Heritage status for Tanzania’s mountains may have peaked too early

Posted on May 3, 2011

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Hands up how many of you have heard of the kipunji? No it’s not a nomadic tribe. Take a good look at the photo below – it’s a species of monkey that was discovered in Tanzania, East Africa in 2003 and the first to be assigned a new genus since 1923.

kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji)

It has a distinctive Mohawk of hair and this monkey (Rungwecebus kipunji) can be found in two high-altitude remote locations in Tanzania: the Rungwe-Livingstone forest in the Southern Highlands and the Ndundulu Forest in the Udzungwa Mountains.

The country’s Eastern Arc Mountains (which includes Udzungwa and Uluguru Mountains) are among Conservation International’s top ten of the Most Threatened Forest Hotspots, so you’d think the Tanzanian president would be keen to protect them and the biodiversity found there, right?

According to the Tanzanian newspaper, The Citizen, local and international NGO’s have written to President Jakaya Kikwete asking him to reconsider the withdrawal of an application to make the mountains UNESCO World Heritage sites.

President Kikwete is reported to have said the withdrawal was necessary because his office was not consulted properly and the mountains were required for local economic reasons: “We cannot ask for UNESCO’s permission in everything we do. There are things that we can decide ourselves.”

Well let’s take a look at what happened the last time they made a decision without proper debate. Ah yes, they pledged to build a highway through the Serengeti National Park. The annual migration of two million wildebeests and zebras is one of Earth’s natural wonders and attracts tourists from all over the world.

Zebras cross a road in the Serengeti national reserve

This bright idea provoked fury from local as well as international conservationists and scientists. They believe the controversial road will directly impact on wildlife migration. The plans are still in place despite growing pressure from the World Bank for it to be dropped or at least an alternative solution to be found.

Being considered for a World Heritage Site is not exactly the quickest process in the book and in fact this nomination is in its fourteenth year which is the last step before an external review and then acceptance. The executive director of Tanzania Forest Conservation Group (TFCG), Mr Charles Meshack, has said there is concern that the president may have misunderstood the role of the proposed World Heritage Site.

It’s a huge privilege to be granted this global status and it comes with a big dose of kudos which guarantees an injection of tourism too. Stone Town and Kilimanjaro National Park are just two examples of the seven World Heritage sites in Tanzania. The environmental, social and economic benefits this status has brought to these areas has been enormous.

Mount Kilimanjaro

Andrew Dobson, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University told the website mongabey.com: “If World Heritage Status were conferred by UNESCO on these sites, it would further raise Tanzania status as one of the world’s best examples of a country that appreciates its natural capital.”

The Eastern Arc Mountains have been preserved through a recently completed seven-year biodiversity project managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Last year an independent evaluation reported that at least 10,000 hectares of forest had been saved from destruction and that the rate of forest loss had been reduced by 10 percent.

The proposed Eastern Arc Mountains Forests World Heritage Site is restricted to the Udzungwa Mountains National Park and eight Nature Reserves (Amani, Nilo, Mkingu, Uluguru, Kilombero, Udzungwa Scarp, Magamba and Chome Nature Reserves). These nine protected areas cover around 4,500 km2, approximately 20 per cent of the total area of the Eastern Arc Mountains. The forests in this area are already protected under Tanzanian law, either as a national park or as nature reserves.

The World Heritage Convention website says: “Outside these reserves most forest has been cleared, except in small village burial sites, a few village forest reserves, and inaccessible areas. In most Eastern Arc mountains the local populations respect the reserve boundaries (where they are clear), but forest resources are used locally for fuel and building materials and some forests are heavily degraded.

“Fire is also a problem as it enters and can destroy these forests during the dry season. The future of the biodiversity on these mountains is closely tied to management policies and capacity of the government Forest and Beekeeping Division and Tanzania National Parks Authority (in Tanzania) and the Forest Department in Kenya. Supporting these agencies in their mandated job is an essential conservation investment over the longer term.”

The kipunji posseses a unique call, described as a ‘honk-bark'

If this 14-year-long application isn’t pushed through the future of the already critically endangered kipunji remains threatened. And this little monkey may as well have never been discovered.

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