Taita - Ecology (Taita Hills)
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The Taita Hills - an Endangered Ecosystem
Projects around the Taita Hills - websites
Despite their proximity to the volcanic mass of Kilimanjaro - Africa's highest mountain - the steep crystalline ridges and peaks of the Taita Hills are a much older and geologically separate formation, forming the northernmost outcrop of what are known as the Eastern Arc Mountains. This chain, consisting of a series of isolated mountains (or inselbergs) runs from the Taita Hills to the Makambako Gap in Tanzania, southwest of the Uzungwa Mountains. The weather pattern in the Taita Hills is also distinct from that experienced around Mount Kilimanjaro (which creates its own weather systems), being more influenced by the coastal climate. In addition to lower temperatures, the hills form the first barrier to clouds from the Indian Ocean, providing frequent morning fogs and high amounts of rainfall, averaging 1332-1910mm per year.
The favourable climatic regime led to forest covering much of the hills, which in combination with the ecological isolation of the Taita Hills from other forests, permitted the development of various endemic species of wildlife, most famously birds, of which both the unique Taita Olive Thrush and Taita White-eye are endangered. African violets, too, are said to have had their origins in these hills, and were brought to Europe by the early missionaries; there are some twenty species in all.
A 1984 study by the East African Wild Life Society and the National Museums of Kenya established the existence of thirteen taxa of plants and nine of animals which were endemic to these forests, in addition to twenty-two species of plants and three of animals which represented the rare Eastern Arc type of flora and fauna. Thirty-seven more species of plants in the Taita Hills are rare in Kenya and in the world at large.
Unfortunately, in the Taita Hills at least if not across the whole Eastern Arc Mountains, this richness of fauna and flora seems unlikely to survive much longer. The unending pressure for arable land means that most of the forests have long since been cleared away to make way for farmland; the only remaining areas of indigenous forest now are small remnants of woodland on the hilltops and ridges of Mbololo, Ngangau, Chawia, Sagalla and Vuria, which at 2,228 metres is the region's highest hill. These few surviving patches have so far been preserved because they are small, awkward to reach, and cannot be irrigated, but as the human population around them continues to grow, the pressure to clear these last enclaves will increase hand-in-hand with the need for more agricultural land, firewood, timber and other forest-related products. The destruction is further being hastened by tree poaching, and fires started by neighbouring farmers to clear their land in the dry season which frequently spread into the forests with devastating results.
All of which would merely be 'too bad', if it wasn't for the fact that forests are (or were) important catchment areas for a number of river systems including the Voi, Mwatate, Bura, Paranga and Mwalui rivers. The forests are also the sources of major springs, but the disappearance of the forests means that rain runs off the hills more quickly, taking topsoil loosened through erosion with it, which in turn has resulted in the perverse fact that 65% of the population do not have access to safe water despite living in an area of high rainfall.
The solution, if there is one, would be to attempt to reduce the traditionally large Taita family size in tandem with local education about the value of the forests, from their role in the water supply to the economic gains to be made through preservation (tourism, for example). The following are some of the projects currently working towards this end.
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Eastern Arc Mountains Information Source
An excellent point of reference for ecological projects right across the East Arc Range. In Kenya, they recently completed a forest health project in the Taita Hills, and an African violet habitat project (most African violets are endemic to the Eastern Arc). They're now concentrating on efforts to help villagers protect biodiversity and water catchments.
Conservation International has listed the Eastern Arc Mountains as one of 24 globally important bio-diversity "hot spots" threatened by deforestation, agriculture and projects for hydroelectric power. A 1997 conference on the problems faced by the Eastern Arc Mountains concluded that this unique ecosystem was undergoing an accelerated rate of destruction and that there was an urgent need for documentation of the problem if changes were to be made to reverse or slow the process. Their website's lovely, but sadly has nothing more about Taita.
Taita Hills Biodiversity Project
This project, set up by the East African Wildlife Society, is now complete; the link is to their final report (in PDF format). The objective had been "to create awareness among local community members and institutions on the uniqueness and endemicity of the forests."
Biodiversity Conservation at Taita Hills Forest
A detailed run-down of the situation.
Taita Taveta Health and Population Project
USAID project primarily concerned with women's health, contraception and child health, and establishing clinics. The problem here, both practical and ethical, is "How does one introduce a project such as family planning into a traditional community where community values and beliefs support high fertility?"