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Virunga Biodiversity

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Greater Virunga Landscape-VGL (adapted from The World Conservation Society WCS research)

The Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL) is one of the most biodiverse landscapes in Africa. It is a landscape of contiguous protected areas that include three world heritage sites and abiosphere reserve. The total area encompasses 13,200 km2 of varied habitats including glaciers and rock, montane and lowland forest, savannas, wetlands, bamboo, hotsprings and active volcanoes with lava flows (Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira). As a result of this habitat diversity there is a veryhigh species diversity, with more vertebrates than any other landscape on the continent.Until recently this landscape was managed as separate protected areas with little thought about the connectivity and interrelationships between the areas. Yet several species rely on the larger area in order to survive as viable populations. For example there are only about 250 lions in the Ugandan portion of the landscape and these rely on migrations from DR Congo to keep the gene pool healthy. Elephants migrate back and forth between DR Congo and Uganda regularly, and as a result, have been able to survive heavy poaching during times of civil wars in Uganda and subsequently in DR Congo. WCS is working with the protected area authorities in Uganda, DR Congo and Rwanda to encourage a wider landscape approach to the management of these protected areas and the species they contain.

Human Aspect
The GVL not only supports a high diversity of wildlife but also supports many people in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. This region has one of the highest human population densities in Africa and as a result there are many pressures on the protected areas. It is an important water catchment area providing millions of people with fresh water. Lake George and Edward have two of the most productive fisheries in Africa, which provide protein and a source of income to many families in the region. It also supplies forest and savanna products such as fuel wood,medicinal plants, building materials and grass thatch. A recent survey by WCS of how much people obtain from the forests int his region showed that up to 30% of people’s annual income come from the forests in the GVL. Managing the sustainable harvesting of these forest products and the fisheries is one of themajor challenges protected area managers face in the landscape.

The Greater Virunga Landscape Biodiversity
The Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL) straddles the international boundaries of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda and includes three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one Biosphere Reserve. Comprising eight national parks, two forest reserves and two wildlife reserves it covers an area of 13,200 km2 of some of the most diverse habitats in Africa. These range from glaciers and rock at 5,100 metres (16,000 feet) down to lowland tropical forest at 600 metres (1,800 feet) and encompass montane forest, bamboo, savanna woodland and grassland, swamps, active volcanoes and volcanic lava. As a result the GVLcontains more vertebrate species than any other landscape of contiguous protected areas in Africa, with 278 mammals, 871 birds, 134 reptiles, 84 amphibians and at least 81 fish species recorded. At least 3,180 plant species have also been collected in the GVL but this number is increasing all the time as more species are identified.However, it is not just important because of its number of species. The GVL is also a critical landscape within the Albertine Rift. The Albertine Rift is an area that is globally identified as being important for conservation because of its high number of species that are found here and nowhere else. It is an Endemic Bird Area,Ecoregion and Biodioversity Hotspot under different global priority setting processes.

The GVL contains many species endemic to the Albertine Rift including30 mammals, 31 birds, 12 reptiles, 21 amphibians, 56 fish and at least 246 plants. Atleast 49 vertebrates and 27 plant species are also globally threatened under IUCN criteria (Critically endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable). Consequently the GVL is one of the most important conservation landscapes in Africa.While for vertebrates we know what species occur in the GVL fairly well, there are many other taxa that have been poorly surveyed. It is likely that several amphibian and fish species could be discovered with more effort as well. We have little idea of how many of each species occur in the landscape or where they occur apart from large mammals in the savanna areas. WCS is undertaking surveys of mammals,birds and plants throughout the GVL with the aim of creating baseline numbers that can allow future monitoring of species of conservation concern in future.Virunga, Rwenzori and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks areWorld Heritage Sites and Queen Elizabeth National Park is a Biosphere Reserve. There are several biological processes as well as the habitats and species that need to be conserved.This region had some of the highest biomasses of large mammals ever recorded on earth in the 1960s and these mammals had a major impact on determining habitat types.Hippos fertilise the waters of the lakes ensuring the productive fisheries and the forests soak up the rainfall and release the water slowly so that people benefit from streams that flow all year.

Threats to the Greater Virunga
The major direct threats that occur as a result of underlying factors include poaching of large mammals, encroachment of habitat for farm land, fuelwood harvesting, timber harvesting, illegal grazing of livestock and hervesting of non timberforest products. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Institut Congolaispour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), and Office Rwandais pour le Tourismeet parcs Nationaux (ORTPN) tackle these threats in a variety of ways including law enforcement patrols, community conservation programmes, and working with District authorities and the police and military. The recent civil war in DRC has led to many pressures on the Virunga Park. A large carnivore project at Makerere University has identified that stress from tourist vehicles is leading to lower birth rates in the lion population in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Road mortality by speeding traffic through the park is also leading to a decline in the lion population. As a result management actions are being taken to address these threats to lions. Further research is needed in DRC to assess how many lions remain there and whether they mix with the Ugandan populations. WCS isbeginning a study with UWA to look at large forest carnivores within the GVL,particularly leopards and golden cats using camera traps. A recent assessment of carnivores identified the golden cat as one of the least known carnivores in Africa.WCS has been leading survey work in the GVL to assess and monitor ape populations. With the Jane Goodall Institute WCS surveyed forests in Uganda for chimpanzees and now have good baseline numbers from which populations can be monitored. WCS have also censused the mountain gorilla both in the Virunga Volcanoes and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (both within the GVL) with partners. These surveys show that the gorilla populations are steadily increasing and now total about 700 individuals.Elephants are known to move back and forth between DRC and Uganda and since the 1960s they have taken refuge in neighbouring countries.

Source: Albertinerift.org

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