Africa's Mountains of the Moon gain global protection

Posted: 14 May 2009

Part of the Rwenzori Mountains, - home to some of the last glaciers in Africa and probably named by Ptolemy as 'Lunae Montes' - have received international recognition as a protected wetland site under the international Ramsar convention. This is seen as a major conservation decision that will help protect the region's vast ecological riches.

Mountains of the Moon location map
Mountains of the Moon location map
Rwenzori Ramsar Site.
The Rwenzori Ramsar Site covers a 99,500 hectares area of the mountain region located in western Uganda and bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the DRC, the mountains are part of Virunga National Park, which is also designated as Ramsar and recognized as a World Heritage Site.

The Rwenzori region has received Ramsar Site designation primarily for three main reasons: it contains important wetland bogs that support plant and animal life, it contains dozens of endemic threatened and restricted range species - of which many are endangered such as the Rwenzori Duiker, Elephants, Chimpanzees, Rwenzori Otter Shrew - and because many of those species play an integral role in maintaining the region's biological diversity.

WWF International's Freshwater Programme has been supporting wetlands conservation in Uganda since 2000, including for the designation of another nine of Uganda's Ramsar Sites in 2006.

Rwenzori National Park. Photo: IUCN
Rwenzori National Park. Photo: IUCN
Rwenzori National Park, Uganda. The park is rich in biodiversity.© IUCN
The Rwenzori Mountains are one of the only three places in Africa with unique high altitude wetlands, including glaciers at the equator - the other two being Mount Kilimandjaro in Tanzania, and Mount Kenya in Kenya. Located in the western arm of the African Rift Valley, the Rwenzori Mountains act as a natural water tower for the Nile River basin. In 300 AD, the Alexandrine geographer Claudius Ptolemy suggested that the Nile had its source from snow peaks on the Equator, the 'Lunae Montes' or 'Mountains of the Moon'.

Surreal landscape

But the fascination and reverence for the Rwenzori Mountains has continued since Ptolemy's time. In 1888, H. M. Stanley while on an expedition at the shores of L. George sighted the snow peaks of Rwenzori. Early mountaineers, most notably the Duke of Abruzzi in 1906, fighting upwards through dense forests of trees and bamboos, discovered a surreal landscape beautiful foliage, surrounded by spectacular lakes and equatorial glaciers flowed down from the snow capped peaks.

Since 1906, the Rwenzori Mountains have become a paradise for botanists and mountaineers alike. Research has revealed a wealth of endemic species in the range within a series of remarkable concentric, altitudinal, vegetation zones.

The Ramsar designation has major conservation significance for the Rwenzori Mountains which for years have suffered because of climate change. The region's high altitude glaciers are rapidly melting, from 6.5km2 in 1906 when it was first surveyed by Duke of Abruzzi to 0.96km2 in 2003, according to a report published by Dr. Richard Taylor in 2006. This in turn affects wetlands in the lower altitudes that provide a needed water supply for people and the species living in the area.

Shrinking Ruwenzori glaciers
Shrinking Ruwenzori glaciers
"The Rwenzori Mountains are very important for the ecology and the hydrology of the region; in particular, they supply water to Lake George, Uganda's first Ramsar Site (designated in 1988), which has one of the highest fish diversity in Africa," said Paul Mafabi, Commissioner for Wetlands and the Ramsar Administrative Authority in Uganda.

Denis Landenbergue, Wetlands Conservation Manager at WWF International added that "together, the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda and the Virunga in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo offer the potential to become Africa's second transboundary Wetland of International Importance"

Growing populations

Since the 1960s, the Rwenzori Mountains have been increasingly threatened by the demands of a growing population, and the cultivation of ever-steeper land below the protected area boundary caused serious soil erosion. This has been generating increasing siltation or rivers and lakes, which has seriously affected the livelihood of people, especially fishermen.

In 2005, WWF in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority commissioned a US$3.2 million project to support and maintain the integrity of the Rwenzori Mountains ecosystems.

The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There currently are 1,842 wetland sites, totaling 180 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, according to the Convention's website.