Somaliland - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Somaliland: the Bradt Travel Guide

The history of Somaliland is patchily – and in some cases poorly – documented, and by comparison to the rest of eastern Africa the region has been somewhat neglected by archaeologists and other researchers. Paradoxically, however, it is a country of great historical interest, with coastal trade links to Ancient Egypt and the other great classical civilisations, and an interior scattered with intriguing rock art sites, mysterious cairns, and other monuments of a complex pastoral society that might date back 10,000 years. 

Naaso-hablood Somaliland Ariadne Van Zandbergen AfricaImageLibraryLegend has it that the Naaso-hablood are pyramids made by the ancient Egyptians © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

Natural history

With its largely arid climate and recent history of civil conflict, Somaliland may not seem the most promising destination for wildlife enthusiasts. But while it is true it lacks the densely grazed savanna reserves characteristic of east Africa or the lush forests that swathe the Congo Basin, and that many large mammal species have been hunted close to extinction over the past century or so, Somaliland still supports a surprising amount of medium-sized mammals and other wildlife. It is also a highly rated destination for birders, thanks to the presence of several Somali endemics (that is, species found nowhere else in the world), and several near-endemics and other birds with limited distribution. Many of its more interesting mammals can be seen quite easily while driving through the scrubby badlands that separate its main urban settlements, but there are also a handful of more specialised wildlife destinations, the most alluring being the remote and scenic Daallo Forest Reserve on the escarpment between Erigavo and Maydh.


Somaliland by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Africa Image LibrarySeveral antelope species are present in Somaliland © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

Somaliland supports a relatively limited selection of large mammals, certainly when compared to the likes of Ethiopia or Kenya, and many safari icons – most notably perhaps elephant and rhino – became extinct during the course of the 20th century.

Reptiles and amphibians

The predominantly hot and arid climate of Somaliland is arguably better suited to reptiles – cold-blooded creatures dependent on external heat sources to maintain their body temperature – than to perhaps any other vertebrate class. No figures are available for Somaliland specifically, but around 225 species have been recorded in Somalia as a whole, about 15% of which are endemic to the country.

As might be expected, however, the country supports a rather low diversity of frogs and other amphibians, since the life cycle of most species is at least dependent on standing water. The total number of amphibian species recorded in Somalia stands at a mere 30, including three endemics, but it seems reasonable to assume that several of these are restricted to the two major perennial river systems that run through southern Somalia, and would be absent from Somaliland.


Somaliland doesn’t compare to Africa’s finest birding destinations in terms of avian diversity, due largely to its relative aridity and unvaried habitats. Nevertheless, most of the 720 bird species recorded in Somalia occur within Somaliland’s confines, and because it remains relatively poorly known in ornithological terms, new species are frequently recorded by visiting birders.

Somaliland is also of great interest for the presence of at least nine of the 12 birds regarded to be endemic to Somalia, along with a large number of near-endemics and other dry-country species with a limited distribution elsewhere. It is also worth noting that half of these Somali endemics would practically be Somaliland endemics were the country’s sovereignty to be recognised.

Marine animals

Although Somaliland supports a rather small volume of large terrestrial animals, the offshore waters of the Gulf of Aden, and its protective fringe of coral reefs and islands, support a prodigious wealth of marine life. These areas remain undeveloped for tourism at the time of writing, but it is hoped that things will change following the recent creation of two new offshore marine parks with a combined area of 80km2, together with the opening of a dive shop in Berbera.

People and culture

Khaat Somaliland by Eric LafforgueKhat-chewing dominates public life © Eric Lafforgue

Somaliland is populated almost entirely by the Somali, who form the dominant ethnic group in the Horn of Africa. The regional total of 15–16 million Somalis is divided between Somalia (whose total population of nine to ten million is divided more or less evenly between Somaliland, Puntland and Somali proper), eastern Ethiopia (home to 4.5 million Somalis), Kenya (home to almost one million Somalis) and Djibouti (350,000 Somalis). In addition, at least one million Somalis live outside of Africa, the majority of them in Yemen, but also in North America and Europe.


According to legend, the common ancestor of most if not all Somali clans was Irir Samaale, a name which possibly derives from the phrase soo maal – literally ‘go and milk’ – in reference to the almost exclusively pastoral lifestyle of his descendants. DNA studies suggest that the Somali share close ethnic links with the Oromo of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, and that the two groups share a mixed African and Middle Eastern ancestry going back perhaps 5,000 years, when it is known that an element of trade existed between the Somali and Arabian coasts of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Arts and music

For the outsider, the creative and performing arts scene in Somaliland can be a tough nut to crack. During the war and following two decades of recovery, cultural life suffered greatly as most Somalilanders were engaged primarily in meeting more basic needs. Accordingly, the number of people engaged in creative pursuits is very small, and venues in which to showcase their work are almost non-existent. There are no live music venues, museums, galleries or café exhibitions, and the national theatre in Hargeisa is only now being rebuilt, 20 years after it was bombed into the ground. As a result, the majority of live performances take place either in private homes (along with much of Somali socialising), or at weddings – one of the few occasions at which Somalis really let their hair down! However, unless you know someone who has offered to take you along, you’re not likely to be invited in off the street to join the festivities, as Somalilanders tend to be somewhat reserved with outsiders until they get to know them well. Nevertheless, as life continues to improve in the present climate of stability, music and arts are bound to be an integral part of Somaliland’s quest to define its nascent national identity. And for those with an interest, there is a rich heritage of creativity – it just takes a little digging to find it.

Visual arts

The visual arts in Somaliland tend to exist almost exclusively for commercial purposes. Any shop or restaurant worth its salt will have a brightly painted mural out front replete with smiling fish (on a plate), larger-than-life medicine bottles, lopsided bananas, cheeseburgers (whether or not the menu actually features cheeseburgers is irrelevant), serene-looking camels, plates of pasta, floating forks, and whatever else they may or may not sell! These splashes of colour go a long way towards improving the sometimes lacking aesthetics of Somaliland cities.

The artists-for-hire behind these festive advertisements travel the city working for commissions, with some pursuing non-commercial art on the side. You’ll see stalls around the city that act as the base for many artists and feel free to stop at any of these and see what kind of work they have in stock. A few do more tourist and souvenir-oriented fare (landscapes, camels, etc) in addition to their standard repertoire of sodas and sambusas.

If you see a business or restaurant that particularly catches your eye, give it a close inspection as nearly all the murals are signed with the artist’s name and mobile number. It takes a little negotiation, and likely a Somali speaker to help arrange things on your behalf, but it’s possible to arrange a commission of your own if you plan to spend more than a few days in town. Even the country’s best artists work this way. Check out the MiG jet in downtown Hargeisa – there’s a number on that too. Somaliland doesn’t yield much in the way of souvenirs, but with a little effort you can go home with a one-of-a-kind piece of art, purchased directly from the artist.


While poetry is without question the premier art form in Somaliland, there is also a music scene, albeit a small one. If you’re arriving from elsewhere in Africa, the Somalilander approach to music is a drastic change. Gone are the maxed-out amplifiers and distorted speakers on every corner and in every car – in Somaliland you’ll have ample opportunity to hear yourself think. This stems from Somaliland’s deeply-held conservatism. Certain schools of Islamic thought prohibit music, and while it is by no means forbidden in Somaliland, music plays a much smaller role than in neighbouring countries. The music that you do hear, however, tends to be local. The ubiquitous Western pop so difficult to escape elsewhere is largely absent here – farewell 50 Cent and sayonara Snoop Dogg.

Today, due to music’s frowned-upon status among Somaliland’s more conservative elements, those in the business of selling boom-boxes have taken a clever step to prove their Islamic bona "des – keep your eyes out for ‘Islamic Stereo’ stores dotted around town. These places are fully stocked with the latest speakers and music players, ostensibly for the purpose of listening to Koranic recitations –with bass boost. Music is still very much enjoyed in Somaliland, only it is done so with a touch of discretion. 

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