The great pyramids at Giza, EgyptElephants crossing the Zambezi river in Mana Pools National Park world heritage site, ZimbabweThe great mosque in the Old Towns of Djenne world heritage site, MaliBlack and white ruffed lemur, Rainforests of the Atsinanana world heritage site, Madagascar

Africa's Great Rift Valley


Map showing the location of five UNESCO-designated natural world heritage sites in Africa's Great Rift Valley, namely the Bwindi Impenetrable, Virungas, Kahuzi Biega, Lake Malawi, and Lake Turkana National ParksAfrica's Great Rift Valley - shown as a broken black strip on the map - stretches from the Red Sea through East Africa (with eastern and western branches) to the southern end of Mozambique.  It is the only major physiographic land feature on earth visible with the naked eye from the moon.  Along its length a deep fissure in the earth's crust is filled with fresh water - a string of great lakes fringed with steep forest-clad mountains rising so high that permanent glaciers occur (in the Rwenzori mountains) right on the equator.  It is biologically and physiographically Africa's most diverse region, encompassing every conceivable habitat from deserts to snowfields, active volcanoes to deep water abyss, lowland rainforest to acacia savanna - and everything in between.


There are five world heritage sites along Africa's Great Rift Valley, none more impressive than Virunga National Park in eastern Congo.  This was Africa's first national park (established in 1925) and still encompasses a greater diversity of fauna, flora and habitats than any other park on the continent.  Across the border in Uganda, Bwindi Impentrable National Park protects a portion of the forest-clad eastern flank, home to about half the world's mountain gorillas.  On the other side of the western (Albertine) Rift, Kahuzi-Biega National Park spills over the rim of the Rift into the Congo Basin lowlands, protecting a vast array of rainforest species including the rare eastern lowland gorilla.  The Rift Valley lakes are renowned as an ‘evolutionary crucible' for cichlid fishes, and many of the 400-plus species that have evolved in Lake Malawi are protected in Lake Malawi National Park.  Elsewhere, in the deserts of northern Kenya, a very different lacustrine habitat is protected at Lake Turkana - the Jade Sea.  Here there is not only an extra-ordinary modern-day ecology, but also the fossilised remains of a diverse fauna dating back about 4 million years when man's early ancestors shared this land with giant mammoths, huge tortoises and long-snouted crocodilians. Follow the links to learn more about these amazing places!

Iconic species:  In such a diverse landscape it is hardly possible to single out particular iconic species, but mountain gorillas - which number only 600-800 individuals in the world - have to be one of the best known animals of Africa's Great Rift.  At the other end of the scale, the colourful cichlid fishes of Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika are popular aquarium fish throughout the world, with their bright yellows and blues and shimmering iridescent hues.

Missing Links:  The soda lakes of East Africa, which support great flocks of greater and lesser flamingos deserve recognition as world heritage sites, perhaps within the framework of a more wide-ranging serial site.  So does Lake Tanganyika, with its diverse endemic fish fauna and deep lacustrine habitats. And there is surely scope for a serial site in the Red Sea, encompassing the most outstanding examples of coral reefs and marine habitats.


Upturned carapace of a giant fossilised tortoise at Sibiloi National Park (Lake Turkana, Kenya), one of the UNESCO natural world heritage sites in Africa’s Great Rift ValleyView of the volcanoes in Virunga National Park (Congo), one of the UNESCO natural world heritage sites in Africa’s Great Rift ValleyMountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda), one of the UNESCO natural world heritage sites in Africa’s Great Rift ValleyOne of the endemic species of cichlid fish in Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO natural world heritage sites in Africa’s Great Rift Valley 



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