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WWF Tanzania takes the Biggest Hour for Earth to Mt Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru peak

This year, WWF Tanzania joined more than 190 countries around the world – to create the Biggest Hour for Earth in style by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro – the ‘Rooftop of Africa’ to blow its trumpet by calling upon its supporters across the globe to switch off their lights by giving an hour for Earth - this year’s theme. A team of five staff dupped ‘Panda Heroes” including Joan Itanisa, Novati Kessy, Mathew Langen, Japhary Kiwanga and Gladith Yoabu used the opportunity to rally the ‘power of the people’ to turn a single EH into millions of hours to safeguard the Planet. The team was flagged off by WWF Tanzania Country Director, Dr Amani Ngusaru at Marangu gate described this approach as unique, courageous and will go down in the history of WWF since it has never happened before. ‘It is a huge dedication and undertaking towards commemorating the Earth Hour and to safeguard our Mother Nature – the Planet’.

© Efatha Moleli
The team ready to tackle the Kilimanjaro

Mt Kilimanjaro ranked the top 10 world’s most ‘unforgettable’ natural landmark

Located in the SOKNOT Unganisha landscape – the ‘Rooftop of Africa’, taking Earth Hour to the highest point (19,240 ft) in Africa to witness the receding glacier on Mt Kilimanjaro by almost 90% due to global warming call for immediate action to halt the negative impact that is already impacting over 3.8 million people, livestock, and wildlife in the adjacent areas of the mountain. This was made possible by the generous financial support from the Federal Republic of German through BMZ and WWF Germany and logistical support from the Kilimanjaro Porters Society, Our Porter Friends, Ahsante Tours Co. Ltd.

The new research has revealed Mt Kilimanjaro as a stunning natural landmark that make the biggest impression on visitors; as the top world’s most ‘unforgettable’ place to visit. The peaks of Mt Kilimanjaro, Kibo and Mawenzi peaks, offer a diverse and enriching travel experience. Walking and trekking tour guides identified more than 150 popular natural landmarks worldwide and Mt Kilimanjaro was ranked number one as truly unforgettable. Out of the 20 natural landmarks, six were from Africa of which Tanzania had two landscapes including Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park while Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve ranked number 8. Apparently, all the three natural landmarks are found in the southern Kenya northern Tanzania (SOKNOT) transboundary landscape, where WWF is supporting conservation interventions.

The Mt Kilimanjaro, often referred to as the "Rooftop of Africa," by WWF’s SOKNOT program remains an unparalleled natural wonder that has captured the hearts and minds of countless explorers and eco-enthusiasts. Located in Africa’s Tanzania, it stands as a symbol of adventure, attracting both active explorers and nature enthusiasts. Between 30,000 and 50,000 people climbing the mountain annually reflects the inspiring power of this iconic landmark. Generating over US$ 50,000 annually, it is second to Serengeti National Park in terms of sources of revenue for 22 parks under Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) which generated US$ 132 million in FY22/23 with 1,670,437 tourists. Described as a snowy-covered summit that contrasts beautifully with the lush greenery and pretty wildflowers below; the hike to the summit is often described as climbing through the four seasons, with the forest floor becoming heath and moorland as you ascend, and then transforming into an alpine desertscape before you reach the peak arctic ice cap and snow landscape. Beyond its physical beauty, Mt Kilimanjaro holds a cultural significance deeply rooted in the local Chagga people’s traditions. It faces two main threats namely global warming due to climate change causing loss of snow and frequent fires that devastates biodiversity. Littering due to increasing number of tourists must also be checked.

Extreme fires threaten the different vegetation types on Mount Kilimanjaro

Despite known cooling trend with increasing altitude, the risk of deadly wildfires in Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA), measuring 1,712 km2, is increasing with the warming climate. Listed as a World Heritage Site (WHS) by UNESCO in 1987 because of many endangered species as well as a Natural Wonder for Africa in 2013, the intensity of fires threatens the global conservation significance of this site. Frequent fires in the park have been fueled by intense and persistent fire-conducive weather conditions favoring the spread of severe fires. Usually, the flames rapidly advance into dense vegetation types despite government authorities’ efforts to curb their spread. The vegetation destruction impact continues to worsen, with over 145 km2 burnt since 2022.

© AP Photo
Kilimanjaro on fire

Fires occur periodically at the end of the dry seasons, around February to March and September to October. In October 2020, a one-week fire destroyed 95 km2 of the mountain area. Between October and November, 2022, the fire on Mt Kilimanjaro erupted near Karang Camp (4,000 m) and destroyed an area of 33 square kilometers and lasted for two weeks.  In September 2023, fire erupted on mount Kilimanjaro at Indonet-Rongai in Rombo District and the area of 17km2 was damaged comprising 0.9% Mt Kilimanjaro. Depending on the extent of the fire, around 1,000 people from TANAPA, Tanzania Forest Service (TFS), national police force, firefighters, Tanzania People’s Defense Force (TPDF), college students, tour operators such as Altezza travel and local communities among other volunteers including two helicopters. Plants such as Tanzanian endemics Dendrosenecio kilimanjari (giant groundsel) and Lobelia deckenii, Bracken (Pteridium centrali-africanum), Gladiolus watsonioides (Mackinder's gladiolus), Myrica salicifolia shrub, Kniphofia thomsonii - the tallest of all kniphofia species, Erica, and other grasses, are most affected. Slow moving animals, such as reptiles and amphibians, including snakes, lizards, as well as rodents and miniature dik-dik antelopes are particularly affected by the fire.

According to Andreas Hemp, a research associate plant systematics, Bayreuth University, fire can transform the mountains land cover, but it also maintains it. The findings using pollen records buried in the soil for many years showed that fires always played a role in shaping the vegetation belts on the mountain. Some plant species, such as the giant groundsels (Dendrosenecio) became fire-adapted. Also, fires open the forests to allow many light demanding species, such as the giant lobelias to grow. Consequently, researchers need to collaborate to assess the extent human-induced climate change has altered the likelihood and intensity of the weather conditions at the time of the fires, and how the conditions will be affected with further warming. Secondly, capture the characteristics of this event, using a fire weather index that is used based on high wind speeds, high temperatures and low humidity. Controlling fire on Mt Kilimanjaro is very costly and requires specialized skills, uniforms, and equipment to create fire breaks in such a difficult terrain.

The risk of an increase in dangerous fire weather conditions attributable to human-induced climate change needs to be taken very seriously. A new El Niño event emerged in June 2023 and was experienced between October, 2023 and February 2024, northern Tanzania witnessed very high rainfall. This may explain why no fires were reported during the usually dry February – March period. While the persistent drought that has been witnessed in the SOKNOT landscape for three consecutive years may not be attributed to El Nino, it remains a threat to the conservation of vegetation and wildlife. During the drought season, for example, tree cover loss due to fires increased 3-fold on Mt Kilimanjaro while Amboseli ecosystem lost over 60 elephants in 2022.

© AP
Rangers putting off the fire on Mount Kilimanjaro

Fire risk is increasing notably due to current land management practices with no buffer zone to cushion the park and illegal harvesting of honey in the park using traditional methods of open fire and settlements near the park boundary. The existing investments by TANAPA in fire prevention and adaptation measures, coupled with low-risk perception among local residents in fire-prone areas, have shown limited effectiveness in adequately mitigating the fire risk. A good relationship between the park authorities and local communities is critical for timely and effective fire control. The deadly flames, demands the development of a fireproofing program showcasing the life-saving potential of preparedness, including measures such as community-led support, ground to air intervention, modern firefighting equipment, and robust emergency training. Other measures should encompass improved enforcement; enhanced coordination, resource allocation, and community engagement in fire prevention and adaptation; and awareness raising campaigns.

Climate Change Is Making Fires Worse and how do we reduce this?
Climate change is one of the major drivers of increasing fire activity. Extreme heat waves are already 5 times more likely today than they were hundreds years ago and are expected to become even more frequent as the planet continues to warm. Hotter temperatures dry out the landscape and help create the perfect environment for larger, more frequent forest fires. This in turn leads to higher emissions from forest fires, further exacerbating climate change and contributing to more fires as part of a “fire-climate feedback loop.”

The causes of increasing forest fires are complex and vary by geography based  according to how to manage wildfires document and mitigate fire risk. However, there is no silver bullet solution. Climate change clearly plays an important role in driving more frequent and intense fires. Mitigating the worst impacts of climate change is still possible, but it will require rapid and significant transformations across all systems. Equally, improving forest resilience by ending illegal encroachment and forest degradation is key to preventing future fires, as is limiting nearby burning that can easily escape into forests, particularly during periods of drought. Recent data on fire-driven tree cover loss on Global Forest Watch, along with other fire monitoring data, can help track fire activity in both the long term and in near-real-time to identify trends and develop targeted, responses for Mt Kilimanjaro.
Substantial population — 3.8 million people — adjacent to Mt Kilimanjaro in both Tanzania and Kenya are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, due to drying rivers and wetlands as a critical catchment and this figure is expected to rise with global temperatures.

Unfortunately, communities experiencing the most devastating impacts often lack the resources to protect themselves. According to the Paris Agreement, the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA), that aims to address this issue by increasing global support and ambition for climate change adaptation has never been effected but luckily, after an eight-year-long stalemate, this was finally defined and UAE Framework for Global Climate Resilience, new framework rolled out at the 2023 UN climate summit (COP28). Enhancing adaptation finance and support for developing countries is crucial. Always a key political issue — is who should pay for adaptation in developing countries, which are the least responsible for climate change but often bear its heaviest burden.

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Dr. Noah Sitati is the Tanzania Lead for Southern Tanzania and Northern Kenya (SOKNOT) Landscape