Africa bears the brunt of climate change, WWF | WWF
Africa bears the brunt of climate change, WWF

Posted on 17 March 2008

Media release: WWF Eastern Africa Regional Programme Office

Nairobi, Kenya – The sparkling glaciers high up in the Rwenzori Mountains—and their crystal-clean mountain streams—may be no more, according to WWF, the global conservation organization. Climate change has taken its toll on some of Africa’s highest peaks; the mountains’ glaciers are on their knees.
Nairobi, Kenya – The sparkling glaciers high up in the Rwenzori Mountains—and their crystal-clean mountain streams—may be no more, according to WWF, the global conservation organization. Climate change has taken its toll on some of Africa’s highest peaks; the mountains’ glaciers are on their knees.

A 27-person team from eight nationalities has just returned from the Rwenzori Mountains with some startling observations. “I have never seen the glaciers shrink to this level in my 25 years of climbing the Rwenzori Mountains,” exclaimed one porter accompanying the team.

WWF, together with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) had organised an ambitious 10-day expedition from DRC to Uganda that criss-crossed the massif and reached the Margharita peak at 5,119m above sea level.

The team was able to take pictures of the glaciers exactly as they were taken in 1952 and 1956. The data gathered show that the mountains’ glaciers have shrunk by more than 50 per cent in the last 50 years. From 650ha in 1906, the glaciers shrunk to 352ha in 1955 and 148ha in 2008. At this rate, WWF estimates that the glaciers will completely disappear in the next 30 years.

The highest peaks of these mountains are permanently snow-capped, and they, along with Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya are the only such ones in Africa. The Rwenzori Mountains are shared by Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and are the third highest mountains on the continent.

“The impact of melting of glaciers was felt by the team when it discovered that the route leading from DRC to Uganda used a glacier that no longer exists, forcing the team to open a new route” says Marc Languy, head of WWF’s Programme in the Great Lakes region. “However, the impact is more severe on wildlife and the vegetation that can not adapt to the new condition fast enough. While it was comforting to find many signs of leopards, chimpanzees and other wildlife, one wonders how they will survive if changes continue at the present rate”.

During this expedition, WWF, the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation and the Uganda Wildlife Authority embarked on important conservation work in the Virunga and the Rwenzori Mountains National Parks in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and western Uganda. WWF is very keen to have the Ugandan part of Ruwenzori designated as a Ramsar site as the mountains glaciers and the high altitude lakes, bogs and rivers are a critical source of freshwater.

“The rivers and wetlands that I saw in this amazing ecosystem were just phenomenal. But the simple fact remains–they are threatened,” says Dr. Musonda Mumba, WWF’s Freshwater Programme Coordinator for eastern Africa. “Their ability to provide water for both nature and man is really jeopardised by the changes that are taking place. Speaking to local people it is already clear that the rainfall pattern has changed and this is having an effect on water resources,” adds Dr. Mumba.

WWF has helped to rehabilitate the trails and mountain huts so as to reopen tourism on the DRC side while opening new routes to link the two countries.

For further information:
Kimunya Mugo, WWF Eastern Africa Regional Programme Office (EARPO), t + 254 20 387 26 30/31, m +254 723 786191, KMugo@wwfearpo.org or info@wwfearpo.org
Marc Languy, WWF Eastern Africa Regional Programme Office (EARPO), t + 254 20 387 26 30/31, m +254 733 227 650 or +243997286452, MLanguy@wwfearpo.org or info@wwfearpo.org
Musonda Mumba, WWF Eastern Africa Regional Programme Office (EARPO), t + 254 20 387 26 30/31, m +254 723 786183, MMumba@wwfearpo.org or info@wwfearpo.org


Notes to editors
• One of the Rwenzori Mountains’ most important ecological and economic functions is the impact the range has on the area’s hydrological (water) cycle. The mountains supply water for nearly 2 million people. The surrounding agricultural land is fed partly by run-off from the mountains. Ruwenzori’s forest clad slopes help regulate the run-off as it flows down slope. While the mountains’ water catchment properties also benefit valuable fisheries on Lakes George, Edward and Albert, whilst also supplying hydro power and the water for irrigation schemes. The mountains are the highest and most permanent source of water for the Nile River.
• The Rwenzori range is host to Congo’s Virunga National Park (created in 1925 as Africa's first national park) and Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains National Park. It is characterized by largely unspoiled tropical montane forests that are extremely rich in biological diversity, including the only remaining populations of the endangered mountain gorillas. Virunga and Rwenzori Mountains National Parks are World Heritage Sites. Encroachment for farming and settlement, as well as by warring rebel factions, is leading to uncontrolled exploitation of the natural resource base.
• The WWF has 3 programmes in the Rwenzori Mountains: Virunga Environmental Programme (DRC), Conservation of the Albertine Rift Forests in Uganda, and Rwenzori Mountains Conservation and Environmental Management Project (Uganda). These are funded by WWF & EU, NORAD & UNESCO.
• Virunga National Park is managed by ICCN and UWA manages Rwenzori Mountains National Park. Both ICCN and UWA took part in the expedition and were joined by UWRD in view of the forthcoming designation of Rwenzori Mountains National Park as a Ramsar site.
• Virunga National Park, DRC on the western part of the Rwenzori Mountains is already a Ramsar site. Once the Uganda site is designated, the glaciers and lakes of the Rwenzori Mountains will become one contiguous Ramsar site. This will help to ensure better management of the mountains’ common natural resources.
• The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 158 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1717 wetland sites, totalling 159 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.
• Tourism is another economic feature of the Rwenzori Mountains. Uganda received 1,700 visitors in 2007. In DRC, routes are now re-opened to tourists. ICCN—with support from WWF—has rehabilitated old trails and 3 mountain huts which are now fully operational.
Rwenzori Range Stanley Group Glacier in July 1952
© WWF
Rwenzori Mountains Stanley Group glacier February 2008
© WWF
Lac Gris Glacier, February 1956
© WWF
Lac Gris Glacier, February 2008
© WWF