The Deserts of Africa

April 11, 2024

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The Sahara Desert

Africa is the hottest continent on the planet. Almost two-thirds of its land mass consists of drylands and deserts, which may appear bleak and inhospitable but are, in fact, home to a vast array of plant and animal species.

In this article, we list each of Africa’s deserts from largest to smallest.

How many deserts are in Africa?

The continent of Africa has 11 deserts. In size order from largest to smallest, they are:

RankDesertArea (km²)
1Sahara9,200,000
2Kalahari930,000
3Karoo400,000
4Danakil136,956
5Chalbi100,000
6Namib81,000
7Guban7,000
8Eritrean Coastal Desert4,400
9Nyiri700
10Grand Bara103
11Lompoul18

Keep reading to find out more about these deserts.

1. Sahara

Area: 9,200,000 km² (3,600,000 sq mi)
Location: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, Tunisia

Spanning 9,200,000 square kilometers across 11 countries, the Sahara Desert is the largest desert in the world.

The Sahara is located in North Africa, extending into the countries of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia. It stretches from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west and north to the Mediterranean, and as a result, its landscape changes from coastal plains to sand dunes to barren, rocky plateaus like the Tademaït Plateau in Algeria.

Some of the animals that can be found in the Sahara Desert include cheetahs, foxes, wild dogs, antelopes, gazelles, and crocodiles. Birds like ostriches, the African silverbill, and the black-faced firefinch also call the Sahara home, as does the venomous deathstalker scorpion.

Considering the desert’s vast size, plant life in the central Sahara is low, containing just 500 species of plant.

2. Kalahari

Area: 930,000 km² (350,000 sq mi)
Location: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa

Africa’s second-largest desert is the Kalahari Desert, which measures 930,000 square kilometers. It covers much of Botswana, as well as parts of South Africa and Namibia.

The Kalahari Desert may be a dry desert today, but fossils from 11,000 to 30,000 years ago indicate that the region was once much wetter and cooler than it is now.

Large predators like lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and wild dogs live in the Kalahari Desert, as well as birds of prey, including eagles, falcons, owls, and kestrels.

3. Karoo

Area: 400,000 km² (154,441 sq mi)
Location: South Africa

Situated in South Africa, the Karoo Desert is split into two main regions: The Succulent Karoo Biome — which contains around 10,000 species of succulent plants — and the Nama Karoo Biome.

Eagles, jackals, and leopards can be seen in the region, although leopard sightings are rare. Former inhabitants of the Karoo Desert, such as lions, have been reintroduced in game farms and nature reserves.

4. Danakil

Area: 136,956 km² (52,879 sq mi)
Location: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti

The Danakil Desert, which is located in northeastern Ethiopia, southern Eritrea, and northwestern Djibouti, is one of the world’s hottest places, experiencing daytime temperatures of more than 122 degrees Fahrenheit. It is also extremely dry, receiving just one inch of rainfall a year.

Featuring volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs, the Danakil Desert is arguably Africa’s most extreme desert. However, it is still inhabited by a variety of wildlife, such as zebras, gazelles, oryxes, larks, and secretary birds.

5. Chalbi

Area: 100,000 km² (38,610 sq mi)
Location: Kenya

With an area of 100,000 square kilometers, the Chalbi Desert is the fifth-largest desert in Africa. It is one of two deserts on this list that lies entirely within Kenya and can be found in the north of the country close to the border with Ethiopia.

Various iconic African animals live in the Chalbi Desert, including lions, elephants, ostriches, zebras, and giraffes. Black rhinos used to inhabit the area, but sadly, they have been hunted to extinction. 

6. Namib

Area: 81,000 km² (62,000 sq mi)
Location: Namibia, South Africa, Angola

The Namib Desert, in southern Africa, is home to the second-largest sand dunes in the world after China’s Badain Jaran Desert dunes but is mostly made up of gravel plains and mountains.

The Namib Desert is thought to be the world’s oldest desert, experiencing arid or semi-arid conditions for 55 to 80 million years. Because of this, it likely contains more endemic species than any of the planet’s other deserts.

Wildlife in the desert largely consists of small animals that can survive on little water, with larger animals like seals, shorebirds, and lions found near the coast. The desert also contains Africa’s largest game park, which is home to large mammals like elephants and zebras.

7. Guban

Area: 7,000 km² (2,703 sq mi)
Location: Somalia

The Guban — which means burnt land in Somali — is hot and only receives around two inches of rainfall a year. Consisting of vast grasslands and devoid of trees, there is little diversity in vegetation.

Camels and goats are some of the most commonly seen animals in the Guban Desert, as they are raised by the Dir and Isaaq clans in the nearby Galgodon Highlands.

8. Eritrean Coastal Desert

Area: 4,400 km² (1,700 sq mi)
Location: Djibouti, Eritrea

The eighth-largest desert in Africa is the Eritrean Coastal Desert, which stretches for 4,400 kilometers along the coasts of Eritrea and Djibouti. 

This coastal desert attracts migratory birds of prey like eagles and buzzards, which migrate along the Red Sea coast to Africa for the winter. Other animals that can be found in the Eritrean Coastal Desert include sea turtles, gazelles, skinks, and geckos.

Unfortunately, the desert’s natural vegetation has been reduced by livestock grazing, and there are no protected areas. Turtles, gazelles, and seabirds are some of the species that are hunted by poachers. Additionally, there are plans to build a coastal road between Eritrea and Djibouti which will cause further damage to the environment.

9. Nyiri

Area: 700 km² (270 sq mi)
Location: Kenya

The Nyiri Desert is the second African desert that lies entirely within the country of Kenya. Measuring 700 square kilometers, it can be found in the south of Kenya between Amboseli, Nairobi, and Tsavo West national parks.

The desert’s arid climate is due to a rain shadow caused by Mount Kilimanjaro, although it does have several large springs that support animals like lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and giraffes.

10. Grand Bara

Area: 103 km² (40 sq mi)
Location: Djibouti

The Grand Bara Desert in southern Djibouti is the tenth-largest desert in Africa, measuring 103 square kilometers. 

A dried-up lake, the desert’s landscape consists of large sand flats, desert grasses, and scrub vegetation, as well as a section of road that runs from Djibouti City to the south of the country. 

Some of the large mammals that inhabit the Grand Bara Desert include antelopes, gazelles, and oryxes, although the oryx population is small due to hunting pressure. In terms of endemic species, gerbils, geckos, and larks are also present in the area.

11. Lompoul

Area: 18 km² (7 sq mi)
Location: Senegal

Senegal’s Lompoul Desert, is the smallest on the continent. The desert is named after the village of Lompoul — its closest settlement. 

The Lompoul Desert’s striking orange sand dunes, which are unlike the surrounding area, make it one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. Camel rides are a particularly popular activity with visitors. The desert also plays host to a music festival called Festival du Sahel.

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