Five Ecological Zones on Kilimanjaro

Five Ecological Zones on Kilimanjaro

At 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro’s imposing landmass is about 97 kilometres long and 76 kilometres wide. The tallest free standing mountain along with giving breath-taking views also offers 5 distinct ecological zones that have formed due to the mountain’s location and extreme height. As the mountain sits just south of the equator, the lower region experiences higher temperatures however as you climb it gets colder. Depending on the altitude you are and the route you are hiking, you will experience different environment.  These zones reflect the temperature and precipitation changes along with the rising altitude. The five different zones are – farmland zone, rainforest zone, moorland zone, highland/alpine deserts and the summit or arctic zone.

Farmland Zone:

Altitude: 2,600 to 6,000 ft. (800 to 1,800 m)

Precipitation: 20 to 70 in (500 to 1,800 mm)

The foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro are cultivated lands offering little in the way of wilderness experience or wildlife encounters. The rich land is watered from the mountains above and has been cleared over centuries to make way for traditional crops. Farming by small villages (Chagga Villages) has caused most wild animals to move higher up as the fertile volcanic soil makes it ideal land for agriculture. The farmlands are mostly used for coffee production and you will be driven through this zone to the start of the forest on your first day on your quest to summit Kilimanjaro.

Rainforest Zone:

Altitude: 6,000 to 9,200 ft (1,800 to 2,800 m)

Precipitation: 79 to 40 in (2,000 to 1,000 mm)

The second zone you encounter is the rainforest zone that receives six to seven feet of rain per year and bursts with biodiversity. Although most of the rain on the mountain falls on the south side of the mountain, climbers definitely want to have their rain gear handy to protect themselves from the constant drizzle as rainy nights can produce surprisingly low temperatures. Flora and fauna are diverse but the animals are very elusive. Climbers approaching the summit from the Rongai, Lemosho, Shira or northern circuit may be lucky enough to spot olive baboons, leopards, mongooses, elephants, bush babies, black rhinoceros, giraffes and buffaloes. Keep your camera handy, because if you do see some good wildlife, you will be one of the few people who have.

Moorland Zone:

Altitude: 9,200 to 13,200 ft (2,800 to 4,000 m)

Precipitation: 51 to 21 in (1,300 to 530 mm)

Also known as the Heathlands, this zone is semi-alpine and is “high altitude” region where the first signs of mountain sickness may begin to appear in some climbers. A good number of people wisely choose to spend a day or two at this altitude to gradually acclimatize to the elevation and the decreasing oxygen level to give themselves a better chance of reaching to the top. Characterised by tall, silky heathers along with giant lobelias and groundsel, the moorland is drier and cooler than the forest, but the sun will scorch you unpityingly. In flowering season, stretches of grassland are brightened with flowering bulbs and amongst the unbelievable flora, one can find the giant Protea, beloved of florists for its dramatic, long-lasting cone-shaped blossom. It’s a Botanists’ paradise whit vegetation and abundant wildflowers that have evolved amazingly to shelter their flowers from frost. Although too high for animals, mice and mole-rats are sufficiently abundant to feed highland civets. The most common birds seen in the moorlands are easily recognizable black and white crows that can be spotted stalking round the overnight huts expecting titbits from visitors.

Alpine Desert:

Altitude: 13,200 to 16,500 ft (4,000 to 5,000 m)

Precipitation: 10 in (250 mm)

From the heights of the Alpine Desert, there are superb views of the craters of Mawenzi and the snow-crowned summit Kibo. You can also see the majestic Mount Meru rising from the spreading plains more than 4000 metres beneath your feet. With little water and correspondingly light vegetation, this zone is categorised under “very high altitude” region of Mount Kilimanjaro. Our advice for ideal acclimatization always is to spend a few days here and we encourage our clients to adopt the “climb high, sleep low” method which reduces the ill effects of altitude. The temperatures on this height can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and can plummet to well below freezing levels during the night leaving a dust of morning frost on the tents. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen liberally to save your skin from the burning sun.

Arctic Zone:

Altitude: 16,500+ ft. (5,000+ m)

Precipitation: <4 in (100 mm)

The final region and the pinnacle of the Kilimanjaro climbing is your approach to the awe-inspiring arctic zone characterised by ice and rock walls with a view of a lifetime. In spite of the enervating effects of this high altitude and uncomfortable temperatures, your heart will swell with pride as you confront the top of the world. The last stop before the summit will be cold and oxygen levels at this height will be approximately half of what they are at the sea level but the glory of the star-studded sky will be enough to distract you from the almost lifeless altitude. Due to the “extreme altitude,” the climbers experience varying degrees of altitude related symptoms at this elevation. The advice is to try to avoid spending too much time at this altitude to avoid the escalation of AMS any further. 

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