Albertine Rift Montane Forests - A Global Ecoregion

The Albertine Rift Montane Forests Ecoregion is an area of exceptional faunal and floral endemism. These afromontane forests also support many endangered species such as the Mountain gorillas and Eastern Lowland gorillas, which are among the most charismatic flagship species in Africa, and an effective target for much of the current conservation investment in the area.
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Sabinyo volcano and thick forest, habitat of the endangered Mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

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About the Area

The mountain chain comprising the Albertine Rift straddles the borders of 5 different nations: Democratic Republic of Congo (over 70% of the Ecoregion), Uganda (20%), Rwanda (6%), Burundi (3%) and Tanzania (1%).

The Albertine Rift has been identified by all key international conservation NGOs as a top priority area for biodiversity conservation in Africa and the Ecoregion is a priority Ecoregion for WWF.
Size:
104,000 sq. km (40,000 sq. miles)

Habitat type:
Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

Geographic Location:
Africa: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda

Conservation Status:
Critical/Endangered

Local Species

This ecoregion is an area of exceptional faunal and moderate floral endemism. There is all sorts of life to amaze you like the 14 species of butterflies (including the vulnerable cream-banded swallowtail butterfly) and 37 species of birds including the Rwenzori batis (Batis diops), Chapin's flycatcher (Muscicapa lendu), Collared apalis (Apalis ruwenzorii), Grauer's warbler (Graueria vittata), Albertine owlet (Glaucidium albertinum) - the highest figure in Africa for any equivalent-sized area, found nowhere else in the world.

Bwindi Forest in Uganda supports an estimated 1000 plant species; eight of these are tree species only found locally. Among vertebrates the amphibians with 32 strict endemics spread across 12 genera, and a further seven near endemics, have the highest number of range-restricted species.

If you were to travel through the forests from west to east, you'd see a great number of species of plants and animals in the transition from lowland to highland habitat. The area has a significant number of endemic amphibians like the bamboo frog (Callixalus pictus), copper-colored treefrog (Chrysobatrachus cupreonites), giant torrent frog (Phrynobatrachus asper), Johnston's chameleon (Chamaeleo johnstoni), and mammals such as the Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), African Elephant (Loxodonta africana), chisel-toothed shrew (Paracrocidura graueri), and the Ruwenzori sun squirrel (Heliosciurus ruwenzori).

However, despite the forests' high biological importance, much of them remain poorly studied.
Mountain gorilla baby, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. / ©: naturepl.com/Bruce Davidson / WWF
Mountain gorilla baby, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.
© naturepl.com/Bruce Davidson / WWF

Featured Species

Albertine owlet

The Albertine owlet (Glaucidium albertinum) is a 20 cm, small owl, with a large rounded head, heavily spotted with white, and no "ears". It has pale yellow eyes and a spotted belly. This bird is found in very open montane and transitional forest, with many clearings and a dense understorey, and probably occurs up to 2,500 m at least. Its diet mostly consists of invertebrates, and its breeding ecology is unknown.

The Albertine Owlet classified as Vulnerable because it is inferred to have a very small population that is severely fragmented and probably declining, given the continuing clearance and degradation of its forest habitat.

Read more:

Threats

Throughout much of the ecoregion, especially in Burundi and Rwanda, the rural human population density is amongst the highest in Africa. This places considerable pressure on the remaining forest resources as most families live on subsistence farming.

Highland forests have been largely cleared but some sizable blocks of montane forest still occur in areas such as the Virunga, Itombwe, and Rwenzori Ranges. The farming activities of rural people are destroying and fragmenting habitats of this ecoregion in many areas, and this issue is the largest and most overriding concern for conservation in the area.

Another threat to the region is hunting and poaching, which is causing major problems in several protected areas and is even more intense outside these areas. Furthermore, wars and political unrest prevent the effective management of some protected areas in the ecoregion, thereby further increasing problems of encroachment and illegal activities, such as the killing of mountain gorillas.

Populations of elephant (Loxodonta africana), as well as many other large mammal species, have been decimated during the regions turbulent political past. This is especially the case in the DRC Virunga national park.

WWF’s work

Within the 5 countries encompassing the boundaries of the Albertine rift, the level and degree of protection is variable, and this makes effective ecoregional conservation a challenge in the area.

The goal of WWF’s Albertine Rift Ecoregion Programme is to ensure the long-term conservation of the Albertine Rift Montane Forests and other important interconnected ecosystems.

Following are WWF’s action points in the area:
  • With the return of peace in DRC, strong development of field projects in eastern DRC is taking place. The surroundings of Virunga National Park remain a priority but work at larger scale (in particular forest landscape restoration and species conservation at the ecoregional level) will be developed.
  • More detailed analysis of threats (incl. root cause analysis) and policy framework across the Albertine Rift will be undertaken.
  • WWF will resume its activities in the Ruwenzori massif under a transboundary initiative and strengthen its work in Rwanda (Gishwati) and Burundi (Kibira).
  • WWF will work with ICCN and WCS to develop scenarios for conservation in Itombwe. WWF will also work to protect the watershed of Lake Tanganyika around Uvira (DRC).
  • Finally, the programme will play a significant role in the GEF Initiative on Conservation of the Albertine Rift Forests, in Ruwenzori and in Kasyoha-Kitomi.
For the moment most initiatives are still local and/or national and the recent political situation has not been very conducive for true Ecoregional, trans-boundary initiatives; although significant progress has been made recently, there is need to develop and strengthen the programme at the whole Ecoregional scale

Read more:
  • Protected areas in the Albertine Rift Ecoregion. / ©: Courtesy of the PAWAR project / Woods Hole Research Center.
  • Protected areas in the Albertine Valley. Click to enlarge.

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