Located 300 km south of the equator and sprawling around 650 sq km, Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania is a true definition of East African beauty, housing the largest free standing volcanic mass in the world and Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, along with its three volcanic cones namely Mawenzi, Kibo and Shira. Standing in isolation, 19,341 feet (5895 m) above sea level and about 16,100 feet (4,900 m) above its plateau base, the snow capped Mount Kilimanjaro, overlooking the savannah, is a superlative natural phenomenon. It is also a major attraction for hiking and climbing, especially for its shrinking glaciers and ice fields, projected to disappear within 2035.
The Kilimanjaro National Park, established in 1973 and administered by the Tanzania National Park Authority, initially consisted of the whole of the mountain above the tree line and six forest corridors stretching down through the Montane forest belt. But long before that, the mountain and the adjacent forests were declared a game reserve by the German colonial government in the early 20th century and were designated a forest reserve in 1921.
Finally, the park was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1987 and following the recommendation of the World Heritage Committee, the area of the park was extended in 2005, to include the whole of the mountain above the tree line as well as the Montane forest, which was previously under the Kilimanjaro Forest Reserve. The extension was necessary to fulfill the criteria of integrity, as well as to reflect the clear boundaries of the property.
Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the largest volcanoes in the world, has five main vegetation zones from the lowest to the highest point known as the lower slopes, Montane forest, heath and moorland, alpine desert and the summit. There is little natural vegetation in the foothills or the lower slopes, where people have taken advantage of the volcanic rich soil to establish kitchen gardens and coffee farms.
However, there are also remnants of the former savanna vegetation, which include Acacia, Combretum or the Bushwillows, Terminalia and Grewia, a large flowering plant. The next level, the humid zone is the lush green zone with 1,000 to 2000 mm of rainfall every year, the perfect place for the multitude of plants, which includes huge tree ferns, sycamore trees, junipers, as well as moss, also known as the old man’s beard.
The semi-alpine heath and moorland zone, found at 9,000 to 13,000 feet (2800 m to 4000 m), shelters and nourishes the strange Giant Groundsel, Senecio trees, Lobelias and the colourful red hot pokers. Temperatures in this zone may even drop to 0°C and the main source of indirect precipitation in this zone comes in the form of mist, which can envelop the area without any warning. The Alpine desert zone with little rainfall and extreme temperature variations from night to day, reigns above 13,000 feet (4000 m), presenting an arid and desolate landscape, except for some everlastings and a few yellow daisies.
However, the region above 16,000 feet (5,000 m) is the frozen moonscape of the arctic zone, where only the lichens survive and grow about 0.5 mm a year.
The Montane forest belt, occupying the major part of the Kilimanjaro National Park, shelters the wildlife of 154 species of mammals on the mountain, including seven primates and hundreds of bird species. While the large mammals such as Elephants, Cape buffaloes and giraffes are more frequent in the forests and lower parts of the mountain, smaller mammals like Bushbucks, Duikers and Warthogs also live and hide in the thick, lush rainforest. Other unique animals in the forest area include porcupines, honey badgers, chameleons, mongooses and others. In addition, Zebras, Leopards and Hyenas have been reported sporadically in the Shira plateau.
With its mesmerizing scenic beauty, various climatic zones, several inhabiting mammals, including many endangered species and strange and unusual plants, the Kilimanjaro National Park, surrounded by mountain forests attracts tourists and hikers from all around the world.