Mountainous regions suffer biodiversity loss

Cleared land

Speed read

  • Impact of climate change and human activities on mountainous areas’ biodiversity are less known
  • Researchers assessed biodiversity at Africa’s tallest mountain
  • Farmers must adopt sustainable farming approaches to preserve biodiversity

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[DAR ES SALAAM] Climatic changes and human activities such as land tilling on dry lowlands of tropical mountains have caused huge losses of plant and animal species, a study says.
According to a team of 50 researchers who conducted the study, the combined effect of climatic changes and activities emanating from human settlements on biodiversity in mountainous regions is less known. Given that people living in such regions depend on nature for their livelihoods, the researchers say that they were motivated to assess the biodiversity and ecosystem functions of Africa’s largest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
“Our data suggest that more-severe changes in ecosystem functioning occur in the arid lowlands and the cold montane zone,” says the study published in Nature last month (27 March).  “Our study reveals that climate can modulate the effects of land use on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and points to a lowered resistance of ecosystems in climatically challenging environments to continuing land-use changes in tropical mountainous regions.”

“In order to preserve vital soil, plant and animal functions on their land, farmers should always try land use practices to a level which is sustainable.”

Marcell Peters, University of Würzburg

Marcell Peters, lead author of the study and an associate professor at the Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, -University of Würzburg, Germany, tells SciDev.Net that the use of land significantly damages ecological processes with extreme climate conditions such as the hot and dry savanna zones at the base of Kilimanjaro. 
According to Peters, the problem has been aggravated by human activities such as overharvesting, increase of field sizes and a reduction in semi-natural habitats including trees and hedgerows.
“In order to preserve vital soil, plant and animal functions on their land, farmers should always try land use practices to a level which is sustainable and preserves a rich biodiversity,’’ Peters tells SciDev.Net. “In the long run, this will be much more profitable than large-scale intensified agriculture.’’
The researchers established 60 study sites from low to high elevations in the southern part of Mountain Kilimanjaro, which they regularly visited to take measurements, including monitoring and identifying plants, insects, birds and mammals. Data collection occurred from January 2011 to December 2016.
Few species were lost at the mid-elevations of the mountain where there is high snow but warm temperatures. The farmers grow coffee and banana using traditional cultivation methods in these regions, Peters explained.
However, researchers observed much negative impact in hot and dry savanna zones at the base of Kilimanjaro where maize is widely cultivated.
According to the researchers, the data obtained from this study could be used to develop and implement strategies for a sustainable use of the ecosystems on Mountain Kilimanjaro.

Padili James, a consultant geo-environmentalist based in Tanzania, tells SciDev.Net, “With the growing demand for food and cash crop across the neighboring regions of Kilimanjaro and the unsustainable agricultural practices exercised over time, it is with no doubt that the study holds much validity.”
“Based on my regular interactions with the locals in Moshi, Kilimanjaro region, energy demands and farmland activities are prime reasons to the loss of plant and animal species in the lowlands,” James adds.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.