African Mountains and their Challenges

This session presented a fraction of work being done in African mountains as well as the potential for future work and larger-scale collaborations to discern continental trends throughout African highlands in a manner comparable to the projects being done on other continents.

Andreas Hemp kicked off the session with a detailed overview of climate and other environmental challenges affecting Kilimanjaro – the loss of cloud forest through a drying climate and more frequent fires being more of a serious impact on water production for downstream beneficiaries than loss of the ice-cap. He also included the impacts of elephants, which is truly fitting for an African mountain. Sue Taylor led us through some options for potential sustainable development indicators for tracking sustainable development in African mountains, using examples from some larger transboundary conservation scenarios and the challenges of macro-governance issues and their impacts on sustainable mountain management; she also highlighted the need for comprehensive catchment management, not just some portions, i.e. ignoring mountains. Mari Oiry Varacca elucidated the impacts of social change in the mountain tourism landscape in northern and western Africa, and the impacts of the Arab Spring and other socially seismic events on local tourism potential and responses from the industry. With tourism a major local income generator, this is a vitally important topic. Timm Gross provided a detailed overview of snow cover patterns in Lesotho over a space of 14 years, the summary being that there is great inter-annual variability but no evidence at this point of any long-term changes in snow cover patterns. Luke Bentley guided us through the complexities of modelling montane plant species potential responses to climate change and the various future scenarios that could be played out based on the different techniques and assumptions on which these are based. The potential responses include the expected inter alia altitude climbing, altitude shedding, contraction and range shifting (followed by vigorous debate). (Vincent) Ralph Clark (me) explained the fundamental role of rigorous fieldwork in mega-biodiverse mountain regions for supplying enough robust data on the distribution and ecology of local endemics to be able to predict responses (if only intuitively) of the endemic mountain biota to climate change.

The session was concluded with a synthesis on key aspects for future African mountain research, and while the potential is myriad, these key concepts came through:

  1. Africa will – according to IPCC models – bear the brunt of climate change – the need is therefore for a collective effort, co-ordination and effective networks to study and monitor these impacts continentally in African mountains.
  2. There is a need for skills transfer / specialists from the North to collaborate with African researchers on these topics, to bring African mountain climate change research on par with Northern standards (bearing in mind the very often different ecological context in African mountains, such as fire being an essential natural driver in many mountains, and the concept of a tree-line is meaningless in southern Africa).
  3. There is a drastic need for improved fine-scale high elevation biodiversity and climate data – as elsewhere in mountains in the world – in African mountains and which will require extensive field hours and investment expense.
  4. Opportunities for mega-modelling – as being done on other continents – exists (but needs large collaborations and skills input – i.e. points 1 & 2, and obviously 3).
  5. We need to explore options for a mega-repository of African mountain data (all disciplines) to facilitate African mountain research. The are major logistical impediments to this but it could be achieved.
  6. Governance issues are critical to the success of mountain research in Africa: unstable political environments, civil conflict and other political / worldview issues hinder progressive research agendas and large-scale collaborations. This is beyond the scope of mountain research projects but is a major inhibitor of continental-scale mountain research projects, although there is an increasing trend towards international co-operation and integration on environmental topics in Africa (especially in the south and east).
  7. There is a need for a unified ‘African Face’ to represent African mountain research to the rest of the world / create a forum for international collaboration.

In summary, there are many exciting challenges and opportunities for current and prospective mountain researchers in Africa. We welcome you to get on board! (just bring boots).

If you would like to become part of Africa’s very exciting research network, please email Sue Taylor – AfroMont co-ordinator – on staylor@zoology.up.ac.za

Ralph Clark

Session Chair

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