Magazine article Geographical

Africa's Ark: With the Highest Concentration of Endemic Species Anywhere in the World, Tanzania's Eastern Arc and Coastal Forests Represent Some of the World's Most Precious Habitats. Edward Parker and Christopher Cairns Reveal How the Tanzanian Authorities Hope to Ensure Their Long-Term Survival

Magazine article Geographical

Africa's Ark: With the Highest Concentration of Endemic Species Anywhere in the World, Tanzania's Eastern Arc and Coastal Forests Represent Some of the World's Most Precious Habitats. Edward Parker and Christopher Cairns Reveal How the Tanzanian Authorities Hope to Ensure Their Long-Term Survival

Article excerpt

Rainforests tend to look deceptively peaceful from a distance Under a blanket of low cloud they seem to slumber in steamy tranquility, with only the occasional flypast of a squadron of hornbills or the rustle of a light wind in the canopy to disturb the calm.

The forest that covers much of the Udzungwa Mountains in central Tanzania is no exception. Looming over the great sweep of the Kilombero Valley, these wooded hillsides lie like a sleeping giant, the rich dark green of their flanks split only by the white slash of the great Sanje waterfall as it crashes more than 170 metres to the valley floor.

There's nothing serene about the interior, however. Screeching birds, droning insects and the distant rumble of the falls are ever-present. But it's the activities of the local primates that really grabs the attention. Sounding for all the world like a pub brawl that has spilled over into a local park, the assorted colobus, vervet, Sykes, and mangabey monkeys, not to mention the yellow baboons, go about their daily business with noisy abandon.

Indeed, in the Udzungwas, the usual rules of nature watching go out the window--with so much shouting, quarrelling and crashing going on, there's little point in creeping among the trees in silence. And for two days every week, there is even more noise in the forest--that of local villagers chatting and laughing as they collect fallen branches for firewood and building material. They come only on a Friday or a Sunday, bare-footed mothers and children climbing high into the mountains and returning laden with improbably large bundles of sticks and logs.

What is remarkable about this scene is that although the forests of the Udzungwa Mountains belong to a national park--in which exploitation has theoretically been prohibited since it was founded in 1992--these activities have been sanctioned by the Tanzanian wildlife authority.

The Uzungwa Mountains National Park protects the largest remaining fragment of one of the world's most precious natural habitats--that of the Eastern Arc Mountains and associated coastal forests. This region has been identified by Conservation International as one of 25 'biodiversity hotspots', where high levels of endemism and human impact necessitate the most urgent conservation-management strategies.

Stretching from southeastern Kenya down Tanzania's coast and inland towards Lake Nyasa, these forests represent only 0.1 per cent of Africa's land area. Yet they are home to 13 per cent of the continent's plant species--some 4,000 in total, nearly 1,S00 of which are endemic. Of its 1,019 animal species, 121 are endemic, with nine primates among them. Indeed, with only 2,000 square kilometres of habitat remaining undisturbed, the Eastern Arc Mountains and coastal forests have the highest concentration of endemic species of all the biodiversity hotspots listed.

For millennia, local tribes have acquired firewood, thatch for roofs, bark for medicine and fruit for dinner from the forest. But in recent years, the population has exploded. A huge sugar-cane plantation, new power supply and numerous small businesses have attracted people to the region by the hundreds of thousands. Each family has a traditional wood-and-mud-brick home to build and a fire to feed with wood and charcoal on a daily basis. The subsequent pressure on the forest has become unsustainable, with slash-and-burn farming and widespread logging also taking their toll.

Recognising the urgency of the situation, Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA), with the help of WWF, has adopted a new strategy that has been flourishing in the conservation world in recent years. The carefully controlled access to the forest for the collection of dead wood is one aspect of a plan that is based around the idea that if the local population doesn't value the forest for its own sake, then its long-term survival can never be guaranteed.

TANAPA and WWF have also persuaded people living on the edge of the 1,900-square-kilometre Udzungwa National Park to go into the tree-planting business. …

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