Located in northeastern Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro, an inactive stratovolcano, stands tall and proud as the highest mountain of the African continent, and the tallest free standing mountain in the world. Among its three volcanic cones, the Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira, the Kibo is the middle and highest cone, rising to an altitude of 5,895 meters above sea level. The mountain lies about 160 kilometers east of the East African Rift System, 340 kilometers south of the Equator, and approximately 280 kilometers from the Indian Ocean. In 1973, the Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park was established in order to protect the Mt. Kilimanjaro ecosystems and, in 1987, UNESCO gave recognition to this national park as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tanzanian national park it lies within covers an area of approximately 75,353 hectares, and houses many endangered species within its grassland, moorlands, forests, and rugged mountainous environs.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is situated close to a fault line between two tectonic plates. Violent volcanic eruptions from the three volcanic cones of Kilimanjaro, which occurred about 750,000 years ago, led to the formation of the mountain as we see it today. The Kibo was the last cone to shut down its activity, and it is estimated that the last volcanic eruptions from this cone happened sometime between around 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. Human habitations in the Mt. Kilimanjaro region probably existed thousands of years back. Numerous tales, fables, and historical reports have hinted to indicate the presence of this mountain, sometimes referred to as the ‘Mountain of the Moon’, since ancient times. However, true scientific facts regarding this mountain only reached the world with the arrival of the European explorers and scientists in the region many years later in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In 1889, the German geographer Hans Meyer was the first recorded climber to successfully reach the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Since then, mountaineers and adventurists from all across the world have ventured into Africa with the dream of reaching the summit of the tallest mountain to be found on the African continent.
The Mt. Kilimanjaro ecosystems serve as a source of bountiful natural resources. A confluence of good soils and suitable climatic conditions has favored spectacular agricultural development in the region. About 18 villages are located in the Forest Reserve outside the boundaries of the Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park, with these being inhabited by the native Chaga, Mbugu, and Kahe peoples of East Africa. The Kilimanjaro region is also one of Tanzania’s leading producers of coffee, wheat, barley, and sugar alike. Besides agriculture, Mt. Kilimanjaro has become a global tourist hot-spot. The mountain's slopes are not only frequented by mountaineering experts either. In actuality, given the fact that the mountain can be climbed without the aid of mountaineering equipment, it also draws thousands of amateur non-climbers to embrace and conquer its heights. The presence of tourists all year-round has led to the growth of a thriving tourism industry in the Mt. Kilimanjaro region, largely benefiting the indigenous peoples living there and the economy of the region as aq whole. The various habitats of the mountain also nurture diverse plant and animal life within them.
The vegetation patterns found on Mt. Kilimanjaro vary considerably from its base to its summit. Semi-arid scrubland exists at the base of the massif. Further up, the lower, southern slopes of the mountain are well-watered and opulent in fertile volcanic soil, allowing for the successful practicing of crop cultivation and animal grazing in this region. Further up, dense montane forests cover the land, showcasing the unique flora and fauna the region is iconic for. Around 140 species of mammals have been reported in these forests. African elephants, Cape buffaloes, Elands, Black and White Colobus monkeys, Duikers, and Bushbuck are but some of the many notable species of these forests. The avian life of this region is also unique, and such rare bird species as the Abbot’s starling, the Hill chat, and the Hunter's cisticola can be spotted here. Around 179 species of birds have been reported in the Mt. Kilimanjaro habitat, with most of them being concentrated in the lower reaches of the mountain. As one moves up the mountain, the dense forests are gradually replaced by the sub-alpine moorlands and alpine bogs, consisting of a sparse number of trees, low-lying shrubs, and grasses. Wildlife in this higher region is also more limited, both in variety and in population numbers. Above the moorlands, the mountain vegetation is limited to the alpine desert type of vegetation, itself characterized by the mosses and lichens covering the rocky surfaces of the mountain. Gradually, even these give way to Kilimanjaro's lifeless, ice-packed summit.
Threats and Disputes
The Mt. Kilimanjaro ecosystem is currently in agony due to the damages indiscriminately inflicted upon it by human activities in the region. Several factors, such as land degradation, habitat fragmentation, pollution, forest fires, and deforestation, are proving to be detrimental, if not catastrophic, for Mt. Kilimanjaro and its surrounding habitats. Forests on the mountain below 2,500 meters in height are being completely dilapidated by the logging and charcoal industries. Cases of illegal logging, like the logging of camphor trees in the Ocotea forests, are also largely left to go without being reined in. Besides logging, improper and unscientific agricultural practices on the mountain slopes are serving as catalysts for rapid rates of soil erosion and deforestation. Agro-chemicals, like the fertilizers and pesticides increasingly being used in the locals' crop fields, are polluting the water and soil of the mountain and its adjacent habitats. Large tracts of native forests on the mountain have been completely uprooted by forest plantations for growth of commercially important, often introduced, species of trees. Large scale grazing on the lower slopes of the mountain is also leading to a significant loss of the natural vegetative cover. Corruption and poverty in the region add fuel to the fire, deteriorating the environmental situation in and around Mount Kilimanjaro as many take what they need, whether out of need or greed.