The Ethiopian Highlands

The Ethiopian Highlands, also known informally as The Roof of Africa (Ethiopian Highlands 2020), is a fantastic display of ecological and geographical study. The Highlands comprise nearly 45% of the total land area and supports over 85% of the country’s 64 million people (Dejene 2003). It is Africa’s largest continuous plateau (Keet 2013). From the formation of the Highlands, to the flora and fauna it sustains, the highlands create a rich diversity of cultures dependent on this ecological platform. And finally, the lake systems the Highlands created millions of years ago remain legendary today. 

75 million years ago the Earth’s crust began separating into 3 plates causing underwater volcanoes to erupt (Vivero 2010). The result of lava pushing through the Earth’s mantle forged trap lavas that, over time, created a  magma-rich dome. This dome then split into 3 parts creating the southern Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden, and separated Africa from Arabia. The major land rift created is what we now term The Great Rift Valley or the East African Rift.

Flora and Fauna

The Ethiopian Highlands flora and fauna resemble many other mountainous  regions in Africa. This phenomenon, called Afromontane, accounts for the subregions of the Afrotropical realm (Ethiopian Highlands 2020). This realm is one of the Earth’s 8 biogeographic realms covering the plant and animal species found in the mountains of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula.

At lower elevations, tropical savannas and grasslands surround the highlands (Ethiopian Highlands 2020). However, the highlands are further divided into 3 ecoregions distinguished by elevation; the Ethiopian montane (ecosystem found on the slopes of mountains) forests, grasslands, and woodlands. The Ethiopian montane grasslands and woodlands are the largest of the highland ecoregions.

The hillsides of the Ethiopian Highlands have good, fertile soil and, as a result, offer great farming opportunities. However, because of sizable areas being overpopulated, many wildlife species that call the highlands home face endangerment. Restricted only to the northern side of the valley, the walia ibex and gelada baboon feel the overpopulation. More widespread mammals found in the Ethiopian Highlands include the Egyptian wolf, lions, spotted hyenas and leopards.

Rift Valley Lakes

Some of the world’s oldest, deepest, and largest lakes are in the East African Rift of the Ethiopian Highlands. The most popular of these lakes are the African Great Lakes, a series of freshwater lakes including Lake Victoria – the second-largest freshwater lake in the world by area. Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second largest freshwater lake by volume and depth, and Lake Malawi, the world’s eighth largest freshwater lake by area, are also part of the Great Lakes. Collectively, the African Great Lakes make up about 25% of Earth’s unfrozen surface fresh water and 10% of the world’s fish species. 


Because of the high mountains and deep gorges, culture groups remain isolated from the influences of the rest of the world. The Amharas have been the most influential among the Highlands’ many ethnic groups. They are one of the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, along with the Oromo. The Amharas have inhabited the Ethiopian Highlands for over two thousand years (Amhara People 2020). 

Fishing – primarily of tilapia species but also of Nile perch – provides the main livelihood. The climate and rich volcanic soils in the highlands sustain intensely cultivated croplands. Ethiopia has the largest national herd of domestic livestock, and cattle in particular, in Africa. This may be a result from the exploitation of trees for construction. People of the highlands use the dung from animals for fuel.

The region’s primary exports are mainly agricultural products. These include horticulture, tea, coffee, cotton, tobacco, and fish. 

There is so much to the Ethiopian Highlands; its formation, flora and fauna, lakes, and cultures. There is so much more, not included in this article, like the highlands history being the “cradle of civilization” (Keet 2013). Many kingdoms called the highlands their home and its ties to Christianity and the rumored location of the Ark of the Covenant make this area full of history and intrigue.

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