The Ruwenzori mountains in southwestern Uganda are a high well watered massif rising above dry plains. Rwenzori Mountains National Park (0°06' - 0°46'N and 29°47'- 30°11'E), a World Heritage Site, is nearly 100,000 hectares (ha) in area, and covers most of the center and eastern half of the range. It includes Africa's third, fourth and fifth highest peaks in an alpine highland of glaciers, snowfields and lakes which make it one of Africa's most beautiful mountain parks. It protects five distinct vegetation zones, several endangered species and a very unusual cloud forest flora, which includes giant heathers, groundsels and lobelias, characterized as 'Africa's botanic big game'.
Threats to the Site
Rebels occupied the mountains from 1997 to July 2001 when the lack of security prevented any conservation. After its inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger, the World Heritage Committee called on the World Heritage Centre and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), to co-operate with the Ugandan body responsible for wildlife preservation. They were to consult with conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other international organizations present in the region to make all those involved in the conflict aware of the need to respect the site's world heritage values and to develop projects to support its management.
Date and History of Establishment
- 1941: All terrain above 2,200 meters (m_ (7,000 feet) was gazetted as a Forest Reserve, although there were calls for it to be gazetted as a national park; the Forest Reserve boundaries were marked;
- 1947: Forest Act confirmed the designation (amended in 1964);
- 1989: Gazetted as a National Park with Bwindi Impenetrable & Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks by Statutory Instrument No.3,1992, under the National Parks Act of 1952;
- 1991: National Park established.
Government owned through the Uganda National Parks, in the Districts of Kasese, Kabarole and Bundibogyo. Protected, but extraction may be sanctioned by the Board of Trustees.
Between 1,700 m and 5,119 m. Area below 2,000 m: 2,800 ha; from 2,000 m to 2,250 m: 11,000 ha; from 2,250 m to 2,500 m: 16,000 ha; above 2,500 m: 69,800 ha (70% of the total area).
The Ruwenzori mountains are an extremely steep and rugged mountain range approximately 50 km wide and 120 km long, running south-southwest to north-northeast just north of the equator. There are twenty five peaks above 4,500 m high. Their high point is Africa's third highest peak, Pic Margherita (5,109 m), one of the two peaks of Mount Ngaliema (Mount Stanley). The mountains are a horst of Precambrian basement metamorphosed granites thrust above the surrounding plains during the formation of the western (Albertine) rift valley. The range is tilted steeply to the west, with gentler eastern slopes in Uganda which includes about two thirds of the range. The peaks are the largest |glaciated area in Africa. Heavy glaciation has sculpted cirques and left many moraines, lakelets and bogs on the Stanley ice plateau. Above this rise the three highest peaks--Mounts Ngaliema, Speke and Baker (the third, fourth and fifth highest peaks in Africa)--which are permanently covered by snowfields and small retreating glaciers; the lower Mounts Emin, Gessi and Luigi di Savoia also retain more or less permanent snowfields.
Although not as high as Mount Kilimanjaro, and slightly lower than Mount Kenya, the Ruwenzori mountains have a larger alpine area than either. The rocks and leaching produce acidic soils of low fertility, except on parts of the northern ridge where volcanic ash from the Fort Portal plateau was deposited. The Rwenzori are a vital water catchment area. The upland bogs act as a huge sponge which absorbs and regulates the rainfall. They are the highest and most permanent source of the river Nile, feeding it via eleven rivers and Lake Rutanzige and Lake George in Uganda. They supply 500,000 Ugandans who depend on the mountain forests for their water and protection from flooding as well as for irrigation, hydro-electric power and inflow to the fisheries of lakes Rutanzige and George.
The mountains trap the humid air of the Congo basin and are very wet, with rain falling on most days even in the dryer months. Above 2,500 m clouds can persist for several days. Annual precipitation above the foothills averages 2,500 millimeters (mm), peaking twice, in March-May and August-December, influenced by the prevailing north-easterly winds and south-easterly monsoon; monthly rainfall can reach 375 mm. Conditions are related to altitude. Snowfall is greater than on Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro and ice rime forms in freezing mists on the mountains. At high elevations the diurnal temperature range is moderate, swinging daily from above to below freezing, alternating between 'winter' at night and 'summer' by day.
The Ruwenzori are an alpine island surrounded by dry plains. They are known for an unusual luxuriant acid soil adapted flora at higher altitudes which includes many species endemic to the western rift valley. This occurs because of the high precipitation, cloud cover and humidity combined with high levels of ultraviolet insolation and the low diurnal temperature variation. There is marked vegetation zoning with changes in altitude.
There are five zones: montane forest, bamboo forest, tree heath-bog, Hagenia-Rapanea scrub and afro-alpine moorland. Below 2,400 m, the vegetation is mixed broad-leaf forest of Symphonia globulifera, Prunus africana, Albizia and Podocarpus spp. with few large trees and a broken canopy except in valley-bottoms and flat ridge crests. Above this is the bamboo forest zone dominated by Arundinaria alpina, which often occurs in pure stands up to 3,000 m, along with an impenetrable belt of Mimulopsis elliotii. Beyond this to 3,800 m there is a carex peat-bog with cloud woodland. Poorer soils carry a dense vegetation of tree heathers, giant senecios Senecio erici-rosenii and S.adnivalis and the giant lobelias Lobelia bequaertii and L.wollastonii, floored with ferns, mosses and lycopodiums and festooned with bryophytes. The tree heathers include Phillippia trimera, P. kingaensis, P. phillippia and P. johnstonii, some up to 20 m high and most are draped with usnea lichen. Better soils at this elevation carry a low Hagenia abyssinica-Rapanea rhododendroides woodland, over a scrub of Hypericum lanceolatum and H keniense. Above this zone, Afro-alpine moorland extends to the snow line at 4,400 m dominated by Helichchrysum stuhlmanii, H.guilelmii, Alchemilla subnivalis and A.stuhlmanii.
Of the 278 woody plant taxa found in the afro-alpine zone, 81% are endemic to east Africa and 19% are found only in the afro-alpine belt. Most astonishing are the giant groundsels, ericas and lobelias of the ecologically fragile tree heath and alpine zones. As most botanizing has been on the high altitude flora, only 75 tree species (18% of the country's total) have so far been recorded in the montane forest zone and it is expected that many more will be found there. Two trees are endemic to the Rwenzori: Hypericum bequaertii and Schefflera polysciadia, and seven others occur only here and in the other montane forest zones of south-west Uganda. These are Erica kingaensis, Phillippia johnstonii, Vernonia sp.aff.adolfi-friderici, Ficalhoa laurifolia and Ocotea usambarensis (V).
Although its former forest cover has been fragmented, the region still has the richest montane fauna on the continent. Knowledge is greatest for higher altitude species. The mountains contain 70 species of mammals including 6 species of diurnal primate and 12 regionally endemic small mammals. Although none of these species is unique to the Rwenzori, many are endemic to the Albertine rift. Among the mammals there is a high level of sub-specific endemism, for instance the Rwenzori colobus monkey Colobus angolensis ruwenzorii and Ruwenzori leopard Panthera pardus ruwenzorii. Although in low numbers due to trapping, some globally threatened species are still found in the park: elephant Loxodonta africana (V), chimpanzee Pan troglodytes (EN) and l'Hoests monkey Cercopithecus l'hoesti (V). Threatened or now rare species also include blue monkey Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanii, yellow-backed duiker Cephalophus sylvicultor, sitatunga Tragelophus spekei, giant hog, hylochoerus meinertzhageni, bushpig potomochoerus porcus, the Rwenzori hyrax Dendrohyrax arboreus ruwenzorii and Ruwenzori otter-shrew Micropotamogale ruwenzorii (EN).
There are at least 177 species of forest birds (17.6% of the country's total) according to Wilson (1995) including 19 birds endemic to the Albertine rift. Notable species are the bamboo warbler Bradypterus alfredi and Shelley's crimson-wing Cryptospiza shelleyi (T) the endemic Ruwenzori turaco Musophage johnstoni, and two sunbirds, the regal Cynnyris regius and the larger scarlet-tufted malachite Nectorinia johnstonii dartmouthi. There are also 15 species of butterfly (22% of the country's total) and a 1948-49 study of invertebrate life forms listed 60 species in the alpine zone, 25 of which were new to science. This suggests that a more extensive fauna may still be awaiting discovery.
The Ruwenzori mountains are the homelands of the Bakonzo and Baamba peoples. The Bakonzo are a Bantu-speaking people who have lived in the foothills of the mountains for many generations, and whose culture is adapted to the steep slopes and climate of Rwenzori. Fear of a powerful spirit as well as inaccessibility has kept men away from the highlands.
Local Human Population
In 1910, the colonial boundary between the Congo and Uganda divided the Bakonzo, Baamba and the related Banande people to the west, an artificial division into which they have never fitted comfortably. The region is one of the most densely populated in Africa with 150-450 people per square kilometer (km2). The Rwenzori area itself is home to three hundred thousand Bakonzo people. In the 1960s, coffee, mountaineering and the Kalimbe mine brought prosperity and improved health services and infrastructure to the region. Traditional uses of forest resources were permitted under the former Forest Reserve designation, including the extraction of building materials, fibers, firewood and medicinal plants. These activities were mainly carried out sustainably, and new agreements have been made about the harvesting rights. No-one currently lives within the park, although the higher slopes in many places are cultivated up to its border, causing erosion and landslips and the demands of a growing population continue to increase. Illegal hunting of small game no longer continues, presumably because there is little left. Agriculture apart, the Park is now the main source of income for local communities.
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
The Ruwenzori mountains have been known for millennia as 'the Mountains of the Moon'. They are a spectacular if often wet and mist-hidden tourist attraction that have drawn visitors for much of this century. The high altitude flora was described as 'Africa's botanic Big Game' by the botanist Hedberg in 1963 and has great tourist potential. However, as there are no motorable tracks, the tourism is strenuous. The number of tourists was 150 in 1984 but between 1990 and 1995 there were over seven thousand visitors who spent an average of five to six nights on the mountain. With the support of USAID, the Bakonzo's Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS), began to provide logistic support to visitors, including guides, paths, signposts, bridges and mountain huts to direct some income from tourism to the local people to earn their support for the Park.
The Park was closed between July 1997 and late 2000 during the unrest, and security is still an issue. There is a small hostel at Ibanda, the Park headquarters, and some facilities at Fort Portal, but visitors are encouraged to stay in Kasese town. This is the railhead of the east-west railway line across the country, and RMS has graded the road to Ibanda where mountain treks begin. However, Uganda National Parks has taken over many of the responsibilities of RMS to prevent private NGOs and companies from monopolizing the tourism trade. Trails in the lower montane forest are to be created for visitors not wanting to climb.
Scientific Research and Facilities
The most extensive ground survey work of the mountains was conducted between August 1985 and September 1986, as part of a large scale Forest Department inventory, by Howard (1991). Salt (1987) made a study of the invertebrate species in the high altitude alpine zone. Yeoman also collected much baseline biodiversity data during the 1980s while preparing his book Africa's Mountains of the Moon: Journeys to the Snowy Sources of the Nile (1992). No permanent scientific facilities exist in the area. The steep inaccessible and inhospitable slopes have discouraged research as well as exploitation.
The Ruwenzori mountains, higher than the Alps and ice-capped though nearly on the Equator, are exceptional for their scientific importance and spectacular scenery. They are the most permanent sources of the Nile and one of the region's most vital water catchments for over 500,000 people. Because of their altitudinal range, and the nearly constant temperatures, humidity and high insolation, the mountains support the richest montane fauna in Africa. There is an outstanding range of species, many, especially at high altitude, endemic to the Albertine rift and bizarre in appearance. Also present are at least three globally threatened mammals, plus a potentially large number of undocumented invertebrates and plants, all threatened by a growing population and the breakdown of order following civil conflict. The park is a small but significant element of the transnational western (Albertine) rift system of protected areas, one of the most extensive conservation zones in Africa. Conserving the Rwenzori is a major opportunity to maintain intact a sensitive and extensive natural habitat.
Until 1991, the Rwenzori Forest Reserve was managed but not effectively protected by the local district forest offices. Owing to lack of departmental infrastructure and vehicular access points into the reserve, management consisted of sporadic foot patrols into the forest by small numbers of forest rangers only. The most recent management plan, for the period 1961-71, permitted limited extraction of forest resources, but it was never fully implemented, nor was the reserve demarcated. RMS took on some management such as developing visitor facilities and training guides. The mountains were designated a national park to preempt threats from an ever-increasing population. Participatory conservation has become a guiding policy and local communities are encouraged to join the management of the park, especially of the lower forests, to overcome their fears that their traditional use of forest resources would be curtailed.
The Rwenzori Mountains Conservation and Development Project, funded by USAID and implemented by WWF in the early 1990s started making improvements. Phase 1 was the preparation of a park management plan, to cover zoning, tourism development, infrastructure and community participation; also the reduction of local pressure on the park through promoting soil conservation and agroforestry, and raising the levels of conservation awareness. Kilembe Mines of Kasese are to take a management role after completing a hydroelectric facility on the Mubuku river: rural electrification may reduce the current pressing need for fuelwood.
Following the breakdown of law and order during the 1970s and 1980s, the montane forest zone was violated by intensive hunting for bushmeat and other resources. As a result the wild buffalo is now extinct in Uganda and many species formerly abundant are now rare. In 1991 local communities were wary of the park being gazetted for fear of losing their use of it. In addition, the only trail to the highest peaks was being used beyond its carrying capacity. The increase in visitor numbers to unsustainable levels of use in the 1990s brought trail erosion and widening, loss of vegetation and substrate, rubbish and unsanitary conditions. The Park is not yet zoned and for long was not patrolled. Moreover, the high cost of central administration may be beginning to preempt the use of funds for local projects. There is need for a plan and a consistent and enforced policy in the interests of the latter and to control the numbers and destructiveness of tourists. Lush, (1993) listed the bases for an action plan.
During the 1990's there was a suspension of projects, serious insecurity and a lack of facilities and monitoring over a greater part of the Park. There was concern that the income generated by tourism has not been enough to support local communities, whose only other source of income is agriculture. Moreover, the population density of the area surrounding the park, already very high (between 150 and 430 persons/km2), is increasing and the consequent denudation and erosion of the foothills outside the park boundary continues. The Park was closed to visitors in 2000 as civil unrest still made it unsafe for people and animals and the local people still saw it as a major source of resources while the Park staff had no means of dealing with either challenge. Illegal logging, poaching and trafficking in small animals especially by local armed groups remain common. But by 2001, security had improved enough for the Park to be reopened to visitors.
The park is managed by a Chief Park Warden assisted by four wardens. There is a ranger force of 32 men who patrol the forest and maintain the trails (undated information).
In 1991 USAID, working with the WWF and RMS, funded the Rwenzori Mountains Conservation & Development Project to improve the management of the natural resources. In 1997 WWF granted $772,976 and in 2001 the WHB approved US$64,000 emergency assistance for equipment.
IUCN Management Category
- II National Park
- Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1994. Natural Criteria iii, iv.
Placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1999 because of occupation and destruction by rebel militias
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