I have had the privilege to visit many unusual places by attending research conferences, an activity I jokingly call ‘academic tourism’. Perhaps the Mt Kili-AfroMont mountain research conference could be considered an ‘academic tourism’ event in that, as well as the science meeting, it gave delegates an opportunity to see and share information about a rural African mountain landscape at first hand. The Mt Kili-AfroMont conference was held in a worth locality, Moshi (pop.185 000), a small town in Tanzania, within sight of massive Mt Kilimanjaro (5895 masl). Moshi itself is a bustling rural town, well-organised, but shabby as so many towns in Africa are. Yet, Moshi roars with life 24 hours a day, demonstrating that Africa can out-shop, out-trade, out-party and out-public transport everyone else, despite unruly traffic flows of battered vehicles, swarms of motorbikes, and potholes in the roads.
Conference speakers were from the German funded Mt Kili project and from Europe, Tanzania and Kenya, and from South Africa.
The themes of the Mt Kili-AfroMont conference
The main theme of the Mt Kili-AfroMont conference was ‘African mountain ecosystems under global change: Linking biodiversity, biotic interactions and biogeochemical ecosystem processes’.
The first keynote presentation was by Dr Andreas Hemp, Bayreuth University, Germany, speaking on Kilimanjaro ecosystems under global change. The second keynote speaker was Prof Peter Taylor, University of Venda, South Africa, who spoke on ‘Afromontane small mammals feel the heat: impact of climate change on extinction risk and conservation status based on models and historical data’. The third keynote presentation by Dr Franco Salerno working in the Himalayas. Dr Salerno explained a risk assessment method to decide how many ‘visitor days’ were sustainable on mountains such as Mt Everest. This is a form of calculation of the Tourism Carrying Capacity (TCC) for mountains and would also be relevant in Mt Kilimanjaro and other major ‘tourism’ mountains. The final keynote speaker was Dr Boniface P Kiteme, UNESCO Chair on Natural and Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Mountains Development, who spoke on the challenges of governing mountain landscapes in Africa.
Other sessions included two papers by Dr Makarius Lalika of Sokoine University of Agriculture (Tanzania) on watershed services and climate change in mountain areas with a focus on the Pangani River Basin. The Pangani River Basin is an example of successful endogenous governance of a natural resource, even though management of the basin is by no means an easy thing!
There was an interesting paper by Ms Sabine Remmele, University of Hohenheim, on the growth dynamics and ecology of Entandophragma excelsum, Africa’s tallest tree and which grows on very steep slopes on Mt Kilimanjaro. One of the problems with studying ‘tall trees’ is that they are so tall. Some kind of canopy platform would be needed to understand what ‘really goes on’ high up in the forest.
There were papers on the mammals and dung beetles of Mt Kilimanjaro forests, and other papers on mountain biota and management systems from mountains elsewhere.
There were also two interesting presentations by Kent Lawrence and Abri de Buys of SAEON (South African Environmental Observatory Network) on the nuts and bolts of setting up weather stations at high altitude. This is where the men are separated from the boys, with helicopters, 4×4 vehicles on dangerous mountain roads or hiking with backpacks needed to get the equipment to safe, high-altitude sites and then come every year to do maintenance work.
Prof Don Cowan from the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics, University of Pretoria, gave a paper titled ‘Microbial ecology of soil ecosystems: from hot to cold and dry to wet’ featuring his group’s work in both the dry deserts of Antarctica and the dry deserts of Namibia. Again, you have to be tough to do this type of work! Living in a tent in a dry desert on the Antarctic Peninsula. A daily maximum temperature of -50°C. Any volunteers?
Land degradation in Tanzania
What was noticeable on our travels between the Mt Kilimanjaro airport, Moshi and Laka Chala (our field trip) is that the landscape appears much degraded. Fields are being ploughed at this time, in readiness for the first rainy season of the year (there are two), but most of the landscape appears to be ‘tired’, merely sand and stones. This region was once savanna, but very few indigenous trees or the original herbaceous layers remain. Some of the last season’s crop were still in situ, drying, but noticeable in that the sunflowers were only 70 cm high and each flower about 10 cm in diameter – under trying agricultural conditions in this region at least some sunflowers were obtained to harvest, even if they were small. Most of the maize was similarly stunted, about a metre tall, each small plant with one cob, but again, at least there was a cob on each plant. Agricultural fertilizer inputs would make a difference, if they were available.
Chagga Home Gardens
One of the agricultural systems on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro is the Chagga Home Gardens, set up by the Chagga people about 100 years ago. The understory of the forest has been cleared to plant banana and coffee and vegetables, and what is a surprise is that soil is still intact, unlike the farming system on the savannah further away from the mountains. We visited an area of these gardens and it is impressive that a balance is obtained between the forests and the crops.
During one of the nights, it rained torrentially for about eight hours. After this rain and the impact of the flash floods that resulted, I began to notice how badly eroded the river banks were. There were very huge old trees on the river banks and which had no doubt been there for several hundred years – but were now only held in place by a few roots, most of the other roots being undercut by massive river bank erosion. This can’t be a good thing.
Discussions about extinctions
Interesting discussions were held in the minibus as we travelled around on the field trip to the Chagga Home Gardens (a system of agroforestry practised on the forested slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro) and Lake chala, a crater lake. Dr Claudia Hemp of the Mt Kili Project would point out areas where she used to find ‘seventeen new grasshopper species in an afternoon,’ but now she would not go back as ‘there would be nothing left’. A particular area that Dr Hemp pointed out, now bare earth infested with exotic agave, ‘used to be pristine savanna when we came to Tanzania 30 years ago’. It seems that in the last 30 – 40 years or so, massive landscape changes have occurred in Tanzania, driven by population pressure and the need for land.
As academics we don’t find it too hard to imagine what the next 30 – 40 years will bring unless there are expensive interventions.