Tropical montane forests are biodiversity rich and unique ecosystems. The montane forests of the Albertine Rift region in Africa, for example, contain around 7500 plant and animal species – over a thousand of which are endemic. Tropical montane forests provide numerous ecosystems services including water, food, timber, and non-timber forest products (firewood, medicinal plants, building materials), they support agricultural systems that underpin regional and lowland food security, and make a significant contribution towards income generation through tourism (such as hiking and the viewing of mountain gorillas). They also play an important role in hazard prevention, climate modulation and carbon sequestration.

Mt Kahuzi (3317m) and surrounding mixed-species and bamboo forest, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Forests under threat
Unfortunately, tropical montane forests are amongst the most threatened ecosystems on Earth due to the combined effects of climate change, population growth, and land use change. They remain overexploited (logging, poaching, mining, conversion to agriculture) and understudied, particularly in Africa. On a continent where the financial and human resources for conservation are very limited, the lack of accurate data and insights into these ecosystems hampers management interventions.

A new, innovative research project funded by the European Union, under the Marie-Curie Global Fellowship scheme, aims to understand couple social-ecological systems on mountains across Equatorial Africa. AFRI-SKY-FOR, which has just started, will create the first synthetic overview of four key aspects of African tropical montane forests: the ecosystem services generated, current and future threats, a model of their socio-ecological functioning (which will be used to investigate potential future scenarios), and an overview of possible management recommendations that promote sustainable resource provision. The project will compile information from several sources, including different datasets, mountain expert opinions, and two field campaigns from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, and will use state-of-the art analytical methods (e.g., socio-ecological modelling of mountain ecosystems using Bayesian statistics).

Road conditions to access the Tembo-speaking villages surrounding Mt Kahuzi.

Heavy rains, armed groups… and a warm welcome
The first field campaign of this project has just been completed: the forests studied were Kahuzi-Biega and Itombwe in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Over six weeks, the research team carried out focus-group discussions with forest edge communities from different ethnic groups, including BaTwa Pygmies, and sampled permanent vegetation plots in these forests. In doing so, they overcame the terrible road conditions, heavy rains, remoteness, and insecurity (several armed groups live in these forests), and were warmly welcomed by local communities keen to be listened to and ready to discuss issues that ranged from important trees for tasty caterpillars or ‘best honey’ to illegal hunting and logging, climate change impacts, and potential management interventions.

AFRI-SKY-FOR is led by Dr. Aida Cuni-Sanchez and Prof. Rob Marchant (University of York, UK) and Dr. Julia Klein (Colorado State University, US). If you would like to learn more about this research project or become part of it, please send an email to a.cunisanchez@york.ac.uk. We speak English, French, Spanish, Swahili, and more…