Climate-Induced Fires Are Killing One of the World’s Rarest Ecosystems

Drier temperatures are making wildfires on Mount Kilimanjaro more frequent, destroying a sacred ecosystem home to some of the planet's rarest plants and animals.
Clouds of smoke from a fire on Kilimanjaro.
Clouds of smoke from a fire on Kilimanjaro. Photo: Thomas Becker/picture alliance via Getty Images

A wildfire is raging on Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest stand-alone mountain and one of its more rare ecosystems. The fire, on the mountain’s southern side, has been burning for two weeks now. 

Mt Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest peak at 5,895 metres and one of its most recognized landmarks – and the forests that circle it are home to rare plant and animal species, some of them at risk of extinction.


Video shared by onlookers shows the flames painting a red canvas against the dark night sky on the horizon, back-dropped by pitch black. Efforts by firefighters and park officials to put out the fire are yielding little results as the inferno drags into its third week. In an unusual move, the Tanzanian government deployed hundreds of soldiers on Tuesday to help fight the fire. Officials said on Thursday that the flames are largely contained, but an estimated 25 to 33 square kilometres have been destroyed. 

The blaze comes as UN experts warn in a new report that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, one of the last ones on the continent, could disappear in less than 30 years.

Firefighters battle to contain a fire on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Oct. 12, 2020

Firefighters battle to contain a fire on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Oct. 12, 2020. Photo: Xinhua/Xinhua via Getty Images

Kilimanjaro attracts up to 50,000 tourists every year and has long faced pressures, including overpopulation and over-tourism. But recurring alpine fires are posing a more serious long-term problem.

Andreas Hemp, a biologist at Germany’s University of Bayreuth, has seen several fires eat away at the mountain’s unique vegetation, killing off plants he has studied for decades. Their cause, he says, is a “worrying” mixture of climate change and human activity.


Fires in Tanzania’s dry season are not unusual, Hemp told VICE World News, and some plants even need fires to sprout. But in the past decades, they have become more frequent and more intense. 

Hemp added that unprecedented fires in the 1990s devastated hundreds of acres of forest that would take a century to grow back. This year’s fires have covered a smaller surface area, but “of course, we have to worry,” Hemp warned, because the recurrent burning interrupts forest restoration. “These fires mean that regeneration starts from zero again,” Hemp said. “If we waited for about 100 years, it could have been a forest again.”

The most recent inferno was in October 2020, when cooking porters accidentally started a blaze that raged for a week, destroying an area of 95 square kilometres

Tanzanian authorities have struggled to proactively survey the Mt Kilimanjaro area for fires, due to the massive land area it covers. At 75,000 hectares, it spreads over an area larger than Nairobi. 

This year’s flames first broke out on the 21st of October. Although a smaller surface area than in the 2020 event has burned down, these fires have raged for twice as long. Officials say it’s unclear what caused it, but accidents by porters, tourists as well as locals smoking out bees for honey, have started fires in the past. A dry spell and strong winds have helped fan and spread the flames, park authorities say.


Increasingly dry spells that have meant more frequent fire activity on Kilimanjaro are likely a sign of climate change-induced drier temperatures in the larger east African region, Hemp said. Presently, a stubborn drought lingers in Tanzania. 

Tourists are still on the mountain, with some at the Karanga resting camp, telling BBC journalists they could see smoke from their position. Mt Kilimanjaro generates about $50 million (£44 million) for  Tanzania annually, but with incessant fires, “the revenue flow from tourist activities may decline,” says Ronald Ndesanjo of the University of Dar es Salaam. 

Recurrent fires also threaten Mt Kilimanjaro’s highly biodiverse ecosystem. The giant groundsel, a rare plant that looks like a cactus, and Abbott’s Duiker, an endangered animal in the antelope family, are a few of the species found almost exclusively on Kilimanjaro. The antelope is present in the currently engulfed area.

Foggy cloud forests and rare shrub species that grow higher up on Kilimanjaro - and are presently in the fire’s crosshairs - are especially critical because they act as a condensation tool, allowing for more rainfall in the parched area – water that locals need. Some 150 square kilometres of Kilimanjaro’s rainforests have disappeared in wildfires in the past one and a half centuries.

The mountain is also set to lose its glacier-capped peak. Alarming rates of ice loss have shrunk the Kilimanjaro glacier to less than 20 percent of its size in the 1900s. A UN report on global glacier melt says the remaining glacier patch here “may almost completely disappear by 2050,” due to the climate crisis. Some 18 other glaciers, including the Yellowstone glaciers in the USA and the Dolomites in Italy, will also completely melt.