Eastern Africa’s biological diversity reflects its position astride the equator and the high variability of landscapes and aquatic ecosystems. These conditions provide suitable habitat for a large variety of living organisms, some with very limited ranges. For instance, the Bonga Forest in Ethiopia contains more than 15 species of highland birds; the Metu-Gore-Tepi forest has more than 16 species of birds of which at least two are endemic, while the Tiro Boter-Becho forests have more than 32 highland biome species of birds (EWNHS 1996). Owing to its combination of semi-arid savannahs, lowland and montane rain forests, vast wetlands, and an Afro-alpine zone which ranges in altitude from 650 to 5 000 m, Uganda has over 1 000 species of birds (Carswell and others 2005), a significant percentage of Africa’s 2 313 bird species (BirdLife International undated). From its scorching sub-desert flatlands to its mist-enshrouded evergreen montane forests, Eritrea’s diverse habitats hold a wide variety of birds, many of which are confined to the Horn of Africa. To date, a total of 107 mammal species have been recorded in Burundi (Groombridge and Jenkins 1994). The Masai Mara in Kenya is world-famous for big game. A total of 277 species of mammals are known in Ethiopia, of which 29 are endemic and almost exclusively confined to the central plateaus (Yalden and others 1986). In the semi-desert grasslands and shrublands of Djibouti, Acacia nilotic sub species tomentosa forms nearly pure stands on silty-clay soils subjected to seasonal inundation in association with Ziziphus abyssinica as a minor associate (White 1983). Although Djibouti does not have any endemic mammals, the following threatened terrestrial and marine species occur: Lycaon pictus (African wild dog), Dorcatragus megalotis (Beira antelope), Gazella dorcas (Dorcas gazelle), Dugong dugon (dugong), Otomops martiensseni (large-eared free-tailed bat) and Gazella soemmerringii (Soemmerring’s gazelle) (Baillie and Groombridge 1996).


Maintaining biodiversity is essential for ensuring that the environmental goods-and-services are maintained.

Eastern Africa contains some of the world’s oldest and richest protected areas (Table 2), such as the Tsavo, Queen Elizabeth and Serengeti national parks. The principle which guided establishment of most protected areas was that strict protection was essential for effective conservation of biological resources and therefore the exclusion of humans, livestock and fire was considered necessary. This protectionist approach was based on the USA’s Yellowstone National Park (McNeely and others 1994). These protected areas were established in the hope that they would continue to exist in pristine state and effectively conserve the inherent biological diversity, especially the characteristic large mammal aggregations. This idea was enshrined in such notable MEAs as the London Convention of 1933 and the ACCNNR of 1968 (McNeely and others 1994). While the present distribution of protected areas embraces a more modern view of the broader biodiversity concept, it still reflects a preoccupation with the large mammal concentrations. The long-term viability of the ecological systems and processes on which such areas depend remains questionable. The exclusion of humans and most of their activities notwithstanding, species loss has continued. In nearly all cases, park boundaries were established with little regard for the year-round needs of resident fauna. For example, the Nairobi National Park and Masai Mara reserve in Kenya were originally designed to conserve populations of migratory mammals whose movements have since been severely restricted. Land conversion and encroachment of these areas, and virtually all other protected areas, have led to serious ecological isolation with negative effects on species richness, abundance and genetic vigour.

Table 2: The biodiversity features of Eastern Africa
  Biodiversity opportunity Threat Response
  Area Mammals Birds Plants % of land % of land
Country km² Endemic Total Endemic Total Endemic Total transformed protected

Burundi 27 830 0 107 0 451 not
2 500 37 5

Djibouti 23 200 0 61 1 126 6 826 1 1

Eritrea 117 600 0 112 0 319 not
19 4

Ethiopia 1 104 300 31 277 28 626 1 000 6 603 39 5

Kenya 580 370 23 359 9 844 265 6 506 13 6

Rwanda 26 340 0 151 0 513 26 2 288 52 8

Somalia 637 660 12 171 11 422 500 3 028 6 0

Uganda 241 040 6 345 3 830 not
4 900 36 7

All countries 2 758 340 72   52   1 797   24 4

Source: Methodology and sources as for Table 1

In several areas, such as the Nairobi and Mkomazi parks, large mammal populations have become more compressed, and animal and plant species diversity has decreased. Rapid biodiversity loss in some of Kenya’s protected areas is also closely linked with the explosion of tourism, rapid coastal development, and spread of human settlements since the 1970s. The large mammal populations of Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park came under heavy pressure during the years of civil strife, leading to huge species declines and directional vegetation change. In Ethiopia’s Awash, Abijata Shalla and Nechisar national parks, encroachment and settlement forced many wildlife species out of the park due to increased competition for forage (Hilman 1991, GebreMichael and others 1992, Jacobs and Schloeder 2001).

Although biodiversity loss can be attributed to multiple causes, a large part is accounted for by the real and widespread conflict between people and wildlife. Eastern Africa has a high human population (FAO 2003). The spread of cultivation and settlement has meant that pastoralists and their livestock have been squeezed into increasingly smaller areas. There is increasing competition between people, and between people and wildlife, for grazing land and water resources. Local people and their livestock are still viewed by the national law and policy as alien to parks, reserves and sanctuaries. The loss of key dispersal areas for wildlife leads to greater pressure within the protected areas, and heightened human-wildlife conflict. Hostilities have built up as consecutive governments ignore the hardship that wildlife causes people (Yeager and Miller 1986, Western 1997). Despite the obvious economic benefits that wildlife brings, many farmers, herdsmen and ranchers living adjacent to parks look upon wild animals with considerable disdain (Kaltenborn and others 2003). Wildlife periodically decimates crops, causes injuries or death to people and livestock, and spreads diseases.


Since the early 1990s, there has been a growing policy change focus on sustainable use and increased local participation. There is a realization that a “fences-and-fines” approach leads to even more conflicts, unacceptable social inequity, and ultimately the destruction of the resources themselves. A “use it or lose it” philosophy has taken root (Swanson 1992). The various community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) approaches have yielded mixed results (Agrawal and Gibson 1999, Gibson 1999, Songorwa and others 2000). Nearly all countries are providing greater legitimacy for the involvement of people in natural resources management. A slow but steady change in focus is under way, shifting from the biological challenges to confronting the social and economic issues. In Kenya, for instance, a national land policy is being formulated through a consultative and participatory process. This should open up new opportunities for people wishing to invest in conservation and the sustainable use of biological diversity.