Mountains are stunning ecological wonders. And they are home to all forms of life, the small, the strong and the large. They influence what happens within and around them but most importantly what happens in regions afar.
Mountains cover almost a quarter (22 percent) of the Earth’s land area and are home to almost 1 billion people and a quarter of the world’s land animals and plants (FAO). They dominate their surroundings with their towering heights, protect valleys and their inhabitants, are a major source of water and food, and have a critical role to play toward a sustainable future of our planet.
But will they be able to continue meeting their mandate as temperatures rise?
One of these mountains is the Rwenzori.
Michael Otti, marveling at the rocky peaks on Mt. Stanley, the highest mountain in the Rwenzori
Formed about 3 million years ago in the late Pliocene epoc, the ‘mountains of the moon’ are a result of an uplifted block of crystalline rock and rise up the edge of the Albertine Rift, the western arm of the great East African Rift valley.
Towering astride the Equator, the Rwenzori Mountain ranges dot the border between Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Eastern Equatorial Africa, rising 5,109 meters above sea level and boasting of the largest permanent snow cover and glaciers, albeit dwindling, on the Africa continent.
The Hiking Crew: Left to Right; Philip, Rusho, Harrison, Phionah, Otti & Daniel: We always emerge with an unfair advantage!
For us to understand this enormous challenge ahead of us, we must go there to where things happen, especially to most critical places of ecological importance; to the rainforest, the wetlands, the mountains, the lake basins and river systems, but most importantly to the communities. Only when we go there do we really understanding the real ecological impacts of such places, the opportunities and challenges, and we generate insights from the communities, and pick the real motivation of acting with urgency.
And this why we went to the Rwenzori Mountains: Dec 27th 2016 – Jan 6th 2017. Our expedition to Margherita Peak and the central circuit took us to one of the most magical and mystical places we have been but most importantly helped us understand and experience the invaluable importance the mountains are to our own survival but also how they are headed for a dire condition due to a changing climate.
The powerful feeling of triumph that came with the conquer of Margherita Peak was meet with an equivalent resolve to give a contribution to conserve this pristine sanctuary but also to harness the inclusive power of people, communities and other stakeholders.
The mountains were gazetted in 1991 as Rwenzori Mountains National Park (RMNP) under Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), and now cover 995 square km covering a total of 99,600 ha on the eastern ranges in Uganda; the western side being under Parc des Virunga in Democratic Republic of Congo. RMNP runs 120km long and 65km wide and protects the upper parts of the ranges. UWA has done a commendable job as the chief custodian, keeping the park extremely pristine, tranquil and completely free of human settlements. They carry out routine monitoring of plant and animal diversity, monitor glacial recession, and maintain the tourist trails.
Rwenzori Mountains are home to some of the rare species on this planet, and host 70 species of mammals and 217 bird species, as well as reptiles and amphibians, 54 species of these are Albertine Rift endemics and that include 18 species of mammals, 21 species of birds, 9 species of reptiles and 6 species of amphibians.
Meet the Rwenzori three-horned chameleon. Insanely beautiful!
Most notable among the Albertine Rift endemics include the Rwenzori Duiker, the Rwenzori Turaco, the Rwenzori Three-horned Chameleon, and the Rwenzori Montana Squirrel.
Five species including the Rwenzori Duiker, the Montana Squirrel, the African Forest Elephant, the Chipanzee and the Rwenzori Frog are endangered. There are another 14 species that are threatened and 4 whose range is restricted.
The rising temperatures are clearly having a direct negative impact on the mountain fauna, their habitats getting threatened and some endemic species which are adapted to low temperatures are rapidly moving to higher altitudes. But will they find the right food and right breeding conditions or they are simply ‘climbing their way to extinction’?
One of these Albertine Rift endemics being threatened is the Rwenzori three-horned chameleon – another highlight for tourists – which is naturally adapted to 1000-2500 m als in the sub-montana and Montana forest zones, but has been looking for new sanctuaries in higher altitudes. On our recent hike to the Rwenzori, we could spot the chameleon at 3400 m along the Bujuku River near John Matte Camp.
Josephat, a senior guide in the Rwenzori who has been monitoring the ascent of the chameleon was equally surprised and devastated because it was his first time to spot the three-horned chameleon at such altitude. How high they will climb will depend on how quickly they will adapt to the new habitat, and if they don’t, they will surely vanish the face of the Rwenzoris.
This, albeit trivial, is an important indication that climate is indeed changing and things are not going to be the same.
You will find all sorts of vegetation types adapted to different altitude zones. The grassland savannahs from the low land rift valley zone peter-out into woodland savannahs as altitude rises between 1000-2000 m asl. Between 2000-3000 m, the mountain ranges are majorly occupied by Montana forest zone, but bamboo also appears here especially after 2500m. At 3000-4000 m asl, the mountain is covered by heather/rapanea zone which feeds into the Afro-alpine zone at 4000-5000 m asl.
The heather trees of Rwenzori with their characteristic hanging lichens
The heather zone gives you a feeling as though you are in a renaissance era, gothic cathedral with floors carpeted by colorful moss, the lichens locally known as Nyamireju (old man’s beared) looking like falling chandeliers from high ceilings, and the rustic higher tree trunks looking like grand organs. At some sections with boardwalks, it feels like a long isle to the alter. With the sound of the river playing like a classical piano in the background, it feels like a holy sanctuary!
Nothing is as scenic as the afro-alpine zone. It’s because of this zone that the misty mountain ranges have rightly been described as Africa’s “Botanical Big Game”. ‘Gardens’ of he gracious Giant Lobelia (lobelia wallastoni) and the humble Groundsels (senecio admiralis) which are only restricted to high altitude tropical zones are so at ‘home’ here, in vast numbers, endless acreage and growth vigor than anywhere in the world.
‘Carpets’ of colorful moss flanked by groundsels in the afro-alpine zone
However, because of the retreating snow cover and rising temperatures, the senecio trees, preceded by algae, are steadily colonizing the peaks, which originally were permanently covered by snow. It is surprising also to note that the heathers are coming up to the afro-alpine zone, young heather trees can now be spotted as high as 4500m asl which is not good ecological news for the mountains.
The heathers will surely drive the giant lobelias, tussocks and groundsels out of Rwenzori as they steadily eat up on the Afro-alpine zone, this will equally devastate the bogs and the age of Africa’s ‘botanical big game’ will sadly come to an end.
Freshwater in the Rwenzori
The role of mountains in freshwater ecosystems is unprecedented! Whereas mountains cover only 22 percent of the earth’s land area, they provide 60-80 percent of all our water, standing out as the single biggest water sources.
Rwenzori is no exception.
The Rwenzori Mountains are one of the single biggest water catchment areas on the African continent, directly supplying water to over 5 million people in the immediate communities, but also replenishing the numerous rivers that flow out of the mountains to supply distant communities with water for domestic, agricultural and industrial use, replenishing the several rift valley lakes and sending water into the Nile through the Semuliki River.
Explorer Christopher Ondaatje makes a case for Rwenzori as another important source of the Nile in his article: The unsettling sources of the Nile
“The Victoria Nile does flow into Lake Albert – but it does not flow directly into the White Nile, it mixes with the much more saline waters of Lake Albert. Most of the water in the lake, the Nile’s second great reservoir – as much as 85 per cent – comes NOT from the Victoria Nile (and ultimately from the Kagera River) but rather from another big river, the Semliki, which joins Lake Albert at its southernmost point.
The Semliki River flows from Lake Edward, through the western edge of the great Ituri Rain Forest in DR Congo, augmented by streams from the Northern slopes of the Ruwenzori Mountains – the ‘Mountains of the Moon’. Thus, the Ruwenzoris are just as important a source of Nile water as is Lake Victoria”
Glaciers and glacial recession
Michael Otti at the Stanley plateau, home of the biggest remnant glacier in Africa
The Rwenzori is still home to Africa’s largest remnant sheet of ice – the Stanley glacier on Stanley plateau that doubles as one of the most scenic, most gracious, and a real marvel by the Equator. But like its siblings across on Mt. Speke and Mt. Baker, it might soon be history as temperatures continue to rise.
Glaciers are an important source of freshwater that replenishes the numerous glacial lakes, the bogs, and the rivers that flow out of the mountains. They have a direct impact on the mountain ecology, the plants, the animals and the people.
These peaks, now mostly bare rock, were until recently, completely covered in snow and glaciers
Most of the 43 Rwenzori glaciers recorded and named in 1906 have either dwindled to unrecognizable levels or completely vanished. Most eminent of these is Elena glacier on Mt. Stanley; photographs of Richard Taylor showing the extent of Elena glacier recession between 2003 and 2005 and marked changes by UWA were not appealing. When the OSI team visited in January 2017, Elena glacier had indeed vanished.
Whereas UWA glacial monitoring show an increment between 2013 and 2014, recent similar monitoring show unpleasant results with the “snowline receding by 6 meters per month in 2016”, George Okwale of Rwenzori Mountains National Park told us.
The glaciers on Mt. Speke are almost gone and those on Mt. Baker (4843m asl) have already melted away. It is Mt. Stanley (5109m als) that still boasts of sizable glaciers; Stanley glacier, Margherita glacier, and Savoia glacier. But all these and others combined are very meager in size occupying less than 0.5 square km compared to about 4.5 square km coverage at the start of the 20th century.
A sheet of ice on Margherita glacier
Glaciers take a very long time to form, hundreds or thousands of years, but are very prone to temperature fluctuations due to climate shocks. So the recession is happening on similar snow-capped tropical mountains in Africa – Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya – the Andes of Latin America and elsewhere in the world.
Tom Knudson, an environmental Journalist, laments after his 2010 visit to the Rwenzori “In just two decades, scientists expect the Rwenzori glaciers — as well as Africa’s few other remaining ice fields — to be gone. Kilimanjaro has already lost 84 percent of its ice since 1912, and what’s left is not expected to last more than a couple of decades. The Lewis glacier on Mount Kenya is also expected to wink out soon” and the mountain has already lost two-thirds of its snow cover.
And because of the disappearing glaciers due to climate change, the whole mountain ecosystem is changing. Vegetation zones are changing, the three-horned chameleon, which used to live on lower elevation, is moving to higher altitude. And what will happen to glacial lakes whose major source of water are the ice sheets, which are supposed to be melting slowly because of the impact of their own weight rather than warmer surrounding air?
The local Bakonjo and Bamba – the native residents on the ‘mountains of the moon’ – are being threatened by the changes taking place. Not only does the disappearing glaciers threaten their employment opportunities especially those employed in the tourism sector since the number of tourists coming to see these glaciers will definitely shrink, the entire surrounding ecosystems will be greatly affected and this will affect their food production systems and their entire livelihoods.
These changes are fast happening and are devastating. They are not caused by what takes place in the mountains or a local phenomenon that can be halted; they are being caused by what has happened elsewhere around the world; by the endless greenhouse gases that we have pumped into the atmosphere.
Part of the lower Bigo bog; bogs are the biggest water reservoirs in the Rwenzori.
The bogs are massive wetlands of decomposing peat that occupy a substantial portion of the mountains, occupying mainly the valleys in the afro-alpine zone but can also be found in some parts of the heather zone. The mountain bogs also ‘stubbornly’ can be on rather steep elevations where you would not expect a wetland, and now with snow receding, they can rightly be described as the ‘new rulers’ of the Rwenzori.
The Rwenzori bogs are another ecological marvel and home to the tussocks, the gracious giant lobelia and the groundsels. They might look so calm, less intimidating and rather vulnerable compared to their counterparts – the towering peaks – but they are actually as tough and uncompromising but most importantly they are the biggest hope there is for the Rwenzori.
The beautiful giant lobelia in the afro-alpine zone
in the Most notable are the lower and upper Bigo Bogs and the Bujuku bogs of the Rwenzori central circuit that lie between 3500 m and 4000 m asl toward Bujuku glacial lake. The other biggest bog area is between Fresh Field Pass and Guy-Yeoman Camp at just about the same altitude. These and other massive bog extensions are the single biggest water reservoirs in the Rwenzori, storing somewhere between 60-80 percent of the all the water in the mountains. Josephat, a senior guide who has guided and supported several research missions in the Rwenzori supports this estimate, which is also backed by UWA.
These bogs collect and store rainwater and water from melting snow and not necessary from the glacial flow. The glacial water flows (or used to) through the glacial gullies and feed the water into the glacial lakes and not necessarily into the bogs. And so with the receding glaciers, the bogs still present a lot of hope for the Rwenzori as a water sanctuary. In fact, since the dwindling of the glacier flow, the bogs have now taken up the role of replenishing over 20 glacial lakes through the small streams that build up from the bogs and feed into the lakes.
The challenge is that as temperatures continue to rise, the well adapted afro-alpine plants that have for centuries thrived in the bogs are henceforth going to be threatened by the heathers, which we spotted above 4000 m asl towards Elena hut on Mt. Stanley way above their altitudinal limit.
Will the bogs be spared? Or will the new intruders interrupt them and if that becomes the case, what will happen to the mountain water ecosystem and the mountain biodiversity? And how about the vast communities, agro-ecosystems, factories, social amenities and towns that directly depend on the Rwenzori for all their water supplies?
Lakes, Rivers and waterfalls
Water in Rwenzori is naturally purified ready for consumption
Rwenzori Mountains are home to over 20 glacial lakes, which originally were exclusively replenished by glacial flow. Most of these lakes, extremely scenic, are another important water reservoir and serve as headwaters for several rivers. Among the most prominent of these is Bujuku Lake which is the source of the Bujuku River and flows down to feed into the Mubuku River near Nyabitaba at about 2,600 m asl.
There are numerous rivers running from Rwenzori, forming waterfalls at different intervals. Most famous among these are Mubuku and Nyamwamba, which on top of providing water to low land communities for domestic and agricultural use, are also instrumental in industrial water supply; hydropower generation, water supply to manufacturing plants like Hima Cement and urban water supply to towns like Kasese.
TThe waterfalls near Guy-Yoeman camp
The bogs that collect and store rainwater and water from melting snow with replenish these lakes and rivers with the understanding now that the glacial flow has drastically fallen.
Because the lowland communities have destroyed the ecosystems along the riverbanks, flooding of the Mubuku and Nyamwanba rivers has become a big challenge in Kaseses district. Riverbank conservation is a very urgent thing for the lowland agro-ecosystem but that must involve the proactive participation of the communities themselves.
Communities and ecosystem services
Mountains are the source of livelihoods almost entirely to mountain people and supply the surrounding communities and those afar with ecosystem services. This is true for the mountain people of the Rwenzuru – the Bakonjo and Bamba – who directly harvest supplies like food, water, medicine, building materials, and earn from services like tourisms from the mountains. The people in the neighboring regions of Tooro, Nkole and the entire albertine grabben enjoy the ecosystem services like the water flowing in rivers, and influence on the local climate like rainfall formation.
The low land Montana forests in the Rwenzori crucial in providing ecosystems services
1 out of 3 mountain people in developing countries is vulnerable to food insecurity and faces poverty and isolation (FAO). This is still the case with the mountain people of Rwenzori. Negative externalities like river flooding are making life unpleasant. The vulnerability is now exacerbated by the diminishing agro-ecosystems due to population pressure on soil and water resources and the changing climate is driving the communities to points of great anxiety and uncertainty.
Access to information and resilience knowledge, empowerment for sustainable enterprises, access to markets and micro credits, but above all making sure people and communities yearn and participate in the ecosystems conservation and restoration is crucial for supporting mountain people and surrounding communities and for creating a sustainable future.
Rwenzori is one of the greatest alpine destinations not just in Africa but also in the world. The unrivaled bizarre vegetation, the scenic ranges and gorges covered in mist, the lakes, rivers and waterfalls and of course the snow capped peaks and glaciers right at the equator are all endless marvels, but the mountains remain less explored.
Despite of the amazing endowments, the mountains remain one of the less visited alpine destinations in the world. When the OSI team visited recently, we could not believe how tranquil, undisturbed and wholesome the mountains could be.
Scenes like this from our Rwenzori expedition are unimaginable
Compared to its East African snow capped counterparts, Rwenzori receives the lowest number of visitors. Whereas you have over 20,000 people scaling Kilimanjaro every year, average number of visitors to the Rwenzori for the last few years is just about 2,700. Most of these include non-paying visitors like students who come for study and research purposes. This makes the paying visitors even fewer.
The fewer visitors are an opportunity as it is a challenge.
It’s an ecological and conservation opportunity and indeed Rwenzori remains one of the most pristine and undisturbed places giving the mountains a chance to do what they know best – supply of clean freshwater and other ecosystem services! This is also an opportunity for the few visitors who journey in the mystical ranges because they get to enjoy a magical experience in one of the most scenic and rather unbelievable places on the African continent.
The few visitors are a challenge because it means that the park is not self-sustaining in terms of revenue to support enough staff and pursue the many conservation tasks. The park makes just about USD 100,000 annually from entry fees and other revenue streams which is so meager and makes conservation efforts constrained because many conservation activities have wait for the stringent supported by the government and other conservation agencies like WWF which is not sustainable.
The crew at Margherita Peak, the highest point in Uganda and the third highest in Africa! Just about 10 Ugandans and a few hundred foreign tourists make it here every year.
But for conservation efforts to continue sustainably, the park must receive more visitors make more money and also empower the communities to tap into the visitors’ money through community eco-tourism. That way, the park will be well staffed, have better resources to invest in conservation mandates like building of boardwalks along the tourist trails in the bogs, and also have better benefits to share with the communities surrounding the protected areas.
Sustainable income generating initiatives
The people around the Rwenzori Mountains have always depended almost entry on agrarian enterprises comprised of smallholder family farms. But with increasing population pressure, and diminishing land productivity, the communities must look further.
The crew at the RMS community eco-camp in Nyakalenjijo. This serves as a base camp ahead of the ‘mystical challenge’
Community eco-tourism has been developing around the mountains, albeit wanting, a successful case in point is the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS), a community based membership organization that organizes hiking expeditions on the Rwenzori Central Circuit. Many community members are directly employed by RMS as administrators, guides, chefs, porters, and also provide services like camping facilities earning the community a substantial income. Communities also organize expeditions for tourist outside of the park that include community walks, cultural tours, and also sell locally made items as souvenirs.
Other sustainable income generating projects are being encouraged including organic farming; there are organic coffee farmers on the slopes who are already tapping into the high value organic market, beekeeping on the premise of its ecological importance as bees are important pollinators but also the economic viability of honey and other bee products.
Communities and conservation initiatives around the mountains continue to innovate to find more viable income generating initiatives on the undertaking that community economic empowerment is central to people-driven conservation and sustainable co-existence with nature.
Insights and interventions
There is no doubt that the Rwenzori Mountains are setting out on a new trajectory following the obvious changes that are happening majorly attributed to climate change. Whereas certain changes like the receding glaciers are out of human control – at least not the immediate local people – community based conservation and natural resource management makes a better promise as the best approach for the next sustainable conservation agenda and restoration of natural and agro-ecosystems in the ‘mountains of the moon’.
Following our recent expedition, here are the key insights and proposed interventions;
- The mountains are largely and generally in great ecological condition thanks largely to UWA commendable job but also conservation efforts by conservation agencies notably WWF. But changes, albeit still largely subtle, are clearly taking place. What it is is UWA’s and other conservation agencies next step is very important now than ever been before.
- The Rwenzori glaciers have greatly receded but are surprisingly still there despite the changes that have taken place and those that continue to happen. They might sadly be no more in a few decades unless something beyond human control just happens and reverses the current trend.
- The most urgent thing to do is to race to document the remnant glaciers and study them to the best of science before they pass away. The Rwenzori glaciers are some of the least studied and we have already lost a lot of geological data, but so much can still be achieved if the remnants could be well studied.
- The mountains will continue to be an important source of water thanks to the massive bogs that are able to store rain water and water from melting snow and release it proportionately into the streams and rivers.
- The bogs however must be conserved especially those along the tourist trails; building boardwalks to avoid trampling of bog plants and creating multiple trails is very urgent on sections where boardwalks have not been built.
- It is clear that the vegetation zones are changing due to rising temperatures; the afro-alpine vegetation is colonizing the previously snowcapped peaks, the afro-alpine zone is receiving alien species most notably the heathers which are getting threatened from their own home, and clearly every zone is getting affected. Could this result into self-destruction and mass extinction of this alpine vegetation? And what impact will these changes have on the bogs? And how the fauna that has for centuries been adapted to particular vegetation zones? One wonders.
- There is urgent need to commission very scientific studies immediately to monitor and understand the ecological impact these vegetation zone changes are having on the entire mountain ecosystem.
- The visitors are very few compared to the destination’s potential. Whereas its important to keep the mountains tranquil and less visited, the park needs to make some extra money to make the next challenge of conservation efforts possible.
- Deliberate efforts to market the Rwenzori to get more tourists are needed to increase the park’s revenue and build a sustainable resource base for conservation efforts
- The local communities around conservation areas are the immediate stewards of the natural resources as well as the immediate beneficiaries of the ecosystem services. Ordinarily the communities and protected areas are antagonistic because of the limited understanding of by the people of the critical importance of protected areas to their own livelihoods. Communities should be at the center of the conservation efforts.
- Awareness, knowledge dissemination, and empowerment for communities to leverage the opportunities surrounding the mountains to start sustainable income generating projects like eco-tourism is very timely and crucial for sustainable and inclusive conservation efforts.
- The business community should be equally engaged and charged to get involved in sustainable financing initiatives for conservation efforts since they are some of the biggest beneficiaries especially the use of water from the mountains for the manufacturing sector.