Africa'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 six 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. Elsewhere in Kenya the 'flamingo lakes' of the Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley is a relatively recent addition to the world heritage list. Follow the links to learn more about these amazing places!
Slideshow of the main features of Africa's Great Rift Valley
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: Lake Tanganyika, with its diverse endemic fish fauna and deep lacustrine habitats deserves recognition as world heritage site. And there is surely scope for a serial site in the Red Sea, encompassing the most outstanding examples of coral reefs and marine habitats. This opportunity has been partially satisfied by the listing of Sudan's Sanganeb, Dungonab Bay and Mukkawar Island site in 2016, but other areas may be equally important and might be added at a later stage. The Rift Valley in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea is particularly active geologically, and the volcanic and thermal features of the Danakil Depression may well warrant world heritage status. For further details of these potential world heritage sites, click here.
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