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African montane forests: from knowledge to conservation​

By Dr. Aida Cuni-Sanchez

June 14th, 2019

Listen to an interview with Aida Cuni-Sanchez by Tomas Pickering about her research and conservation efforts

Amazing ecosystems under threat

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. These 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.

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. For instance, even basic botanical and wildlife surveys have not been completed in the Itombwe Massif in eastern Congo. How can you protect what you do not know exists? Often, remoteness, difficult access, political instability and other challenges have hampered research in these locations. But to great challenges, innovative solutions.

An interdisciplinary project

Mountains are complex socio-ecological systems, and to get a good grasp of what is happening, or might happen, one needs to understand the ecological aspect (e.g., how many trees are there, of which species, how fast they grow or die) but also the social aspect (how people interact with the environment, e.g. what they harvest, or what motivates them to clear the forest). That’s why we use an interdisciplinary approach; we combine expertise from different disciplines. AFRI-SKY-FOR project (my current project) aims to 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. How do we achieve this? By doing more fieldwork in remote locations such as Itombwe Massif, by gathering information from many unpublished reports and experts’ views, by trying different modelling techniques and, most importantly, by being very patient… thing will come together at the end.

The importance of collaboration

If you study socio-ecological systems, it is needless to highlight that it is important to get local communities involved, and decision-makers. We work with both. But I want to highlight the importance of involving local researchers: from Masters students, to lecturers or professors. You (international scientist) might go back home, or find another field study… but they will remain. And they can become the ‘experts’ of that site, that type of research, that approach… they ensure the continuity and relevance of your project. They can replicate the methods in other areas in the country, teach more fellows students, they can be key for a small consultancy job needed (which cannot afford to fly in an international expert), they have better connections with local organizations and decision-makers, they can involve them too… they are a key player. They might lack good statistical skills, availability to write a good publication in English, access too many publications (their universities’ libraries cannot afford subscription to many journals), and they might not have good equipment… but often, their motivation and willingness to make a difference in their country, compensates that ‘lack of’ by far. If we are to change the world we live in, that’s an important step to take: helping build the capacity of key players in countries less lucky than ours. I have 4 children named after me in Africa… that’s just to show how grateful some of these local students are. If you try, you will keep coming back to this amazing continent.


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


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

AFRI-SKY-FOR (EU funded project through a Global Marie Curie Fellowship) is led by Dr. Aida Cuni-Sanchez and Prof. Rob Marchant (University of York, UK) and Dr. Julia Klein (Colorado State University, US). 

Dr. Aida Cuni-Sanchez was a visiting scholar to Colorado State University and is a Post-doc from the University of York.