The African Great Lakes: Home To An Extraordinary Number Of Endemic Species

The African Great Lakes system is a collection of large and small lakes that provide a stable ecosystem for the unique flora and fauna living in the lakes.

The African Great Lakes are a series of large and small rift lakes located in and around the East African Rift. The most notable among these lakes is Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi. Many of these rift lakes host an incredible biodiversity including many endemic species of flora and fauna. Here is a list of the lakes that belong to the African Great Lakes system of lakes.

9. Lake Edward

#9 Lake Edward

The smallest of the African Great Lakes, Lake Edward is located in the Albertine Rift on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The northern shore of this lake is located only a few km to the south of the equator. The lake lies at an elevation of 3,020 feet and encompasses a total area of 2,325 square km. The lake is fed by several rivers and Lake George, and it drains into the Lake Albert via the Semliki River. The entire lake is completely within the boundaries of the Virunga National Park of Congo and Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. There are not extensive human settlements along the lake. The lake is home to numerous fish species. Fauna observed in the banks of the lake include lions, elephants, crocodiles, chimpanzees, and more. Several species of migratory and residential birds also live here.

8. Lake Kivu

#8 Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu is based on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Located in the Albertine Rift, the lake drains into the Ruzizi River which empties into the Lake Tanganyika. Lake Kivu occupies a total area of about 2,700 square km and is located 4,790 feet above sea level. 58% of the waters of the lake is within the territory of the DRC. The lake is quite deep due to the volcanic activities underground and has a maximum depth of 1,575 feet. Lake Kivu contains the 10th largest inland island in the world, Idjwi. The lake is also home to about 1.94 trillion cubic feet of dissolved biogas which is currently extracted for commercial purposes. The fish fauna of Lake Kivu is limited to only about 28 species of fish including some introduced species.

7. Lake Mweru

Lake Mweru is a lake that is based on the longest arm of the Congo River on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia. The Luapula River and the Kalungwishi River feed the lake and the Luvua River drains the lake. The Luapula River ends in a massive swampy delta at the lake’s southern end and often the lake and the river are treated as a single entity. The lake has an average width of 45 km and a length of 118 km. A large number of fishing villages are located on the shores of Lake Mweru. Several inhabited islands are also located on the lake. Over the years, indiscriminate fishing has decreased the fish-catch of the lake. The lake is yet to be developed for tourism purposes. Several factors fuelled by civil wars in DRC, a lack of wildlife conservation measures, pollution, etc., threaten the Lake Mweru habitat.

6. Lake Rukwa

#6 Lake Rukwa

Lake Rukwa, an endorheic lake, is located in the Rukwa Valley in Tanzania’s southwestern section. The valley lies at an elevation of 2,600 feet between Lake Nyasa and Lake Tanganyika. Nearly 50% of the lake is within the boundaries of the Uwanda Game Reserve. The lake covers an area of about 5,760 square km. A great discovery was made in 2016 when the lake Rukwa was found to hold an estimated 54.2 billion standard cubic feet volume of helium gas. The gas content is considered to be worth $3.5 billion USD.

5. Lake Albert

Lake Albert, one of the African Great Lakes, is located on the border between DRC and Uganda. The lake is the 27th largest lake in the world and is about 160 km long and 30 km wide. The maximum depth is 168 feet, and the lake is 2,030 ft above sea-level. The Victoria Nile and the Semliki River feed Lake Albert and is drained by the Albert Nile River. The lake was discovered by explorers in 1864 and soon European colonialists started operating shipping on the lake. A famous ship of the era, SS Robert Coryndon possibly sank in the lake and its wrecks still lie beneath the waters of the lake. In 2014, a boat carrying Congolese refugees capsized in the lake killing over 250 people. Major oil finds have been reported in the lake region recently by Tullow Oil and Heritage Oil.

4. Lake Turkana

#4 Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana is a large lake in northern Kenya. A small section at the northern end of the lake stretches into Ethiopia. The lake is designated as the largest alkaline lake and permanent desert lake in the world. It is also the fourth largest salt lake by volume in the world. The water of the lake supports unique lacustrine wildlife. The Lake Turkana hosts the Central Island which is an active volcano. The lake is subjected to frequent violent storms and a hot, dry climate. The Kerio, Omo, and Turkwel rivers flow into the lake. There is no outlet for water with evaporation being the only source of water loss. Nile crocodiles live in abundance in the lake. About 50 fish species including 11 endemics live here. The banks are home to carpet vipers and deadly scorpions. The plankton masses in the lake support a large diversity of birds like the common sandpiper, little stint, African skimmer, white-breasted cormorant, etc. Grevy's zebra, reticulated giraffe, Grant's gazelle, the topi, cheetah, etc., are some of the terrestrial animals living in the region. The Lake Turkana National Parks is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the unique landscape, flora, and fauna here. The lake has also been the site of the discovery of hominid (early human) fossils.

3. Lake Malawi

#3 Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi is an African Great Lake in Mozambique that is the ninth largest lake in world and Africa’s second deepest lake. The lake hosts an incredible biodiversity, more than any other lake in the world. Over 1,000 species of cichlids (fish family) reside in the lake. The lake is a meromictic, meaning its water layers never intermix. The Lake Malawi National Park includes a part of the lake in Malawi while the Mozambique section of the lake has been declared a reserve. The lake occupies a total area of 29,600 square km. Several rivers feed the lake including the largest Ruhuhu River. The Shire River, a tributary of the Zambezi River drains Lake Malawi at the southern end. The lake was first visited by Europeans in 1846. Nile crocodiles, the elusive painted hunting dog, monkeys, hippopotamus, and African fish eagles are some of the species living in and around the lake. Overfishing and water pollution threaten the fish population of the Lake Malawi. 28 species of freshwater snails including 16 endemics, 9 species of bivalves, endemic freshwater crabs, etc., live in the lake habitat.

2. Lake Tanganyika

#2 Lake Tanganyika

The African Great Lake, Lake Tanganyika is the second largest and second deepest freshwater lake in the world after Lake Baikal in Russia. The lake’s boundaries lie within the territories of the four nations of Burundi, DRC, Tanzania, and Zambia. Tanzania and DRC share 46% and 40% of the lake’s area, respectively. The waters of the lake drain into the Congo River system which ultimately empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Lake Tanganyika is located in the Albertine Rift and is Africa’s largest rift lake. The lake accounts for 18% of the world’s freshwater resources and covers an area of 32,900 square km. The Ruzizi River and the Malagarasi River are the main rivers supplying water to Lake Tanganyika while the Lukuga River is its major outlet. The tropical location of the lake makes it highly susceptible to water loss by evaporation. The lake hosts several islands, large and small. Lake Tanganyika also hosts great biodiversity in the form of 250 cichlid fish species, 75 non-cichlid fish species, and other organisms. Nearly 98% of the cichlid species and 59% of the non-cichlid species are endemic to the lake. 68 species of freshwater snails (45 endemics) and 15 species of bivalves (8 endemics) also inhabit the lake. it is estimated that the fish from the lake supply 25–40% of the protein in the diet of about 1 million people living around the massive lake. The fish catch here is also exported to other countries of Africa.

1. Lake Victoria

#1 Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria, named after Queen Victoria, is an African Great Lake that occupies an area of 68,800 square km. It is the largest lake in Africa and the largest tropical lake in the world. The lake is fed by thousands of small streams and rainfall. The Nile River drains the lake near Jinja in Uganda. The lake has an average depth of 130 feet and a maximum depth of 276 feet. The lake’s shoreline is 7,142 km long. Kenya (6%), Uganda (45%), and Tanzania (49%) share the lake. 80% of the water of Lake Victoria is contributed by rainfall alone. The lake supports the largest inland fishery in the continent. The lake habitat and species inhabiting the lake are currently facing the adverse effects of anthropogenic pressures, and the lake flora and fauna are threatened by the overgrowth of invasive species introduced by humans.

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