Africa’s Western Rift Valley, also called the Albertine Rift, is one of the most biodiverse parts of the continent, with more than half of Africa’s birds and 40% of its mammals occurring in this region. It is home to numerous endemic species as well as many categorized as globally threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In recognition of the region’s global importance for conservation, many protected areas have already been established here. However, not all endemic and threatened species are found within the existing protected area network and it is important to understand which additional areas need to be conserved to protect them all.

I have been lucky enough to work in this region for much of my career and have been involved in biodiversity surveys at most sites of likely conservation importance. Based on extensive data gathered during these surveys, we developed distribution maps of the region’s endemic and threatened species and then used a conservation planning approach to assess where conservation needs to occur under three scenarios.

The Rwenzori Mountains, which include Africa’s third, fourth and fifth highest peaks, in the centre of the Albertine Rift.

The first scenario looked at which areas need to be protected to conserve all threatened and endemic species, if we could redraw the protected area network from scratch. The second scenario recognized the existence of established protected areas and looked at which additional, currently unprotected areas need to be protected to ensure all species survive. The third scenario considered the risk posed by potential future threats, in particular from mining concessions. With increasing development pressures on the African continent, many countries in the region have established mining concessions on much of their land. Not all concessions will contain minerals that are worth exploiting, but many are currently being explored by mining companies. Conservation planning needs to take these planned developments into account, so the third scenario assessed where conservation needs to occur, while aiming to minimize overlap with mining concessions.

Left: The blue-headed sunbird Cyanomitra alinae. Right: Johnson’s chameleon Trioceros johnstoni. Two species endemic to the Albertine Rift.

The results of our analyses showed that if we could redraw the protected area network from scratch, the area required to conserve all endemic and threatened species would be c. 141,600 km2, which is c. 57,000 km2 smaller than the current protected area network and equates to c. 15% of the entire Albertine Rift region. Under the more realistic second scenario, however, given that protected areas have already been established and substantial changes to their boundaries are unlikely, we need a total of 20% of the Albertine Rift (198,800 km2) for conservation. This would require protection of an additional 64,600 km2 (6.5% of the Albertine Rift) of land outside the existing protected area network. If we want to avoid conservation actions within mining concessions, the total area required increases to 236,800 km2 or 24% of the  Albertine Rift, with 145,700 km2 (15% of the Albertine Rift) outside existing protected areas.

Our analyses also showed that some mining concessions are critical for the persistence of endemic and threatened species. These areas cannot be replaced with land elsewhere, and mining should thus be avoided there to ensure the survival of all species of conservation concern.

Our findings were used to develop a regional conservation plan for the protection of the endemic and threatened species of this region, which is available here:  Conservation actions by governments and their partners are working to conserve the six key landscapes described in this plan.

All photos: Andrew J. Plumptre.

The article Conservation planning for Africa’s Albertine Rift: conserving a biodiverse region in the face of multiple threats is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Andy Plumptre has spent 30 years working to conserve the biodiversity of the Albertine Rift region of Africa, one of the most biodiverse regions of the continent. He currently heads the Key Biodiversity Area Secretariat and is working with conservation partners and governments across the world to identify, map and conserve some of the most important places on the planet.