Mount Elgon


Jackson's Pool: Mount Elgon acts as a water catchment supplying millions of people in Kenya and Uganda with fresh water

Dominating the sky-line of the Uganda-Kenya border, Mount Elgon is the eighth highest mountain in Africa and has the largest base area of any freestanding volcano in the world (Boy & Allan, 1988). The mountain is vital to the social and economic functioning of the area, and is a water catchment supplying millions of people in Uganda and Kenya (van Heist, 1994). It is also an important area for species conservation due to the richness of endemic plant and animal species which can be found on the mountain (Howard, 1991).

Physical characteristics and climate

Mount Elgon is a solitary extinct volcano straddling the border between Uganda and Kenya, 100 km north-east of Lake Victoria (figure 1). National Parks now exist on both the Ugandan and Kenyan sides of the mountain though they only merge on the north-east side of the mountain. Wagagai, the highest peak lies in Uganda and is 4321m. Despite its height, the average slope angle of Mount Elgon is less than 4 degrees (van Heist, 1994). The Ugandan side of Mount Elgon National Park covers 1145km2 between 0o52í and 1o25íN, and between 34o14í and 34o44íE (Howard, 1991). Mount Elgon is the oldest of the East African volcanoes, resting on the dissected peneplain of Pre Cambrium bedrock of the Trans Nzoia Plateau (Davies, 1952). The soils on Mount Elgon are from the Andisol order ("developed in volcanic ejecta") (FAO classification). The climate of Mount Elgon shows an approximately bimodal pattern of rainfall, with the wettest months occurring from April to October (van Heist, 1994). The forest zone receives the maximum rainfall (Synott, 1968) and is important in the mountainís role as a water catchment for several million people (van Heist, 1994).

Management history

Mount Elgon has been controlled by the Forest Department since 1929. It became Mount Elgon Crown Forest in 1940, and became a Forest Reserve in 1951. The main objective of the working plan for 1968-1978 (Synott, 1968) was to protect the forest, with secondary objectives in the extraction of timber. Since the restoration of civil stability in Uganda, the government has been increasingly aware of conservation issues, and in 1988, a forest rehabilitation project was initiated on Mount Elgon. The upper reaches of Mount Elgon received the protected status of a National Park in 1992. Prior to this, the area had been a Forest Reserve (gazetted in 1951) with objectives in forest protection and timber extraction (Synnott, 1968). The Mount Elgon Conservation and Development Project  has been assisting the National Park authorities with forest and community issues since 1987. The current aim of the project is to "promote community development and conserve Mount Elgonís ecosystem for present and future use" using a "community based resource management approach" involving the participation and empowerment of local communities in the development process (MECDP, 1995). Working in conjunction with MENP, park regulations have been formulated with reference to the needs of local people and their resource use levels, and enforced in conjunction with a comprehensive extension programme. Collaborative management has been piloted in two parishes, with the aim of extending it to all forest-adjacent parishes before the project ends in 2000.

IUCN have commissioned a number of resource inventories and assessments. Katende et al. (1990) carried out a biodiversity inventory for woody perennials and birds. A Land Mapping and Biodiversity Survey of Mount Elgon National Park was carried out in 1993 to assist the development of a long term management plan (van Heist, 1994). The survey described numerous aspects of the mountain with an emphasis on plant biodiversity. A "resource use assessment" was commissioned for the same purpose detailing resource use by people groups across the mountain through a series of semi-structured interviews and group discussions (Scott, 1994).

The Human population

A pastoralist population called the Sabei, of Nilo-Cushtic origin, live on the northern slopes of Mount Elgon between about 2500 and 3000m where they graze their cattle, sheep and goats on pastures within the forest and on the high moor lands. The households of the Sabei were  thought to number about 210 in 1991 (Howard, 1991), with each household containing an extended family. Apart from the Sabei there are no other recorded traditional residents of the area currently gazetted as Mount Elgon National Park. The Bagisu are of Bantu origin and have gradually moved further up the lower slopes of Mount Elgon having moved into the area from the east in the sixteenth century (Were & Wilson, 1970).

Ugandaís population is one of the fastest growing in the world and has been highly mobile in the past due to political turmoil. Immigration rates to the region have been high and encroachment upon the old Forest Reserve area proceeded unchecked until the early eighties. Recently as the politics of the country have stabilised, Uganda National Parks Authority has managed to assert its authority in its areas of jurisdiction. Security has been stepped up, investment in tourism has increased and encouragement and support for research efforts have been extended. In 1983 and 1990 the National Park authorities started a resettlement programme to move the population from within the park to settlement areas allocated outside the park. The two largest relocations from the National Park took place in 1983 and 1990.

A number of forest dwellers still live in the park. They are primarily pastoralists, practising subsistence agriculture in gardens next to their houses (figure 1a, below). Prior to cultivation, the areas are burnt and cow dung is added to the soil to fertilise it. The gardens are then planted for two or three years. The high altitude prohibits the production of maize, but potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and matoke (Musa sapientum) are widely grown. When the evictions occurred, many of these gardens and grazing areas around them were abandoned. Immediately after the 1990 evictions the forest was lacking the dense shrub layer characteristic of East African upper montane forests (Richards, 1996) and extensive areas of top-soil were exposed due to the activity of cattle (Katende, A. pers. comm.). The current pastoralists concentrate grazing activity on the Benet grasslands which meander through the forest at an altitude of approximately 2500 - 2800 m. It is not certain whether the Benet  grasslands have always been open grassy areas (van Heist, 1994) but they are maintained as artificial climax by heavy grazing.  A number of cattle graze in the forest, but they are fewer in number than before the evictions. Although the Ndorobos live illegally in the area they are tolerated by the National Park, who are currently deciding whether to relocate them.


Figure 1: Pastoralism and subsistence agriculture in the Benet grassland area:  (a)  a traditional hut in the forest adjacent to the grassland used by pastoralists who share the hut with their cattle. A small garden is located beyond the line of trees behind the hut, and (b) a sample plot in the Benet grasslands showing some of the cattle which continually graze the area and the montane forest (background) in which a number of other sample plots were located (Piswa Hut is located on the brow of the hill to the right of the picture) (Photographs by (a) M. S. Reed (b) A. D. Ingram).

Plants and animals

A considerable amount of research has been carried out upon the vegetation (Langdale-Brown et al. 1964, Katende et al. 1990, Howard 1991, van Heist 1994) and birds of the mountain. The majority of the plant species in the forest zone above 2000m (where the ecological component of the project is concentrated) have been shown to be endemic to the Afromontane Region (White, 1983), and a number of species in this zone are endemic to Mount Elgon. The bird surveys (Van Someren 1922, 1932, Britton 1980, Pearson and Turner 1986, Katende et al. 1990 and Howard 1991) show that avifauna of Mount Elgon is diverse and includes a number of rare and threatened bird species which are restricted to Mount Elgon and a few other East African mountains. Information on the small mammal species of Mount Elgon is very limited. Previous records, mainly from the 1950s and 60s, are few in number while collection sites were sparsely distributed with limited data collection in the montane forest zone. Several of the previous surveys have concentrated on the high montane heath and high moorland communities (above 3000m). Details of previous records can be found in Delany (1974) and Kingdon (1974).

Large animals have become increasingly scarce since the large increase in human populations on the mountain in the 1980s in response to the political regime. Although most elephants (Loxodonta africana) and buffaloes (Syncerus caffer) were eradicated from the Ugandan side of the mountain during this time, buffaloes have been seen regularly in recent years, and elephants have been found near the border with Kenya (Howard, 1991; van Heist, 1994). Leopard (Panthera pardus), a threatened species, were also sighted recently, along with bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) and the spotted red tailed monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius) which was thought to be locally extinct (van Heist, 1994). The most commonly sighted mammal species on the mountain are the black and white colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza) and blue monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis), hyrax (Heterohyraz brucei), antelope and duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) (Katende et al. 1990; Howard, 1991; van Heist, 1994).

The combined area of the Ugandan and Kenyan parks are sufficiently large to maintain viable populations of many of the larger and rarer species of large mammals which are vulnerable to extinction in smaller National Parks. Overall, IUCN have listed 37 faunal species in the area as "globally threatened" (22 mammal, 2 insect and 13 bird species, of which nine species are endemic), making the area a priority for species conservation (IUCN, 1995).

The most recent and the most extensive survey of Mount Elgonís biota (including vegetation, birds, butterflies, moths, and small mammals) was conducted as part of the Mount Elgon Biodiversity Survey (Davenport et al. 1996) between 1991 and 1995 by the Forestry Department as part of the National Forest Biodiversity Inventory Programme. As a result of this programme, Mount Elgon was provisionally ranked amongst the top ten most species rich forests and was identified as a priority for the conservation of Ugandaís small mammals (Davenport et al. 1996).

Human impact: the need for research in Mount Elgon National Park

A combination of factors such as poor access roads, harsh weather and difficult working conditions make research on Mount Elgon a difficult task. In the past the National Park has suffered security problems from cattle rustling and coffee smuggling activities between the communities on either side of the Kenya/Uganda border. Due to the huge area, dense vegetation cover and poor communications between the Kenyan and Ugandan National Parks, effective policing has been difficult. These factors were compounded by political instability and civil unrest in Uganda which has only improved sufficiently in the last decade to enable research to take place in the area.

For the above reasons, until recently little research was carried out on Mount Elgon in comparison to other Ugandan National Parks. The need for a study into the impact of humans in this area has increased greatly in recent years. This is partly due to the increasing number of tourists visiting the area each year and the keenness of the National Park and local people to encourage this trend. In addition to this, local people have been progressively moved out of Mount Elgon National Park (MENP) and MENP management are currently deciding whether to relocate those people who are still living in the park. The majority of the human population living in the National Park are living in the Benet parish where this study was based (Scott, 1994).

This has raised a number of controversial questions about the impact of humans in the area and its future management. For example, should people be left in the park as a natural part of the ecosystem? What is their current impact on the flora and fauna of the area? What impact is increased tourism likely to have on the area? What access should local people be given to forest resources, for example grazing land, timber and bamboo? And what are the implications for the park of resource use by the expanding communities adjacent to the park? Whilst not offering answers to all these questions, the studies carried out by Project Elgon in 1996 and 1997 have provided new information which has aided National Park management and local people to make informed decisions about their impact on the ecosystem which supports them. It has also added to the growing base of knowledge about the human, animal and plant communities on Mount Elgon. In response to the volume of work which is needed if we are to fully understand the issues surrounding the conservation and development of this area, further work is required to be carried out.

The status of people currently living in the park is of critical importance to the future of the National Park. Land tenure rights of people living in the park are at present uncertain and this has created conflict between local people and the management of the National Park. People are generally unwilling to use resources in the park sustainably, as there is no incentive to invest time and money in sustainable practices when eviction may be imminent. It is becoming of increasing urgency to decide whether people who are currently living in the park should be allowed to do so on a permanent basis.


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