Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

Eastern Afromontane

Tab 1


The mountains of the Eastern Afromontane hotspot are scattered along the eastern edge of Africa, from Saudi Arabia in the north to Zimbabwe in the south.

Though geographically disparate, the mountains comprising this hotspot have remarkably similar flora. The Albertine Rift harbors more endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians than any other region in Africa. The geological turmoil that created the mountains of this hotspot has also yielded some of the world's most extraordinary lakes.

Due to these large lakes, a vast amount of freshwater fish diversity can be found in the Eastern Afromontane region, which is home to 617 endemic fish species. As in many tropical areas, the main threat to this region is the expansion of agriculture, especially large crop plantations for crops like bananas, beans, and tea. Another relatively new threat, which coincides with the increasing population, is the growing bushmeat market. This is especially problematic in the Albertine Rift.


Hotspot Original Extent (km²) 1,017,806
Hotspot Vegetation Remaining (km²) 106,870
Endemic Plant Species 2,356
Endemic Threatened Birds 35
Endemic Threatened Mammals 48
Endemic Threatened Amphibians 30
Extinct Species  1
Human Population Density (people/km²) 95
Area Protected (km²) 154,132
Area Protected (km²) in Categories I-IV* 59,191
†Recorded extinctions since 1500. *Categories I-IV afford higher levels of protection.



The Eastern Afromontane Hotspot encompasses several widely scattered, but biogeographically similar mountain ranges in eastern Africa, from Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the north to Zimbabwe in the south. The main part of the hotspot's more than one million km² is made up of three ancient massifs: the Eastern Arc Mountains and Southern Rift, stretch from south-eastern Kenya to southern Tanzania and Malawi, with small outliers in eastern Zimbabwe and western Mozambique; the Albertine Rift includes portions of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo; and the Ethiopian Highlands covers much of Ethiopia, as well as small parts of Eritrea and Sudan, and is bisected by the Great Rift Valley. In addition to these three main massifs, a number of outlying mountains are part of this hotspot, including the neogene volcanics of the Kenyan and Tanzanian Highlands (e.g., Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru, Mt. Kenya, Mt. Elgon, Aberdares Range, and other peaks), the Asir Mountains of southwest Saudi Arabia, the highlands of Yemen, and the Chimanimani Highlands of eastern Zimbabwe.

Many of these massifs are volcanic in origin, and indeed the Albertine Rift includes the still-active Virunga Volcanoes. This volcanic and seismic activity was caused by the separation of the African and Arabian tectonic plates about 35 million years ago. This resulted in the formation of the Great Rift Valley system that runs from Syria to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The geological turmoil that created the mountains of this hotspot has also resulted in some of the world's most remarkable lakes, including Lake Tanganyika (the world's second-deepest lake at 1,471 meters deep), Lake Albert, Lake Tana, and Lake Malawi (Nyasa).

The flora of the Eastern Afromontane Hotspot shows much uniformity and continuity, its composition changing with increasing altitude. The lower altitudinal limit is usually taken as between 1,500 and 2,000 meters, although this is lower away from the equator, while the Knysna Forests in the Cape, which are considered to be the southernmost reaches of the Afromontane habitat (though not included here), are at 300 meters. The most widespread tree genus is Podocarpus, although Juniperus is found in drier forests of northeastern and eastern Africa. A zone of bamboo is often found between 2,000 and 3,000 meters, above which there is often a Hagenia forest zone up to 3,600 meters. Many species common in montane forest, such as trees of the genera Podocarpus and Juniperus, have economic importance, while several crops including coffee (Coffea arabica) and tef (Eragrostis tef) from the Ethiopian Highlands have been domesticated.

At the highest elevations, such as the Rwenzori Mountains, Aberdares, Mt. Elgon, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya, and the Bale and Simien Mountains, Afroalpine vegetation typically occurs above 3,400 meters. Afroalpine vegetation is characterized by the presence of giant senecios (Dendrosenecio spp.), giant lobelias (Lobelia spp.), and Helichrysum scrub.

In the Eastern Arc Mountains, vegetation types include upper montane, montane, submontane and lowland forests, with Afromontane grassland and heathland plant communities at higher altitudes. Grasslands are the primary habitats of the Southern Rift, while forests are found in sheltered valleys and along mountain ridges.

The main vegetation type on the mountains of the Albertine Rift is montane forest. Glaciers and rock occur at the highest altitudes, below which is alpine moorland with giant Senecio, giant lobelia and bogs, followed by zones of giant heather, bamboo, montane forest, mid-altitude forest, lowland forest, woodland, and savanna. The Albertine Rift also has papyrus and Carex wetlands, as well as hot springs and a peculiar type of sclerophytic vegetation that colonizes old lava flows in the Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the Ethiopian Highlands, the foothills support woodland vegetation, while forests at slightly higher elevations are dominated by conifers. Above 3,000 meters, the Afroalpine ecosystem consists of grassland and moorland, with an abundant herb layer, while the heathland scrub above this is dominated by heathers.​​​​

Tab 2



Taxonomic Group Species Endemic Species Percent Endemism
Plants 7,598 2,356 31.0
Mammals 490 104 21.2
Birds 1,299 106 8.2
Reptiles 347 93 26.8
Amphibians 229 68 29.7
Freshwater Fishes 893 617 69.1


The hotspot holds nearly 7,600 species of plants, of which more than 2,350 are endemic. The Eastern Arc Mountains have over 1,100 species of endemic plants, as well as about 40 endemic plant genera. Endemism is lower in the Southern Rift, with perhaps only 100 species endemic. However, the grasslands of the Southern Rift are particularly rich in orchids including more than 500 species, and plants of the genus Protea. The Nyika Plateau supports nearly 215 orchid species, of which about four species and two subspecies are endemic.

The Albertine Rift is home to about 14 percent (about 5,800 species) of mainland Africas plant species, with more than 550 endemic species, including three endemic genera: Afroligusticum, Micractis, Rhaesteria. The Ethiopian Highlands harbor an estimated 5,200 plant species, of which 555 are endemic. The genus Senecio is particularly diverse, with half of the two dozen species found nowhere else. This area also has a monotypic endemic genus, Nephrophyllum abyssinicum, which is found on heavily grazed pastures, open ground, and rocky areas on steep slopes between 1,650 and 2,700 meters.

Among the hotspot's best-known flowering plants are the African violets (Saintpaulia spp.), with up to 20 endemic species in the Eastern Arc Mountains. There are also about 13 endemic species of African primroses (Streptocarpus spp.) in the Eastern Arc Mountains, and 18 endemic species of Impatiens in the Albertine Rift.

The high plateaus of the Ethiopian Highlands are home to the giant Lobelia rhynchopetalum, which grows to a height of about 2-3 meters before sending up a single inflorescence of dark blue-purple flowers that can reach a height of 9 meters. Every few years, the lobelias have a musth year when the great majority of plants flower.


About 1,300 bird species occur in the Eastern Afromontane Hotspot, and about 110 of these are found nowhere else.

The Eastern Arc and Southern Rift Mountains form a single Endemic Bird Area, as defined by BirdLife International. Several of the areas endemic birds have very limited ranges; for example, the Taita thrush (Turdus helleri, CR) and Usambara akalat (Sheppardia montana, EN), occur only in a few square kilometers of forest in the Taita Hills and West Usambaras, respectively, while the Uluguru bush-shrike (Malaconotus alius, EN) lives only in a single forest reserve in the Uluguru Mountains. Nyika National Park on the Nyika Plateau in the Southern Rift supports the worlds largest breeding population of blue swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea, VU).

The Albertine Rift is extremely rich in birds, providing a home for over half of Continental Africas birds more than 1,060 species in 368 genera. This includes more than 40 endemic species and three endemic genera, Pseudocalyptomena, Graueria, and Hemitesia. Two Endemic Bird Areas are included within the Albertine Rift. The stunning Rwenzori turaco (Musophaga johnstoni), found in ten forest islands of the Albertine Rift, has a mantle of iridescent green, orange-yellow cheeks, blue back and tail, and bright red primary feathers. The beautiful, bright green African green broadbill (Pseudocalyptomena graueri, VU), the sole representative of a monotypic genus, is found in only three sites in the Rift.

About 680 species of birds are found in the Ethiopian Highlands, nearly 30 of which are endemic. Five of these endemic species are restricted to tiny areas in the Southern Highlands. The Southern Highlands and the Central Ethiopian Highlands are both Endemic Bird Areas. Four endemic bird genera are found in this part of the hotspot, including three that are widespread (Cyanochen, Rougetius, and Parophasma) and one that has a very localized distribution in the south (Zavattariornis). The blue-winged goose (Cyanochen cyanoptera) is related to the sheldgeese of the alpine and temperate grasslands of South America. The striking Prince Ruspolis turaco (Tauraco ruspolii, VU) is threatened by declining habitat.

The Eastern Afromontane Hotspot is home to nearly 500 mammal species, more than 100 of which are endemic to the region. Although several of Africas larger flagship mammals, including the elephant (Loxodonta africana, VU), and leopard ( Panthera pardus), are found in this hotspot, the majority of threatened species are primates and smaller mammals.

Three species of primates are endemic to the Eastern Arc Mountains and Southern Rift, the Sanje mangabey (Cercocebus sanjei, EN), the Udzungwa red colobus (Procolobus gordonorum, VU) and the mountain dwarf galago (Galagoides orinus). Six shrew species are endemic to this part of the hotspot, including the desperate shrew (Crocidura desperate, CR), found only in the Udzungwa and Rungwe Mountains. Other notable mammals in the Eastern Arcs include Abbotts duiker (Cephalophus spadix, VU) and the eastern tree hyrax (Dendrohyrax validus, VU). Several new mammal species have also been discovered in recent years, including two possibly new species of dwarf galago (Galagoides spp.) on the Taita Hills and on Mt. Rungwe and potentially a new mangabey species endemic to the Udzungwa Mountains.

Nearly 40 percent of Continental Africas mammals are found in the Albertine Rift more than 400 species, of which 35 are endemic. Most of these endemic mammals are shrews and rodents, including two monotypic endemic genera: the Ruwenzori shrew (Ruwenzorisorex suncoides, VU), and Delanys swamp mouse (Delanymys brooksi).

However, the most charismatic flagship species of the Albertine Rift, and indeed of the entire hotspot, are the great apes. The well-known mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei, CR) is restricted to about 380 individuals in the Virungas. Grauers gorilla (G. b. graueri, EN), was estimated to number about 16,900 in eastern DRC in 1996, but has since suffered major declines as a result of hunting, habitat loss and degradation related to civil war, logging, forest clearance for agriculture, and mining for gold, diamonds, and coltan. Although there are robust chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in many of the Albertine Rift forests, their populations are generally small.

The forests of the Albertine Rift are also home to at least 27 other primate species, including lHoests monkey (Cercopithecus lhoesti), the owl-faced monkey (C. hamlyni), and the golden monkey ( C. mitis kandti). Other mammals iinclude the Ruwenzori duiker (Cephalophus rubidus, EN), which is restricted to the Rwenzori Mountains, and the Ruwenzori otter shrew (Micropotamogale ruwenzorii, EN), one of only three representatives of the family Tenrecidae on the African mainland (the others are found only in Madagascar).

More than 30 of the nearly 200 mammals found in the Ethiopian Highlands are found nowhere else, including a remarkable six endemic genera, four of which are monotypic: three rodents (Megadendromus, Muriculus, and Nilopegamys) and one primate, the gelada (Theropithecus gelada). The Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis, EN) is an endemic species found in the Afroalpine ecosystem of the Ethiopian Highlands; with less than 450 individuals in seven small and isolated populations, this wolf is the rarest canid in the world.

Nearly 350 reptile species are found in the Eastern Afromontane, of which more than 90 are endemic. The Eastern Arc Mountains and Southern Rift are home to more than 35 of these endemic species, including eight species of chameleons (six Chamaeleo and two Rhampholeon), three species of worm snakes (Typhlops), and six species of colubrid snakes. Most endemics are in the Eastern Arc Mountains, but Mount Mulanje in the Southern Rift has a number of species confined to it, including the Mulanje mountain chameleon (Bradypodion mulanjense) and Malawi stumptail chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps).

About 14 percent of Africas reptile species live in the Albertine Rift, including about 15 endemic species. Five of these endemic species are chameleons, including the Rwenzori three-horned chameleon (Chamaeleo johnstoni), which looks like a miniature Triceratops and can grow to a length of 30 centimeters. The very rare strange-horned chameleon (Bradypodion xenorhinus) has a circular protuberance on the end of its nose and is confined to the Rwenzori Mountains, where it has been overcollected for the wildlife trade.

The hotspot is also home to about 230 amphibian species, nearly 70 of which are endemic. The Eastern Arc Mountains and Southern Rift are home to the genus Nectophrynoides, which includes the majority of the worlds viviparous (live-bearing) frogs. One of these species, the Kihansi spray toad (Nectophrynoides asperginis, CR) occurs only in a 2-hectare spray zone of the Kihansi Falls in the Udzungwa Mountains, although recent attempts to locate this species have been unsuccessful. New species are continually discovered throughout the region, including Churamiti maridadi (CR). This large, brightly colored tree toad belongs to a new genus, which was discovered in the Ukaguru Mountains in 2002.

The Albertine Rift is home to about 19 percent of Africas amphibian species, including more than 30 endemic species and three monotypic endemic genera: Parkers tree toad (Laurentophryne parkeri), the Itombwe golden frog (Chrysobatrachus cupreonitens), and African painted frog (Callixalus pictus, VU).

Six endemic genera of amphibians are found in the Ethiopian Highlands, four of which are monotypic (Altiphrynoides, Spinophrynoides, Balebreviceps, and Ericabatrachus), while the fifth, Paracassina, is represented by two frog species.

Freshwater Fishes
Including the Great Rift lakes in this hotspot area makes it a phenomenally important region for freshwater fish diversity and endemism, with more than 890 species of fish, nearly 620 of which are endemic. Lake Malawi is home to more than 380 fish species, nearly 90 percent of which are endemic. This includes an amazing diversity of cichlids and at least 12 large endemic catfishes of the genus Bathyclarias that live in deeper areas of the lake. Lake Tanganyika has more than 300 fish species, about 75 percent of which are endemic. In Lake Tana, which is the source of the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian Highlands, about a quarter of the nearly 65 fish species are endemic, including a loach Nemacheilus abyssinicus and 14 large cyprinid barbs.


While most invertebrates of the Eastern Afromontane are not well studied, the butterfly fauna is relatively well known. Up to 1,300 butterfly species may occur in the Albertine Rift alone, including nearly 120 endemic species and one endemic genus, Kumothales; nearly 80 species of butterfly are endemic to the Eastern Arc Mountains. The African giant swallowtail (Papilio antimachus), with a wingspan of 24 centimeters, is the continents largest butterfly. Three other large, conspicuous, but rare swallowtail butterflies (P. leucotaenia, P. ufipa, and Graphium gudenusi) are important symbols for conservation in the area.

Tab 3


Human Impacts


The primary threat to the biodiversity of the Eastern Afromontane Hotspot is habitat loss, due to conversion of land for agriculture, plantations and commercial estates, as well as logging. Other threats include fires, mining, infrastructure development gathering of firewood, and collection of plants for medicinal use, while hunting and disease have led to major declines in the populations of many species. It is estimated that only about 10 percent of the hotspot's original vegetation remains in pristine condition.

In the Eastern Arc Mountains and Southern Rift, large areas of mountain forest and grassland were cleared during colonial times for commercial estates growing tea, coffee, and pine trees, or for cattle ranches. More recently, forests have been cleared for banana, bean, and tree tomato farms, while grasslands are converted to cropland for beans, potatoes, and pyrethrum. Former grasslands have also been used for softwood plantations, growing exotic species such as pines. In Tanzania and Malawi, high human populations densities and rapidly increasing populations have exacerbated the pressure for subsistence agricultural land.

The Eastern Arc Mountains also contain a number of valuable timber species, which have been logged on these mountains for more than a century. While almost all of this logging is illegal, it has proved difficult to eliminate. Other threats to these forests include the collection of firewood, charcoal production, hunting, and gathering plants for medicine. Intentional burning has been responsible for converting much of the Afromontane forests in the region to​ grassland and scrub-grassland. In addition, artisanal mining for gold, rubies and garnets poses a threat to some areas.

The Albertine Rift has some of the highest human population densities on the African Continent, with up to 750 people per square kilometer in parts of Rwanda and Uganda. Consequently, much of the land was long ago converted to agriculture and pressures on the remaining lands are enormous. People use forest products for many necessary materials, including rope, bean stakes, firewood, timber, medicines, fruit, bushmeat, and honey. Fires also pose a threat to remaining forest areas.

Bushmeat consumption is also on the rise in the Albertine Rift, as soldiers return from the Congo to Rwanda and Uganda who have developed a taste for bushmeat in the absence of any alternative sources of protein. Poaching poses a threat to elephants, hippos, buffalos and larger antelope species in the savanna parks in Uganda and the DRC, while snares set by hunters have resulted in a quarter of the chimpanzees in Uganda having maimed limbs, including missing hands and feet. Insecurity and civil strife in the Great Lakes region has also led to the degradation and loss of protected areas, as militia groups have used them to hide in and launch attacks on nearby inhabitants. There has been a significant loss of trained protected-area staff; more than 100 staff were killed in protected areas in eastern DRC in the last six years, and a third of the staff working with gorillas in Rwanda were killed between 1990 and 1999.

Population pressure is also a problem in the Ethiopian Highlands; the population of Ethiopia has increased tenfold in the last 60 years. Eighty percent of the countrys 70 million people live in the highlands, putting significant pressure on the land for agricultural development. Ethiopia also has the largest national herd of domestic livestock, and cattle in particular, in Africa. This livestock is increasingly using the most extreme areas to graze, and overgrazing has led to erosion, an increasing abundance of unpalatable or poisonous species, and heightened competition between livestock and wildlife. Hunting is also a significant problem in the Ethiopian Highlands.

Tab 4


Conservation Action and Protected Areas

About 15 percent of the hotspot (approximately 154,132 km²) is under some level of official protection, although this includes a number of areas that have limited protection or have not yet been officially gazetted. When only protected areas in IUCN categories I to IV are included, the level of protection drops to under 6 percent (about 60,000 km²).

In the Eastern Arc Mountains, there is one national park, the 1,900-km² Udzungwa Mountains National Park, a portion of another national park, one government nature reserve, one private nature reserve, and a small research reserve owned by the University of Dar es Salaam. Other than these areas, the majority of remaining forest is within forest reserves, mostly managed by the central government for water catchment purposes. A few private forests, mainly on tea estates, are managed for conservation. In February 2002, the Government of Tanzania announced that 13,500 hectares of Kitulo Plateau will be gazetted as a new national park, significantly increasing protection for endemic plants, particularly orchids.

A number of international agencies are contributing to conservation in the Eastern Arc Mountains, including the World Bank, which is helping to build management capacity and develop a Forest Agency in Tanzania, and the Global Environment Facility-United Nations Development Program, which is investing in the development of a holistic conservation strategy for the region. Other bilateral donors include the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), Finnish International Development Agency (Global Finland), and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). Several NGOs are also working on conservation in the region, including the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group, World Wide Fund for Nature, the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania, Birdlife International, Nature Kenya, and Conservation International. In 2004, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) approved $7 million in funding for biodiversity research and conservation in the area. During the development of CEPF, Nature Kenya and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania with support from the University of Dar es Salaam identified Key Biodiversity Areas for the Eastern Arc Mountains, Taita Hills and Mt. Kisagau to ensure that investments were targeted in the most appropriate places for conservation in the region. Important Bird Areas have been identified as site scale conservation targets in the remaining portions of the hotspot by BirdLife International and their national partners.

Nearly 12 percent of the Albertine Rift is protected in parks, game reserves, and forest reserves. The largest of these protected areas is the 8,000-km² Virunga National Park, which links with Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori Mountains, and Semuliki National Parks in Uganda to form the 12,800-km² Greater Virunga Landscape. Other important areas in the Albertine Rift include the as-yet-unprotected Itombwe Massif, the 6,000-km² Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the DRC, Kibale and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks in Uganda, and Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda. Virunga, Rwenzori Mountains, Bwindi Impenetrable and Kahuzi-Biega are all World Heritage Sites.

Since 2001, a process supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has sought to develop a strategic framework for conservation and joint planning for protected areas in the Albertine Rift. This process brings together NGOs, protected area authorities, and government ministries in each country. The Congo Basin Forest Partnership, an association of 29 governmental agencies and NGOs that was formed in 2002, is working to promote sustainable management of Congo Basin Forest ecosystems and wildlife, and to improve the lives of people living there.

Transboundary conservation initiatives are also an important strategy in the Albertine Rift. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme, a coalition formed in 1991 by the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna and Flora International, and WWF, has worked to encourage coordination and joint management among Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC, even when they were at war. This model has been replicated by the WCS further north in the Greater Virunga Landscape. Linkages of other parks in the area may also be possible.

In the Ethiopian Highlands, the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organization (EWCO) was established in 1964 with the assistance of international conservation organizations. The EWCO is plagued by a lack of resources and legislation that has been impossible to enforce. Although a system of conservation areas was proposed to form the basis of wildlife conservation in the country, only two of the planned 14 national parks and sanctuaries have been legally constituted, namely Awash National Park and Simien Mountains National Park. Even these two parks are not adequately secured, staffed or equipped. These difficulties have been exacerbated by famines, refugee problems, civil unrest, armed rebellions, and war, which threaten the livelihoods of people and make it unlikely that conservation measures will be implemented.

The most important of the conservation areas in Ethiopia is the Bale Mountains National Park, which while a formal national park it is yet to be officially gazetted. This Key Biodiversity Area harbors the finest and most intact remnants of the highlands’ original vegetation. These mountains are also home to four threatened endemic species, and to more than half of the global population of the Ethiopian wolf. The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program (EWCP) has been working in the Bale Mountains for several decades to secure the conservation of areas of Afroalpine ecosystem; assess, address and counteract threats to the wolf’s survival; and enhance the focus on and strength of the environmental sector in Ethiopia.

Tab 5




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East Usambara Conservation Area Management Programme
Eastern Arc Forests Ecoregion - WWF
Eastern Arc Mountains Information Service
Nature Kenya
Wildlife Conservation Society - Tanzania 

Tab 6

See Also
Ecosystem profile, January 2012
English (PDF - 4 MB)​
Appendix 1 (PDF - 102 KB)
Appendix 3 (XLSX - 135 KB)

Ecosystem profile summary brochure
English (PDF - 2.5 MB)
French (PDF - 2.6 MB)
Arabic (1.1 MB)

Learn about CEPF's work in the Eastern Afromontane​ region