As the global population soars toward nine billion by 2045, this corner of Africa shows what's at stake in the decades ahead. The Rift is rich in rainfall, deep lakes, volcanic soil, and biodiversity. It is also one of the most densely populated places on Earth. A desperate competition for land and resources—and between people and wildlife—has erupted here with unspeakable violence. How can the conflict be stopped? Will there be any room left for the wild?
A tree-climbing lion stirs in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Rule of the gun prevails in North Kivu, a conflict-ravaged province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Mai-Mai Kifuafua, one of many local militias, flaunts its power on a road where it extorts money from villagers and travelers. For almost 20 years near-constant fighting over land, mining riches, and power has terrorized the people.
Exhaling clouds of gas, a cauldron of lava boils in the mile-wide crater of Nyiragongo, an active volcano in the Congo that threatens two million people. Eruptions have blistered the region for millions of years, since the African tectonic plate began to split apart to create the Albertine Rift.
A metal-roofed metropolis, Goma sits at the crossroads of conflict in eastern Congo, its population exploding with displaced villagers, soldiers, profiteers, and aid workers. The lava-rumpled city sprawls between Lake Kivu, full of dangerous gases, and the restless Nyiragongo volcano.
Elephants have miles of unbroken savanna to roam inside Uganda's Queen Elizabeth Park, where their numbers total 2,500, a dramatic rise after heavy poaching in the 1980s. Outside the preserve villagers kill elephants that trample and eat crops, though attacks have diminished with the digging of trenches to protect fields from wild trespassers.
A path from market to squatters' camp leads a woman carrying sugarcane across a recently burned plot in Uganda's Kagombe Forest Reserve. Desperate for land, 3,000 people live in the reserve, torching forest to clear plots for corn and other crops. Due to political pressure, rangers can't evict settlers, many of whom have nowhere else to go.
The hand of a mountain gorilla pokes from the rain forest in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. The number of endangered primates has stabilized at some 780 in Bwindi and the Virunga Mountains parks of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.
From above, the scene is pastoral—a lush blanket of fields in the highlands of northwest Rwanda. The ground truth is grittier. Land is so scarce in the crowded countryside near Musanze that farmers struggle to cultivate every foot of the steep, eroding hillsides. Land pressures set the stage for the 1994 genocide, in which one million were killed.
Direct from the forest, charcoal sells for $17 a bag at a lively market near Goma. Lacking electricity, almost every household in the region depends on charcoal for boiling water and cooking. Armed groups control the industry and have invaded Virunga National Park, where dozens of rangers have been killed trying to halt destruction of the forest.
The region's resources are increasingly stressed by hungry humans. On the Uganda side of Lake Albert, where the fishing fleet has grown from 760 boats in the mid-1960s to almost 6,000, a boy nets only small species of fish, since the catch of big Nile perch and tilapia has plunged.
Demand for fuel is thinning forests in the Albertine Rift region. Hardwood trees are turned into charcoal, filling the bags of men careering toward a Congo market.
Attacked in their homes and fields, impregnated, and often cast off by their families, shattered women bring their babies to meet an aid worker in Shasha in North Kivu, a province terrorized by what activists call Congo's epidemic of rape as a weapon of war. Soldiers and rebels moving through the area have raped more than 800 women in this village alone.
In a region bursting with people, a few big open spaces remain—like the Rift floor in Queen Elizabeth Park, pocked with crater lakes formed by volcanic explosions. If protected areas hadn't been set aside in the Albertine Rift from the 1920s to the 1960s, conservationists doubt any large wilderness areas would exist today.
Alert to human visitors, a young mountain gorilla and its mother sit tight in Bwindi Impenetrable Park. When the park opened in 1991, villagers resented losing access to forest where they had gathered honey and wood. Today the park shares the fees from gorilla-watching tours with the locals, a small victory in the Rift's unending clashes for livable space.
No buffer zone here. Land that's been cleared for crops extends right up to the eastern boundary of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
African buffalo create tracks in the salty mud at the edge of a crater lake in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
A large fishing net is spread out to dry in Kiryamboga, a village on Lake Albert. As catches decline due to overfishing, villagers are driven to use illegal small-mesh nets, even converted mosquito nets, to pull as much as possible from the water, including immature fish—depleting the lake stock even more.
Government soldiers patrol the streets of a settlement inside Virunga National Park near Lake Edward. Their mission is to protect civilians and rangers from attacks by the militias.
In the Tanzanian port of Kasanga workers load cement into the hold of the M.V. Liemba, a ferry that has been transporting goods and people on Lake Tanganyika for almost a hundred years.
A fisherman on Lake Albert idles near the wreck of the S.S. Robert Coryndon, a relic of the Rift's colonial past. During the 1930s the British ship ferried passengers and cargo across Lake Albert—until it sank, or was scuttled, after Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962.