by Pongpol Adireksarn for No Water No Life
Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director
Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest and most well-known mountain. The Maasai call it “Ol Dolnyo Oibor” (The White Mountain) because of its snow-capped top, a symbolic landmark for centuries. Besides being picturesque, Kilimanjaro has lived up to its reputation as “The Life-giving Mountain.” It has provided water for millions of wildlife, people and their livestock in a semi-desert area with less than 340 mm [13.3 in] of rainfall annually. Amboseli National Park, a popular Kenyan safari destination, lies below the lower northern shoulders of this “Rooftop of Africa.”
In 1991 an effort began to conserve the biodiversity of Amboseli; support development of local human populations; and improve the park’s infrastructure. UNESCO and the Government of Kenya designated Amboseli National Park and its surrounding area as a “Man and the Biosphere Reserve.”
[Editor’s Note: The Man and the Biosphere Programme is an intergovernmental, scientific program launched in 1971 by UNESCO. Using science, education and economics, this program establishes benefits to human communities while safeguarding surrounding ecosystems and wildlife. Its World Network of Biosphere Reserves currently counts 669 sites in 120 countries]
On a 2005 visit to Amboseli, I saw the toll climate change is taking on Kilimanjaro: the alarming sight of less snow on the mountaintop. My most recent visit in October 2017 was disheartening. From a distance I saw only a small area of snow remaining on top of Kilimanjaro. I recalled the assessment that Kilimanjaro has lost 80 % of its snow cover since 1912; and that by 2033 the snows of Kilimanjaro would no longer exist.
I drove deeper into the park, remembering that 12 years ago I saw a mirage of water everywhere I looked. However the mirage I saw on this drive started to disappear. Instead, what I saw before me were wide wetlands filled with water on both sides of the road. As I continued on, there were bulldozers and heavy equipment dredging these wetlands and laying large concrete pipes on both sides of the road. My local guide explained that the park is expanding the wetlands by filling existing swamps with more of the water that flows down from Kilimanjaro via underground channels.
This development fulfills the objectives set for Amboseli National Park by the Man and the Biosphere Programme. In a land of world-famous elephant matriarchs, this program is creating biodiversity havens to benefit wildlife in the immediate area of the park, while also supporting Maasai and their livestock living near the park.
The next morning, passing through an arid area with Kilimanjaro in the background, I saw a large herd of elephants walking towards the wetlands to drink and bathe. An hour later as I went closer to a wetlands, I saw several elephants and ungulates enjoying their time in the swamp. More wildlife arrived at the wetlands as the day continued. A family of hippopotamus occasionally left the swamp to graze, Hundreds of great white pelicans, winter migrants from Eastern Europe, were enjoying pleasant weather on an island in the swamp under sunny skies.
My local guide took me to Observation Hill, overlooking the vast Amboseli wetlands. As we walked up the hill, I noticed two large signs put up by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). One sign coined two apt phrases, “Kilimanjaro, The Life-Giving Mountain,” and “Without Kilimanjaro, Many Lives would Cease!” The other sign read, “Where Life Springs Up In A Desert.” Addressing national – and indeed global – issues, it noted, “While many wetlands in Kenya dwindle and lose biodiversity because of destructive and unchecked human activities, this protected oasis will remain a source of life. Only if man does not adversely affect it.”