NAIROBI, Kenya – As the fires engulfed the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, on Friday, the fifth day on Thursday, hundreds of volunteers from local villages joined firefighters vying to stop the blaze, threatening to devastate one of the richest and diverse ecosystems in the world.
The fires, which initially began to burn at a climbing stop, have been raging for five days with dry grass and strong winds, hampering efforts to control the flames.
“This devastating fire is breaking through the most prestigious natural area in all of Tanzania,”
The already large areas of forests and low bushes have been reduced to embers. Videos and images from the scene show volunteers struggling to put out the fires as thick white smoke hangs heavy in the sky behind them.
Helicopters were to be deployed for the first time on Thursday to help stop the fires.
With a peak of 5,895 meters, or 19,341 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa and is considered the highest free-standing volcanic mass in the world. The snow-capped peaks of the mountain and the surrounding national park were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, with endemic plants and dozens of animal species, including endangered ones, calling it home.
In recent years, the mountain and the surrounding ecosystem have faced challenges, including water and air pollution, penetration of the park, illegal logging and poaching. Climate change has also pushed the mountain’s glaciers and ice caps to thaw.
With thousands of climbers arriving each year, fears have risen in recent years that over-tourism threatens Kilimanjaro’s natural splendor.
“The scale of the fire we see today is at a new level,” Marcel Peters, a senior lecturer at the University of Würzburg in Germany who has been studying Kilimanjaro’s ecosystems since 2010, said in an email.
He said the loss of plant life – especially the Erica and Podocarpus trees – could leave the area more vulnerable to fire in the coming years.
Tanzanian park officials said the fires broke out Sunday in the Whona recreation area, which is popular with mountaineers using the Mandara and Horombo routes to scale the mountain.
Authorities say an investigation into the fire is under way, but preliminary evidence suggests it was caused by janitors heating food for visitors.
“It was all bad luck,” said Pascal Shelutete, an employee of Tanzania’s national parks, this week. “But we will continue to monitor the issue closely.”
In addition to the destroyed plants and forests, the fires also destroyed facilities used by tourists at the Horombo Center.
No deaths or injuries were reported.
Officials estimate that the fire has so far destroyed an alpine area stretching for about two miles.
“We are still in the midst of the fire,” Hamisi Kigungala, Tanzania’s Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, said on Twitter on Thursday, a day after visiting the site of the fire. The task is more difficult and bigger than previously thought.
The mountain has long occupied a special place in the imagination of the world, about which many visitors write, admiring its majesty.
For those who live in its shadow, it is both a source of income and pride. When Tanzania gained its independence in December 1961, new leader Julius K. Nairere sent a team of climbers to climb the continent’s highest peak.
They set up a torch designed to serve as a metaphor for the aspirations of a nation.
However, with the presidential election scheduled for October 28, there are fears that the nation is entering an autocratic government.
Since President John Magufuli was elected in 2015, the government has cracked down on the media and civil society by passing laws aimed at silencing critical voices.
“It is no coincidence that the Tanzanian government has increased its repression of the opposition, activist groups and the media so close to the election,” said Oriem Nayko, an African researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of upholding the right to freedom of expression at this critical time, the authorities have instead adopted measures that raise concerns about elections that are free and fair.”
He faces a number of candidates, including Tundu Lisu, an opposition figure who survived an assassination attempt three years ago and is now returning to the country. No one has ever been arrested in the case.
The nation of about 58 million people is heavily dependent on tourism, and Mr Magufuli is eager to bring people back to the country after the coronavirus pandemic stopped everything in the world.
Five months ago, he declared the nation coronavirus-free, a statement that public health officials and neighboring nations welcomed with skepticism. Mr Magufuli’s government is restricting reporting on the virus in Tanzania, according to Human Rights Watch.
Tourism is allowed to resume, including in Mount Kilimanjaro.
Mr Mikomangwa said authorities could learn from the disaster by better equipping parks and firefighters to respond to fires. “Now they are fighting over several helicopters,” he said. “But this episode shows that we need to take decisive action to take better care of our resources and ensure that we put an end to this fire once and for all.”