The Albertine Rift is situated within Africa’s Great Rift Valley. It encompasses parts of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), western Uganda and Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and northern Zambia. The region is one of the most biodiverse in Africa: containing more than half of the continent’s 2300 bird species, 40% of its 1100 mammal species and more endemic mammals, birds and amphibians than any other region in Africa. The Albertine Rift is also home to a very large and growing human population known to be heavily dependent on the natural biological resources that the region provides. Many people in the region earn a living through the harvesting, processing and selling of wild species for food, as well as relying on them for their subsistence needs. The climate in the region is changing, and a comprehensive assessment predicted that by 2090, the Albertine Rift will have experienced a mean annual temperature increase of 3.6⁰C and a 17% increase in precipitation (1). Any resulting impacts of these climatic changes upon biodiversity will have implications not just for conservation, but also for the people who rely on it for subsistence and income.

An IUCN and TRAFFIC study  aimed to identify species from six taxa (amphibians, birds, freshwater fish, mammals, plants and reptiles) which were important for human use (for meat, construction materials, clothing, pets, fuel, medicine, ecotourism etc.) in the Albertine Rift and also vulnerable to climate change. In addition, we aimed to identify geographic areas within the region with high numbers of used and climate change vulnerable species.

Developing a rigorous method of assessing how species used by humans are likely to be impacted by climate change is fundamental for both biodiversity conservation and developing sustainable livelihood strategies. The IUCN Red List Species Information Service (SIS) now includes a standardised format of collecting and storing information on the use of species and their contribution to livelihoods, and SIS was used to store the information gathered for this study through a process of expert consultation and a comprehensive literature review. The IUCN Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Framework was then used to independently assess three components of vulnerability to climate change for each species; Sensitivity (the ability to persist in situ), Adaptive Capacity (the ability to mitigate impacts by dispersing or undergoing micro-evolutionary change) and Exposure (the degree to which the species will be subjected climatic changes).

Freshwater fish, plants and mammals emerge as the most heavily utilised taxa, and contribute the most to people’s livelihoods. Fish are a popular and cheap source of protein in much of the Albertine Rift, and a wide variety of people are engaged in the catching, processing and trading of fish products, including women. Fuelwood is an essential component of most people’s lives within the Albertine Rift, used both for domestic and commercial purposes, and in some areas accounts for the highest consumption of wood. Culture influences the pattern of consumption; some edible fish species are considered taboo and avoided in certain geographic areas, and unlike West Africa there does not appear to be a culture of eating amphibians.

Reptiles, plants, amphibians and mammals had the greatest proportion of species vulnerable to climate change. We identified that 36% of plants assessed, 15% of reptiles, 13% of amphibians, 7% of mammals, 3% of fish and 2% of birds were both important for human use and had the greatest vulnerability to climate change.  We found that the northern parts of the Albertine Rift contained the greatest concentration of used and climate change vulnerable species. It is possible that future migration into Eastern Africa will alter these cultural norms.

From the extensive research on use and climate change vulnerability of species in the Albertine Rift we have created a unique dataset of species which are likely to be impacted by climate change, and thus will have a subsequent impact on the people that rely on them. In combination with other information sources, our results can be used to provide important guidance for those seeking to take appropriate adaptive action to ensure that provision of the important services these wild species provide is maintained in the face of climate change. Regional and national planning can be focussed to help people reliant on wildlife adapt to and mitigate the impacts of global climate change to ensure that biodiversity is used sustainably.

Despite the widespread use of wild species in the Albertine Rift, with the exceptions of mammals and fish, there has been a lack of recent documented information addressing which species are used and how. For most species, there has been little focus on investigating the contribution that species make to peoples’ livelihoods. In addition, our assessments of climate change vulnerability highlighted a number of key data gaps including species’ global population sizes, their sensitivity to changing fire regimes, and species specific dietary requirements. Future work should aim to fill these knowledge gaps as a better understanding of the reliance of local people on climate change vulnerable species will be vital in devising appropriate conservation and livelihood strategies that allow for adaptation to a changing climate.

Willow Outhwaite is Research and Analysis Programme Support Officer at TRAFFIC International:


(1) Picton Phillips, G. and Seimon, A. (2009) Potential Climate Change Impacts in Conservation Landscapes of the Albertine Rift. WCS. Albertine Rift Climate Assessment, Whitepaper Report No. 2. 45pp.