The Albertine Rift Valley and Its Habitants

Rwanda as a country located in East Africa is best known today for two things, that is to say, the genocide and gorillas. Fortunately the latter is part of history and the country can concentrate on the former. As one of the best places to view the mountain gorillas, and with spectacular scenery and a rich diversity of species, Rwanda is fast gaining a reputation on the tourism map.

But why is Rwanda so blessed? It has all to do with its location on the African continent. Rwanda lies on the eastern rim of the geological phenomenon known as the Albertine Rift.

The Great Rift Valley stretches almost 5000km from the Arabian Peninsula, through east Africa into the northern reaches of Mozambique. It is the result of the separation of the African and Arabian tectonic plates, a process that began around 35 million years ago in the north. The process is maintained by the ongoing separation of East Africa from the rest of Africa along the East African Rift.

In East Africa the rift is characterized by two distinct separations, the eastern rift – which is what most people think of when they hear the term 'rift valley' – and the little known western rift, known as the Albertine Rift.

The Albertine Rift stretches from the northern end of Lake Albert to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika extending through the countries of Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Tanzania.

It is one of Africa's most important biodiversity conservation sites. This rift incorporates the ice fields on top of the Rwenzori Mountains, active volcanoes, hot springs, bamboo, alpine vegetation, montane forest, savanna and the lowland forests of Semliki. The snow-capped Ruwenzori Mountains form one of the largest and most significant catchment areas in Uganda, and are the most permanent source of the White Nile.

The Albertine Rift forms the epicenter of Africa's montane rainforest circle. Both its fauna and flora have links to the west and southwest with Cameroon and Angola, to the northeast with the Kenyan Highlands, and the southeast with the Eastern Arc Mountains, and extremely via the Malawi Rift with southern Africa.

On the western side it abuts the Guinea-Congolian lowland rainforest. Collectively, its central location within Africa, juxtaposition of habitats, and provisional altitudinal zonation, makes the Albertine Rift globally outstanding for its high species diversity and large numbers of endemics; highlighted by the area containing the world's last population of Mountain Gorilla.

Covering only 1% of the African continent's landmass, the Albertine Rift overtheless contains more than 50% of mainland Africa's bird species and almost 40% of its mammal species. The Albertine Rift area also contains more endemic mammals, birds and amphibians than any other site in mainland Africa.

After making up such a small percentage of the total landmass of Africa the Albertine Rift also contains almost 15% of Africa's plant species.

There are a number of sites in the Albertine Rift that are protected as National Parks, Wildlife Reserves or Forest Reserves, represented in all the countries. Some of the better known national parks include:

o Virunga NP, DRC
o Bwindi Impenetrable NP, Uganda
o Rwenzori Mountains NP, Uganda
o Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda
o Kibale NP, Uganda
o Virunga Volcanoes, DRC, Rwanda, Uganda
o Nyungwe NP, Rwanda
o Kahuzi Biega NP, DRC

With an increase in tourism and the realization of the importance of the area, protection will increase and funding will be become more freely available. However, unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo is still of great concern for the future of the Albertine Rift area.

The area is an important watershed for the supply of clean water to the communities living not only in the vicinity but those in further reaches and the lakes are the most productive in Africa necessitating strict conservation measures.

The increase in tourism to the area should provide the push needed to overcome any negative ideas associated with this incredible wilderness destination.