Vulnerability assessment is increasingly recognised as a starting point to identify climate adaptation needs and improve adaptive capacity. However, vulnerability assessments are challenging because of the complexity of multifaceted biophysical, human and institutional factors, interacting at different scales and levels within socioecological systems. Using a participatory approach across levels and genders, this paper explores the vulnerability of livestock- and forest-based livelihoods to climate variability and change in Lake Faguibine, northern Mali, where drastic ecological, political and social changes have occurred. Our results show that the distribution of vulnerabilities within livelihoods and groups shifted when the ecosystem evolved from a lake to a forest. New vulnerability drivers have emerged, related to resources availability, access and power relations. In addition, political interests and psychological barriers hinder the local transition to an equitable and sustainable use of forest ecosystem services. Divergent perceptions, social identities, interests and power explained why different actors—governmental and non-governmental, men and women, local, sub-national and national—differed in their vulnerability assessments. This is exempli ed in the way actors at different levels and of different gender analysed the effects of herders' mobility and in the way women analysed men's migration. This case study con rms the need for participatory and gender-sensitive vulnerability assessments across different scales and levels that consider the interaction between socio-ecological systems and the dynamics and distribution of vulnerability across different social sub-systems.