Africa's Rift Valley saved by parks

May 3rd, 2012
Chimpanzee populations have remained relatively stable in protected areas but have been lost outside of parks as forests have been cleared. Credit: A. Plumptre/WCS
A new book produced by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Albertine Rift Conservation Society documents how well-managed protected areas with good law enforcement have saved wildlife in Africa's Albertine Rift Valley despite decades of insecurity and war.

The book documents how the Rift Valley, one of the most wildlife-rich regions on the planet, faces a variety of challenges from climate change, pressures on wildlife and plant communities, and changes in both human demography and attitudes toward conservation.

Entitled "The Ecological Impact of Long-Term Changes in Africa's Rift Valley" (Nova, 2012), the book is edited by Director of WCS's Albertine Rift Program, Andrew Plumptre, and was a product of a conference supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The book looks at changes at 11 research sites in the Albertine Rift over the past 50-100 years. Each chapter is authored by several scientists who synthesized data from their respective sites from the time when data were first collected until the present.

"The Albertine Rift, which contains not only spectacular wildlife, but also some of the highest human densities on the continent, gives us insight into where Africa is heading as human populations increase and the effects of climate change are increasingly felt and recognized," said Plumptre. "The conclusions of the book show that areas that were not designated as protected have largely been lost. As some currently question whether protected areas are the best strategy for conservation, this book is a strong argument for their important role."

In Uganda for example, where 95 percent of all large mammals were killed during the 1970s and 1980s by poachers, there are virtually no elephants, lions, hyenas, buffalos, and large antelope species living outside of protected areas. In fact, throughout the Albertine Rift, large mammal sightings are increasingly rare in natural areas outside of protected areas.

Decreases in wildlife – particularly elephants and hippos, which play a key role in shaping the savanna vegetation through their grazing/browsing effects –are leading to changes in plant communities. Meanwhile, as climate change together with forest clearance affects rainfall levels and temperatures, there is evidence that fruiting patterns of trees are being affected at some sites with a decline in fruit production, while some high altitude species may be lost as their habitat vanishes.

"One of the key findings is that most sites are not stable and that their ecology is changing meaning that conservation of the sites needs to be flexible and plan for these changes," said Plumptre. "Scientists and conservation practitioners in many disciplines will need to combine their efforts to ensure this biodiverse region is still conserving the unique species found here, such as the mountain and Grauer's gorillas, in the next 100 years."

The Albertine Rift is about the size of Maine, spanning some 33,700 square miles (87,500 km) across five countries. It contains more than half of Africa's bird species along with large numbers of amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. More threatened species are found in the Albertine Rift than any other region on the continent—including critically endangered mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, and elephants. The region's mountains and forests provide many crucial resources to local people, such as clean water, fuel wood, and non-timber products such as rattan cane and honey, and draw a growing number of ecotourists.

Provided by Wildlife Conservation Society

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