably globally significant – here is a high degree of endemism, which is unusual for oceanic islands, and the sea is full of corals – not true reefs but slabs, pinnacles and coral mountains reaching up from the ocean floor.

There are several threats to the marine heritage of Cape Verde. One of them is fishing: overfishing by domestic and international commercial boats and the use of destructive fishing methods, such as spear guns, and fishing during spawning seasons, by local fishermen. A second threat comes from coastal development. Many of the most important habitat areas along the coasts are just the places where people want to build hotels and marinas.

The country plans tens of thousands of new tourist beds over the next 20 years. Problems from such developments include pollution, the disappearance of sand as it is siphoned off for construction (entire beaches have already disappeared), the effects of artificial light on turtle nesting and damage from quad bikes and the like roaring across fragile coastal land.


North Atlantic humpback whales were driven almost to extinction during the whaling exploits of the 14th century. Now there are 10,000–12,000 worldwide and most breed in the West Indies. A few hundred, however, choose Cape Verde. This select group makes seasonal migrations between Iceland, Norway and Cape Verde. The archipelago is where they mate, after which the females travel north to feed, returning around a year later to give birth.

Cape Verde is the only known breeding ground for humpbacks in the northeast Atlantic. March and April are the peak of the breeding season and also the time when the whales can be sighted – mostly off the west and southwest coasts of Boavista, Sal and most other islands. Individuals can be identified from natural markings (ventral fluke patterns). Males sing songs, at least partly to attract females, and also to maintain distance from other males.

People and culture

Parque Natural de Serra Malagueta, Santiago Island, Cape Verde, Martin Haigh

Local people walking a trail in Serra Malagueta, Santiago Island © Martin Haigh

According to the last census in 2010, Cape Verde had a population of 491,000, ranging in ethnicity from virtually white to black: about 70% are mixed race, 1% are white. Although estimates vary, the actual population figure, calculated using projected annual growth rates, was probably closer to 530,000 by 2016. Women outnumber men because of emigration (51.4% to 48.6%, UNDP 2010), although there are localities where it is the women who are emigrating rather than the men.

The lack of men, together with the intermittent returns and lengthy absences, are two of the reasons why marriage, and family units of father, mother and children, are unusual. Men typically have children by many women and are often married to none of them; the same applies to women. Responsibility for bringing up children invariably falls to the women, who may be dependent on remittances sent back from abroad by the various fathers.

Population growth is 2.1% and the government has campaigned hard to bring it down through birth control, including abortion. The Catholic Church has campaigned hard against the latter. Life expectancy is 73 years: 68 for men and 76 for women. Some 90% of people are literate, and this rises to nearly 98% among the young. Cape Verde is a young country in more ways than one: some 39% of the population is under 18 years of age, according to UNICEF figures (2013).

Over half the population lives on Santiago, and of these over 130,000 live in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde. The only other big population centre is Mindelo on São Vicente, though many of the other archipelago’s towns now have ‘city’ status despite being modest in size. Visitors to the islands will note that many of the small accommodation options and restaurants are owned and run by immigrants from mainland Europe, with French, Spanish, Italians and Germans to the fore. Many of the larger hotels are operated by Portuguese, Spanish or Italian chains. The island of Santa Luzia is uninhabited.

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