AfroMont Editorial January 2017: Planning for an AfroMont State of African Mountains Assessment for Ecosystems (SOAMA-eco) project

AfroMont is planning to conduct a State of African Mountains Assessment with a focus on monitoring the health and security of African mountain ecosystems (SOAMA-Eco). From very quick discussions with specialists, it would seem that there is a gap in our knowledge on ‘the state of’ African mountain ecosystems and we need to develop a quantified understanding of how ‘healthy and secure’ they are in the face of global change. Many in government speak of ‘ecosystem services’ that will provide for people where governments cannot, yet there is little measurement on the capacity of key African mountain ecosystems to provide these services. This would be termed ‘ecosystem security’ and work is needed to understand how ‘secure’ African mountain ecosystems are. Also, in terms of the species and processes that keep ecosystems functioning, little is known in a comparative way, although there is much ecological work being undertaken in mountains around the world and in Africa.

A systematic literature analysis is needed for the SOAMA-Eco to understand just what ecosystem research has been done in African mountains, and what gaps exist.

Drakensberg Montane Vegetation
Drakensberg Montane Vegetation (Photo: Clinton Carbutt)

AfroMont’s original idea was to collect all available information (demographics, climate, vegetation, river basins, forests, urbanisation etc.) on a set of major African mountains and use this information to assess the state of the mountains. This concept was discussed in three African workshops held (Cameroon 2013, Nairobi 2013, Lesotho 2013), but a lack of funding stalled this process. Also, there are similar ‘Atlas’ products (Kenya Social Atlas) which deal with the social impacts of human activities on the landscape. Even using Google Earth, you can see for yourself that there is much human encroachment in and around Africa’s mountains and that this surely must be of concern.

However, as AfroMont, we are concerned that African mountain ecosystems are in peril – and that there is no quantification of the level of peril. Some mountain ecosystems may be more robust than others, some species more tenacious – but overall, we don’t really know how these ecosystems are changing. They may be changing rapidly, or may still be in a state of resilience. Historic information will also be important in trying to understand how mountain ecosystems in Africa are holding up against very intense human pressure. This would include pressures being experience within protected areas and World Heritage Sites, although we have concerns for biodiversity and ecosystems which are outside the protected areas.

So, a SOAMA-eco would be an ambitious undertaking and best tackled in bite sized chunks. We may tackle the Great Escarpment first (in its entirety from Angola to Zambia) because there is a Southern African network of scientists who already work on the Maloti-Drakensberg and other segments of the Drakensberg that fall within South Africa – but this escarpment in its entirety is an enormous and very diverse mountain system and so we may have to make this into even smaller ‘pilot’ bites, depending on funding and the scope of collaboration on the project. Obviously collaborators who already have knowledge of the Great Escarpment within Namibia and Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe, will be vital.

At a first glance, the project would include reviewing/and or experimenting with existing bio-indicator systems and see what has already been done for mountain ecosystems. Delineating the mountain ecosystems of interest would be another priority. Creating a typology of mountain ecosystems will also be essential so that similar ecosystems can be assessed using the same methodology.

Montane Vegetation
Montane Vegetation (Photo: Clinton Carbutt)

We need to collate all work that has been done on ecosystem health indicators for mountains in general, and then see what assessments/research has been done in African mountain ecosystems, or identify research that could lead to such indicators. We could look at insect/invertebrate bio-indicators for mountains (ants/spiders, grasshoppers, dragonflies, snails) as this type of work is well established in a range of ecosystems and there are many trained entomologist around. There are also a wealth of vegetation bio-indicators and it is often also of value to track alien species at different altitudes. We may need to develop something new for African mountains and then there would be the concern about how long would this take. We would need to end up with a spatial product which shows where the key ecosystems are located, and what state they are in. Once this information is in place, then future monitoring is needed to track the ‘health of the ecosystems over time. The data must then be used to half the rate of unacceptable changes in African mountain ecosystems. There are other precedents of ecosystem health monitoring, and we will be liaising with the IUCN and their Red Listed Ecosystem programme for inputs and methodology.

201701 Editorial3Obviously there are going to be challenges in getting data, especially in countries with a relatively low capacity to monitor ecosystems - we will have to see how these data collection challenges can be overcome. Perhaps we can develop mountain SWAT teams who can do in and do ‘rapid assessments’. This is how the IUCN tackles these challenges. Let’s see what we can come up with.

If you would like to be involved, please liaise with me. I am planning a workshop early this year to get this idea going and if you would like to attend, please liaise with me. It will be held in South Africa (venue to be determined). There is no funding as yet, but by the end of March 2017, I would like to have a strong, well-referenced concept note ready, along with a list of potential collaborators, leading to funding.

Please also share any references you may have on ecosystem health assessments and ecosystem indicators, particularly with reference to African mountains.