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The influence of soil-erosion in Burundi and western Tanzania on benthic biodiversity of lake Tanganyika, East Africa

Hilde EGGERMONT student laureate

°1977 Belgium
Licence in animal biology, Universiteit Gent, Belgium, 1999

De invloed van bodemerosie in Burundi en westelijk Tanzania op de bentische biodiversiteit van het Tanganyikameer, Oost-Afrika

Lake Tanganyika is the second largest and most ancient freshwater lake in the world, after lake Baikal, with a maximal depth of 1470 m and a history spreading over at least 14 million years. Its socio-economic importance for the tens of millions of people living around it is enormous, in such respects as the supply of drinking water, fishing and transport over the water. Lake Tanganyika also harbours a unique ecosystem with about 1400 species, most of which are endemic, i.e. originating from the lake itself. For these reasons, lake Tanganyika represents an invaluable biological field laboratory where the relations between closely-related organisms can be studied in the very place of their birth.
However, owing to the increasing human activity, the whole of this ecosystem is now being threatened. Water pollution, and especially deforestation and soil-erosion, with the accompanying increased sedimentation, can seriously disrupt the Tanganyika ecosystem, with consequences for the local populations, which should not be underestimated.
The merit of the work of Hilde Eggermont is to have shown the use that can be made of blood-worms or non-biting midges (Chironomidae) as an objective method in the evaluation of the effects of an increased sedimentation of the Tanganyika ecosystem. Non-biting midges are indeed particularly suitable for this, being a very speciose group with a large distribution of the terrestrial adults and the aquatic larvae which live in close contact with sediments. Moreover, the head-capsules of the larvae remain well preserved in the sediment, so that the evolution of the fauna can be followed easily over the years.
The work of Hilde Eggermont was achieved in the frame of the Lake Tanganyika Biodiversity Project (LTBP) sponsored by the Environment Facility of the United Nations Development Programme. This study is particularly remarkable for its identification of the species belonging to this, after all, extremely complex mosquito family. So far, the effects of an increased sedimentation seem to be of little importance. Nevertheless, important changes in benthic fauna can already be noted, in that shallow-water communities seem to spread out at the expense of deep-water communities. A further shrinking of deep-water biotopes could have very harmful effects on the nutrients' cycle and on all organisms, including fishes and molluscs, which depend on organic muddy bottoms of deep waters.

report by Dr. Boudewijn Goddeeris, Department of education and nature, Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences, Brussels, Belgium