Kilimanjaro National Park: A Blanket of Perpetual Snow in Equatorial Africa

If there is a national park in Africa that can be considered the paradigm of the irresistible attraction that these places exert on the western world, it is undoubtedly Kilimanjaro, and if there is an image that represents the perfect synthesis of the natural landscape that those who want to visit the black continent dream of, that image, without a doubt, is an immense plain full of animals in freedom, on which, in the background, the immense snow-capped mass of Kilimanjaro stands out.

The Kilimanjaro

No wonder; Kilimanjaro, at 5896 m high, is the highest point in Africa, and even geographers can confirm that it is the highest isolated massif in the world. But what has always attracted attention is the existence, so close to the equator, of a blanket of perpetual snow. The first known references to Kilimanjaro are as old as they are vague; the Roman Diogenes locates Kilimanjaro, Mount Elgon, and Mount Kenya fairly accurately, data that will be included in the map by the great geographer Claudius Ptolemy, around the year 150 of the Christian era. The first white man who sighted the snowy peaks and gave reliable news of it was a missionary named Johannes Rebmann, on May 11, 1848, but the publication of his finding provoked harsh criticism because "it was impossible that there was snow on the Equator", so his vision must be the reflection of quartz or some white rock if it was not really a simple optical illusion. Once the veracity of his words was proven, it did not take long for climbing attempts to begin; Baron von der Decken reached 4300 m before descending without having stepped on the snow; shortly afterward Charles New reached the pass between the Mawenzi and Kibo peaks at 4420 m and finally, in 1889, Mayer and Putscheler crowned the summit. Today, with well-organized access and the help of guides and porters, the climb presents no problems except for those suffering from altitude sickness, so that about 70,000 people climb it each year.

Kilimanjaro: A volcano from the bowels of the Earth.

Kilimanjaro and the surrounding forests were declared a game reserve by the German colonial government in the early 20th century; the British made it a forest reserve in 1921 and finally a small part of the whole, the one above 2700 m, attained national park status in 1973. Naturally, Kilimanjaro's history is not as recent as its declaration as a national park, but neither can we speak of a very ancient origin when talking about its geological birth. About 1 million years ago, a series of cracks opened up in the smooth, undulating East African plain, through which magma from the earth's interior came to the surface. The plain thus lost much of its support and consequently sank into a great depression. 750,000 years ago, a new lava flow gave way to the birth of a great volcanic edifice, Kilimanjaro, formed by three main cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. For a long time, the cones grew slowly but steadily until they reached a height of about 5000m. Half a million years ago, Shira collapsed and sank into a large caldera that became inactive and covered by lava from the other two volcanic cones.

The Mawenzi was the next to die, following a large explosion that shattered its eastern rim and created a steep gorge. The Kibo remained active much longer, until 100,000 years ago, when it covered with its magmatic emissions the already very eroded Shira caldera, forming the current Kibo gorge, surrounded the Mawenzi and spread over a great distance across the plain. Since then, and despite small processes of activity, the dominant factor became erosion, responsible for reducing its height to the current heights and giving it the shape we know today.

Kilimanjaro is an isolated volcanic massif that occupies 388,500 hectares and rises from a plateau located at an altitude of about 1000 m to an elevation of 5895 m. Given its height, its image can be seen on clear days from half a thousand kilometers away. From a bird's eye view, the great volcano forms an oval 60 km long by 40 km wide, with a blanket of perpetual snow on its summit. In its central part is the Kibo crater, with the peak as the highest point of the African continent.

Descending about 1000 m towards the east you reach the Kibo ravine from which begins the ascent to Mawenzi, actually formed by a residual piton of 5149 m, which once plugged the internal chimney of the now disappeared crater. If one descends from Kibo in the opposite direction, that is, to the west, the volcanic triad is completed with the cone of Shira, now reduced to 3962 m, but standing proudly on a spectacular plain known as Shira Plateau.

The Shira Plateau

It is not easy to determine the origin of the name Kilimanjaro and although all experts agree that it comes from the term "kilina" and this from "mlima", which means mountain, the reason for the prefix "ki", a diminutive, is not so clear. The term "njaro" complicates the situation even more, since it has as possible meanings: caravan, cold, or spring, depending on the languages spoken in the vicinity.

High altitude zonation of plant ecosystems.

Kilimanjaro represents a perfect example of what botanical texts describe as high-altitude formation. Thus, the plains at the base of the massif are today used for cultivation, so the presence of large mammals is not to be expected. It is possible, however, to find the thick-tailed gallinule wandering on the roofs of the houses, or to contemplate the arboreal hyrax climbing the branches of a tree or resting on a rock. This is, however, the most appropriate way to study the avifauna, especially in the boundary between crops and forests, since the phenomenon that ecologists call "edge effect" occurs, according to which to the species of each environment, we must add those that need the contact between the two. In addition to the abundant common bulbul, there is a multitude of small iridescent nectarinids with curved beaks, reminiscent of hummingbirds. Beyond the cultivated area, one enters the humid forest belt, which extends from 1800 to 2800 m. Probably because of its isolation from other mountainous areas, the Kilimanjaro rainforest is somewhat poor in species and even lacks the bamboo that dominates at this altitude in the rest of the African mountains. But, in any case, it can be noted that Macaranga kilimanscharica, endemic to the site, is the most abundant tree and that there is a difference between the various slopes; thus, on the drier slopes, those to the north and west, two different olive trees are common: Olea africana, 10 m high, and Olea kilimanscharica, new endemism that triples the size of its congeners.  Very striking on the southern, a more humid slope, are the tree ferns of the genus Cycathea, as well as the specimens of Nuxia congesta covered with multiple lianas. 

The density of the forest makes it difficult to see the fauna, but it is common to hear the various colobus and even the leopard at these heights. The tremendous pressure has resulted in a remarkable increase in numbers of some of its traditional prey, such as the river wild boar, or Abbot's, or Grimm's duikers. Small suni antelopes can sometimes be seen in this area, eating the Nuxia leaves that the colobus drop to the ground while feeding in the canopy, but the antelope that can most easily be found in the rainforest is the hieroglyphic antelope, larger than the duikers, more active during the day and less shy by nature. As for the birds that populate the forest, despite their abundance, they are hardly seen except for those of large size, such as the silver-cheeked calao, or the Hartlaub's turaco. In the upper fringe of the forest emerges the moorland, with an initial barrier of bushes in which we can recognize a very familiar species of the Mediterranean, the heather, which reaches over 10 m in height. Crossing this area, suddenly appear the famous senecio plants and giant lobelias, so characteristic for their tall and thick water-storing stems. Since temperatures at these altitudes often drop to several degrees below zero, most of the leaves are tightly packed on the stem to protect it from the cold. Senecio kilimanjari is an endemic that resembles a small 5 m tree crowned with yellow flowers, while the crown of Senecio cotonni has a beautiful mustard color. When a Senecio leaf dies, instead of falling, it remains pressed against the trunk in order to help its thermal insulation. Lobelia deckenii, on the other hand, employs a different strategy by secreting a fine watery secretion in its rosette of basal leaves that freezes at night to prevent the liquid inside from freezing. 

The Black Panther Can Be Found on Kilimanjaro National Park

A Giant Lobelia (Lobelia deckenii)
Senecio kilimanjari, an endemic species of the Kilimanjaro

The moorland is not a good area for observing mammals, perhaps because the terrain is very clear and the animals do not find sufficient protection, although groups of wild dogs can be seen wandering in search of prey. It is instead a good place to study large birds such as the crowned eagle, or the bearded vulture. From 4000 m onwards, we enter the high altitude desert, where lichens and a few species of plants very specialized in the fight against the cold and against the solifluxion of the soil, that is, against the movement caused by the daily freezing and thawing of the ground, barely survive. On the summits, finally, the presence of some floristic specimens is exceptional.

Helychrysum newii, a species of floristic plant that can grow at extremely high altitudes

The record is held by the species Helychrysum newii, at 5670 m of altitude, although among the fauna the absolute record is held by 5 wild dogs that, in 1962, reached the summit following the steps of a surprised and frightened climber. Perhaps even more surprising is the case of a leopard skeleton found near Kibo, which Ernest Hemingway immortalized in his famous book "The Snows of Kilimanjaro".