Mount Kenya devastated by Forest Fires

This video was posted on youtube on 15 March 2012 by Citizens TV

Fires have raged on Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain (5,199m), over the past two weeks.  Fuelled by tinder dry grasses at the end of the dry season, and fanned by powerful winds, fires spread fast.  They have now been contained (25 March 2012), although logs continue to smoulder. These are being monitored by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Over 800 hectares of forest and moorland were destroyed by the fire, some 10 per cent of the mountain area. It is believed that fire broke out in the bamboo zone, at around 2,500m. Preliminary investigations suggest arson. With little or no access by road, the logistics of extinguishing the fire were huge. The local forest service and KWS were ill-equipped to tackle a fire on such an enormous scale.

Numerous organisations – local, national and international – were harnessed to assist in the fire-fighting effort.  These ranged from the Mountain Club of Kenya, to the Kenyan and British Army and the Born Free Foundation.

Fires have also been burning in the Aberdare National Park where 500 hectares of forest have been destroyed.

Environmental Impact – an ecological disaster?

Mt Kenya National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, due to its unique Afro-Alpine flora. Being on the equator, Mount Kenya has a fascinating variety of plant life. Changes in altitude create distinctive plant zones and 13 species are endemic to the mountain. Montane forest begins around the 2,000m contour, dominated by cedar and podocarpus rising through bamboo forest at around 2,500m, extending into open woodland. Above 3,000m the vegetation changes to heather heathland, with abundant everlasting flowers (Helichrysum), merging into afro-alpine moorland, with giant groundsels 4m high, the rosette-shaped lobelias and grassy tussocks.

Already referred to as an ‘ecological disaster’ the full impact of the fire damage is yet to be assessed.

  • Water Catchments – Mount Kenya and the Aberdares are both vital water catchment areas.  Supplying around 80 per cent of Nairobi’s water, they also feed hydro-electric schemes and agriculture.
  • Wildlife – the larger mammals, elephant and buffalo were able to escape the fire.  Many smaller animals like duiker, the endemic Mount Kenya mouse shrew, rats and rock hyrax will have perished.  Invertebrates, such as the poisonous Mount Kenya bush viper and montane viper will have met the same fate.
  • Flora – great swathes of forest and moorland have been burned. The challenge will be regenerating trees.  And, due to the high altitude, moorland plants will take longer to recover.
  • Habitats and human conflict – wildlife in the national park is well protected, but many animals will have fled down the mountain into the forest reserve. This is near areas of settlement, where friction is often caused by problem animals – usually elephant, buffalo, bush pigs and baboons – due to their crop-raiding tendencies. Wildlife in these areas is also prone to illegal hunting. Buffalo, bushbuck and bush pig are the main targets of the bushmeat trade.
  • Tourism – Mount Kenya attracts over 15,000 people a year. Most are not technical climbers, and will trek to Point Lenana, the third highest peak, using a couple of well-trodden routes – Naro Moro, Sirimon and Chogoria.  (Serious mountaineers climb Nelion and Bation.)  The fire was particularly fierce above Chogoria.  Generally, the best months on Mount Kenya are January and February while August is fair.  Whether the charred landscape is a deterrent to avid travellers remains to be seen. Among Kenya tour operators who can advise on the situation are Uniglobe Let’s Go Travel and Mount Kenya Guides.
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