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Curtis Abraham

Photo Curtis Abraham

The climb up to Elena Hut, nearly 5,000 meters (16,000feet) high on the Rwenzori Mountains, on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, was steep and strenuous. At this altitude the ascent of man took on an entirely new meaning as I reverted to my haunches in order to negotiate the steep slope. Icy rock crevasses and water-filled depressions on the angular and slippery rock face were the only natural footholds available to continue the climb. The air thinned considerably and every now and again I paused to catch my breath and to survey the surrounding landscape. The entire Rwenzori range is about 100 kilometers in length and about 50 kilometers wide and is situated some 5,100 meters above sea level. It was formed from a block that was tilted and then thrust up during the development of the Rift Valley. More important for the people living around the mountain as well as along the Nile River valley is that the Rwenzoris is a vital water catchment for over 500,000 people and it’s the most permanent sources of the Nile. Because of their altitudinal range, and the nearly constant temperatures, humidity and high isolation, the mountains support the richest montane fauna in Africa. In Antiquity it was believed that The Rwenzoris were the fabled “Mountains of the Moon” (‘Lunae Montes’), which the Greeks and Romans believed were the ultimate source of the mighty River Nile (the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson immortalized this belief when he wrote: “And with Caesar to take in his hand the army, the Empire, and Cleopatra, and say, ‘All these will I relinquish if you will show me the fountain of the Nile.’”) The expansive views of the various peaks were becoming more spectacular and breathtaking as we laboriously gained altitude. The snowy peaks of Mt. Speke ((4,890m), Mt. Baker (4843m) and Mt. Stanley (5,110m) appeared. Later, when a billowing and eerie fog lifted a panoramic view of Lake Bujuku down below and the Stanley Glacier towering high above us. Across the wide Bujuku valley Mt. Baker looked majestic, grey and white with snow. But it was not only the air that was thinning at this altitude so too were the glaciers. Through a combination of cold air and abundant precipitation, the Rwenzori Mountains have historically been home to extensive snowfields whose melt waters supply a network of alpine rivers, lakes and wetlands that are a source of the River Nile. However, the snows of Mt. Speke, whose spectacular Speke Glacier once terminated in a sheer ice cliff more than 30 meters high and Mt. Baker, with its once picturesque Y Glacier, did not look the same as I had previously seen them in the vintage photographs of Vittorio Sella, the intrepid Italian photographer who accompanied Prince Luigi Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta (The Duke of Abruzzi) during his famous 1906 ascent of Mt. Stanley. Sella’s photographs, which are quickly becoming enmeshed in the imagination of post-modern scientific iconography, were of an alpine winter wonderland dominated by snow and ice. Sella himself had a glacier named in his honor. Given the unusual behavior of light in alpine terrain I though I was experiencing some type of optical illusion enhanced by my physical fatigue. Later, I learned that not only had Sella Glacier long since melted away but the rest of the more prominent glaciers of the Rwenzoris were in rapid retreat with the looming threat of all out extinction. A century ago Rwenzori’s six peaks, Baker, Emin, Gessi, Luigi di Savoia, Speke and Stanley all contained substantial and, what was thought to have been permanent glaciers. Today, there are no glaciers on Emin, Gessi or Luigi di Savoia. And the few remaining glaciers on the higher summits of Stanley, Speke and Baker cover barely a quarter of the area they occupied a century ago. In fact, scientist predict that if the present environmental trends, including global warming continue and the glaciers of the Rwenzori continue to melt, in another two generations or so there might not be any snow left on the summits of Rwenzori. When The Duke of Abruzzi and his party made their historic ascent of Mount Stanley in 1906, they had to hack a near-vertical passage through huge, bulging cornices of icy rime in order to get the then-thickly snow-covered summits of Margherita and Alexandra. Mountaineers as recently as 1960 classed this direct ascent as grade III to impossible, according to cornices. But such cornices scarcely form at all today, while the peaks themselves as just bare rock.

Photo Curtis Abraham

But it’s not only the Rwenzori that are in trouble. The Himalayas, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Andes, Mt. Everest, are losing their glaciers due to global warming. Tropical alpine glaciers, for example, are highly sensitive indicators of tropical climate, and over the past generation there has been a rapid retreat of Rwenzori, and other tropical glaciers such as those on Mount Kilimanjaro. This has been caused by a 0.6 degree Celsius rise in the earth’s average global temperature over the last half century. This is in sharp contrast to their great extent thousands of years ago. All of the Rwenzori’s main valleys were excavated by glaciers which also left prominent features such as lakes and moraines - the ridge one walks up laboriously to the first hut at Nyabitaba is a huge moraine about 16,000 years old. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global warming is the increase in the average temperature of the oceans and the Earth’s surface air since the mid-20th century. Global surface temperature increased by 0.18 °C (0.32 °F) during the last century. The IPCC concludes that greenhouse gases resulting from human activity such as burning fossil fuel and deforestation are largely responsible for the increase in temperature. According to a report from Uganda’s meteorology department titled “Climate Change, Uganda National Adaptation Programmes of Action”, increase in temperature reduced the Rwenzori ice-cap to 40% of its 1955 area.

In 2008, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published an atlas saying Rwenzoris glaciers halved in size between 1987 and 2003 during which time higher temperatures and decreasing cloud cover also have contributed to sublimation - direct vaporization of ice without melting. Comparative aerial photographs in the Atlas, which were taken in 1987 and in 2005 showed that there were fewer white areas on the 2005 picture of the Rwenzori peaks. The UN atlas gave a bleak outlook of the situation and says that the glaciers could be gone in two decades. “The surviving glaciers are so small that I suspect that their disappearance will not greatly affect their environment except very locally in the form of new lichen cover on exposed rocks, reduced vegetation around melt streams, fluctuations in level of small high lakes or on general water supplies,” Dr. Henry Osmaston, a former colonial forestry official in Uganda, told me shortly after the publication of ‘TROPICAL GLACIERS’, a book he co-authored with Georg Kaser of the Universitat Innsbruck, Austria in 2002 (Osmaston died in 2006).

Photo Curtis Abraham

Photo Curtis Abraham

So how has the melting glaciers (‘Snow on the Equator’ Osmaston called them) affected the lives and livelihoods of the people in the region?

The Rwenzori region is one of the most densely populated in Africa with an estimated 150-450 people per square kilometer. A generation ago the local economy was dominated by, coffee, mountaineering and the Kilembe copper mines, which brought prosperity and improved health services and infrastructure to the region. But today the Bakonjo and Baamba peoples, the main African communities whose lives and livelihoods are closely intertwined with the mountains, are subsistence farmers whose gardens teem with matooke, a green cooking banana, sweet potatoes, beans, cassava and Robusta coffee.

Rwenzori’s alpine river flows sustain both agricultural production downstream as well as the generation of hydroelectric power. But over the last century the area covered by glaciers has reduced by 84 percent. According to Richard Taylor of University College, London, the Bakonjo also report declining crop yields and episodic famine as a result of reductions in rainfall. There has also a rise in malaria, which suggests a rise in air temperature that has enabled colonization by mosquitoes transmitting the disease.

It was believed that the melting of the Rwenzori snow has caused new tributaries to join the Semliki River, which has made the river to change its course to almost one kilometer into Uganda and which caused an international dispute in 2007 between Uganda and the D.R.Congo authorities in a politically sensitive region that contains huge petroleum deposits. But this is not true.

“Spot measurements of melt water discharges indicate that ice-fields contribute considerably less than 2 percent of river discharge at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains during both dry and wet season,” says Richard Taylor.

But this is not only the case for the Rwenzoris. For other East African tropical alpine ice-fields, such as those of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya , which occupy a very small fraction of alpine river catchment areas, glacial melt water discharges are also expected to contribute a tiny proportion of alpine river flow.

The challenges that face the Rwenzoris go far beyond the melting glaciers. Wildlife populations have been devastated in recent times. Between 1973 and 1976 the wildlife population in Rwenzori had fallen to 26% percent of the 1973 level. The decline is attributed to a massive increase in poaching. Then from 1977 until 1986 civil war and the general collapse of Uganda’s economy made conservation efforts impossible. During this period there was widespread illegal hunting of the region’s wildlife. There was also widespread encroachment in the montane forest by BaKonzo farmers. Later, between 1997 and 2001, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a shadowy rebel group that continue to be active in eastern Congo, established their bases in low-lying areas of The Rwenzoris from where they terrorized the local population. The Rwenzoris were effectively rendered a no go area for virtually everyone. There are conflicting reports of the actual impact of the ADF’s four years of occupation of the Rwenzori on the Uganda side. In times of armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, some wildlife species and their habitats have been speared the ravages of war. According to the late Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) commander, the late Brigadier James Kazini, who was Army Chief of Staff during the ADF insurgency, this is what appears to have occurred. He concluded that the four year insurrection had little to no lasting effect on conservation in the mountains. Since human activity (except for the activities of the rebels) was severely curtailed. However, there are reports that illegal hunting re-started in earnest when the ADF occupied the Uganda side of the Rwenzoris. Wild buffaloes were reportedly hunted to the brink of extinction while chimpanzees were maimed by the snares of bushmeat hunters. After the insurgency, there was illegal poaching by local armed groups as well as the trafficking of small animals and illegal logging. The Rwenzoris is a poacher’s paradise. The Western Rift region of central Africa is one of the most biodiversity areas on the continent. There are elephants, buffaloes, lions, chimpanzees and various antelopes inhabited the mountain’s increasingly fractured montane forests.

There are also a small number of endemic species including the montane squirrel (Heliosciurus ruwenzorii), Rwenzori shrew (Ruwenzorisorex suncoides) , Rwenzori otter-shrew (Micropotamogale ruwenzorii), Rwenzori horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ruwenzorii), Rwenzori vlei rat (Otomys dartmouthii). Other wildlife includes the Rwenzori colobus monkey (Colobus angolensis ruwenzorii) and Rwenzori leopard (Panthera pardus ssp.ruwenzorii), which has been seen as high as 4000m. Animal species that live on or around the Rwenzoris that are threatened or are now rare include a blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanii)-an endemic species on the mountain.

In 2007, during a two month expedition to the Misotshi-Kabogo Forest and nearby Marunga Massif in a remote corner of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo near Lake Tanganyika, new species of bat, rodent, shrews, and frogs were discovered by scientists working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Scientists estimated that the block of forest has been isolated from the rest of the D.R.Congo forest for about 10,000 years. When Elena Hut with its triangular tented shape, finally came into view a light snow began to fall. Getting to the hut, however, required what seemed like an eternity of zigzagging and scrambling through more of the steep rocky trail. Perhaps a generation ago this trail, itself a result of ancient glacial retreat, would have been covered with some considerable amount of snow. What we encountered was more bare rock with remnants of stale snow in the stony crevasses. That late afternoon and with every stitch of warm clothing on and a bowl of hot soup in hand I watched my first snow storm in equatorial Africa. Elena Hut is the base camp for climbing Margherita peak, the highest in the Rwenzori range. The next morning the storm continued making the trail treacherously slippery. Nevertheless, we made a valiant attempt at Elena glacier, which over the last century had also retreated by some 600 feet due its particularly vulnerable because of its lower altitude and deposition of ash and dust by dry season bushfires on the surrounding plains below.

But on the glacier itself the snowfall continued and the wind whipped up on occasion. The ubiquitous and haunting mist began rolling in rapidly reducing our visibility to almost zero. This doesn’t look good Eriya, my guide, said gravely. Throwing caution to an icy wind and taking my guides expert advice, I was contented with myself for having reached this far on my first trek to the Mountains of the Moon.



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