Climate change and its impact on the forests of Kilimanjaro




Cloud forests are of great importance in the hydrological functioning of watersheds in subhumid East Africa. However, the montane forests of Mt. Kilimanjaro are heavily threatened by global change impacts. Based on an evaluation of over 1500 vegetation plots and interpretation of satellite imagery from 1976 and 2000, land-cover changes on Kilimanjaro were evaluated and their impact on the water balance estimated. While the vanishing glaciers of Kilimanjaro attract broad interest, the associated increase of frequency and intensity of fires on the slopes of Kilimanjaro is less conspicuous but ecologically far more significant. These climate change-induced fires have lead to changes in species composition and structure of the forests and to a downward shift of the upper forest line by several hundred metres. During the last 70 years, Kilimanjaro has lost nearly one-third of its forest cover, in the upper areas caused by fire, on the lower forest border mainly caused by clearing. The loss of 150 km2 of cloud forest – the most effective source in the upper montane and subalpine fog interception zone – caused by fire during the last three decades means a considerable reduction in water yield. In contrast to common belief, global warming does not necessarily cause upward migration of plants and animals. On Kilimanjaro the opposite trend is under way, with consequences more harmful than those due to the loss of the showy ice cap of Africa’s highest mountain.