Tropical forests store 40–50 per cent of terrestrial vegetation carbon1. However, spatial variations in aboveground live tree biomass carbon (AGC) stocks remain poorly understood, in particular in tropical montane forests2. Owing to climatic and soil changes with increasing elevation3, AGC stocks are lower in tropical montane forests compared with lowland forests2. Here we assemble and analyse a dataset of structurally intact old-growth forests (AfriMont) spanning 44 montane sites in 12 African countries. We find that montane sites in the AfriMont plot network have a mean AGC stock of 149.4 megagrams of carbon per hectare (95% confidence interval 137.1–164.2), which is comparable to lowland forests in the African Tropical Rainforest Observation Network4 and about 70 per cent and 32 per cent higher than averages from plot networks in montane2,5,6 and lowland7 forests in the Neotropics, respectively. Notably, our results are two-thirds higher than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change default values for these forests in Africa8. We find that the low stem density and high abundance of large trees of African lowland forests4 is mirrored in the montane forests sampled. This carbon store is endangered: we estimate that 0.8 million hectares of old-growth African montane forest have been lost since 2000. We provide country-specific montane forest AGC stock estimates modelled from our plot network to help to guide forest conservation and reforestation interventions. Our findings highlight the need for conserving these biodiverse9,10 and carbon-rich ecosystems.