Africa - September 2017

AfroMont Mountain Research and News Digest, September 2017

201707 Intro
AfroMont, a knowledge sharing platform, was initiated in 2007 by the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI) to focus research attention on the diverse issues and challenges facing the mountainous regions of sub-Saharan Africa. AfroMont is an online media platform, now with ten years of activities, all with a focus on Africa mountain research and Sustainable Mountain Development (SMD) in African countries. We follow advances in African mountain research and issues including news and specialized opinion articles covering all aspects of global change in mountains.

Photo credit: Sue Taylor. Towards Lesotho and the Maloti Mountains, South Africa.



Editorial – Scientists can't be silent

From an article in Science Magazine, written by Senator Christopher Coons in the USA, a concern was expressed that in some countries, notably the USA, the value of science is being downplayed by decision makers and ignored by a populace who have learned to distrust science (as in climate change, evolution and vaccinations). Senator Coons makes a plea for science to be viewed as of key importance, both for technological innovation and new industries, but also in providing evidence to take a stand against some of the more disturbing developments in science denialism, for example, where the impacts of climate are being downplayed. Senator Coons says that across the U.S. federal government, scientists are playing a decreasing role in the policymaking, often being pushed out by a political agenda that is stridently anti-science. Meanwhile, Americans are becoming more distrustful of democratic institutions, the scientific method, and basic facts - three core beliefs on which the research enterprise depends. The United States remains the unquestioned global leader in science and innovation, but sustaining the U.S. commitment to science won't happen without a fight.

African relevance of science

While this issue is beginning to reach a crescendo in the USA, the message has relevance for all other nations. Governments need to invest in scientific explorations and society needs to understand and heed their findings. One area where it is essential for scientific investigations to be carried out, and for the findings taken into policy and decision making is that of water resource management and preparedness for drought. However, despite research and climatological monitoring, Southern Africa was not prepared for the very severe drought of 2015/2016. It is estimated that over 34 million persons thought to have been affected by food insecurity. In Johannesburg, I had to lend some local Malawians cash to send ‘home’ as they told me that ‘people were dying’ in their home villages and they were concerned for their families so far away. There was also no seed for planting when it did start raining again, all seed reserves having been consumed to keep households fed.

Archer et al (2017) note that with modern climatological methods it is possible to predict rainfall (or lack of) patterns up to two months before they happen. Also, El Nino is also predictable and occurs with some regularity. In the light of ongoing research, South African climatologists began warning decision makers early on about the pending super-drought. Archer et al (2017) also state that drought information was in ‘certain areas ignored or not taken sufficiently on board’ – meaning that it was ignored by the authorities that should have taken action.

The cost of the South Africa drought was huge, from massive livestock deaths, to crop failures. Warnings to subsistence farmers to downsize herds before the quality of the livestock had deteriorated were not made timeously particularly in regions where communal land is farmed and emerging black farmers are trying to establish themselves. Also, rural villages were stricken by a lack of water and water tankers were used to supply water to these communities (they should have had government-funded boreholes put in the minute drought was predicted). Civil society responded by collecting 5 l bottles of purified water (and after some months, this was downgraded to 5 l bottles of any water) and taking it around to desperate rural and urban communities. Some concerned individuals even took to putting bowls of water outside their house or gate to allow for birds and small mammals, or even the local dogs, to get a drink. We don’t know what the impact of such a drought is on the biota, and how quickly natural systems recover. One of the long term impacts of this drought on human society will be the increased the flow of rural people to the cities where it is likely that they will live in informal settlements and not find work.
I also was privileged to sit in on a talk by the CEO of Bloemfontein Water recently. Bloemfontein Water is an entity that provides bulk water to municipalities within the Free State province of South Africa. The CEO is highly qualified in water resource management and very outspoken. She began her talk by saying ‘There is no water, my friends. There is no water!’ This was an important and courageous statement relating our long term water future – many politicians do not acknowledge that South Africa is an arid country. We so often hear politicians trying to placate their voters, saying that there is no crisis. Well, the science, villagers and farmers are telling us that there is indeed a crisis. As well as being an arid country, we in South Africa should know that climate change is upon us (2016 was the hottest year on record in South Africa and it is safe to say that 2017 will also be awarded this title, and then 2018) and we cannot ignore the predictive value of science.

Scientists can't be silent. Senator Christopher Coons. Science 04 Aug 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6350, pp. 431. DOI: 10.1126/science.aao4665


Read the full AfroMont News Digest here!


Newsletter compilations - See compilations of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Afromont newsletters on the AfroMont website :



Chimanimani Mountains and artisanal mining

The southern African mountain research and NGO fraternity have learned of a potential new threat to the Chimanimani National Park in Zimbabwe. A very small notice appeared in the Zimbabwe Financial Gazette on the 17 July 2017 saying that the Zimbabwean government is planning to ‘release one million hectares’ of protected land to small-scale gold miners across the country to boost production, issued by the Mines and Development Deputy Minister, Mr Fred Moyo.  The land is apparently to be ‘released soon’.  The statement states that once protected areas are de-proclaimed, miners can ‘rush in and peg out their claims in the normal way that people do’.

Impacts of Artisanal Mining
Impacts of artisanal diggings are particularly severe in wetlands and river beds. (Photo credit: Jonathan Timberlake)

The Chimanimani Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) is one of Africa’s least-known nature reserves, and is made up of Chimanimani Nature Reserve in Mozambique (2368 km2 of which approximately 645 km2 conservation area represent the full park and 1723kmthe buffer zone); and Chimanimani National Park in Zimbabwe (200 km2) along with the Eland Sanctuary (15km2) in Zimbabwe.  The TFCA encompasses a number of mountain ranges with high peaks rising to 2436 m asl.  Development in this park gem has been intentionally limited to preserve the pristine natural beauty of the area. The park boasts the inclusion of spectacular mountains, virgin forests and world-renowned cave systems (SADC-GTZ policy brief, Chimanimani Transfrontier Conservation).

See the Afromont blog on the potential de-proclamation of the Chimanimani National Park in Zimbabwe to make way for increased artisanal mining. 

Also, a number of papers have been written on this issue, noting that the issue is largely intractable and difficult to deal with by governments.

  • Dondeye S, Ndunguru E, Rafael R and Bannerman J (2009). Artisanal mining in central Mozambique: Policy and environmental issues of concern. Resources Policy 34: 45–50
  • Dondeyne S and Ndunguru E (2014). Artisanal gold mining and rural development policies in Mozambique: Perspectives for the future. Futures 62 (2014) 120–127



Metagenomics and mountain microbes, Mt Kilimanjaro style

AfroMont has been able to champion a research collaboration between Prof Don Cowan, Director of the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics  (CMEG) at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and the Drs Claudia and Andreas Hemp of the German-funded Mt Kili project doing research at  Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.  Earlier this year, Prof Cowan agreed to attend the AfroMont-Mt Kili Mountain research conference in Moshi, Tanzania and then stayed on for an extra day to have detailed discussions with the Hemps on the possibility of setting up a microbial research project on Mt Kilimanjaro.   Soil microbiology is one of the last frontiers of ecosystem research, particularly in mountains, and new metagenomic methods have made the study of microbial diversity more meaningful as the presence of non-culturable microbes can be identified.

CMEG researchers use a range of modern molecular and Next Generation DNA sequencing methods, including population phylogenetics and comparative metagenomics, to investigate the diversity of bacteria, fungi, archaea and viruses in soil samples and to study the metabolic capacity and stress-response adaptations in individual microbial genomes.  CMEG researchers use comparative metagenomics, involving the comparisons of multiple entire metagenomes, in order to understand the variation in functional traits across different habitats and microenvironments. They have been very successful in reconstructing complete bacterial genomes from metagenomics sequence data, allowing them to probe the physiological capacity and adaptive strategies of microorganisms which have never been cultured.

Prof Don Cowan and the Hemps agreed that a collaborative project to investigate the microbial complement along an altitudinal range of the Mt Kilimanjaro Mountain could be set up as a sub-project of the bigger Mt Kili project. The Mt Kili project has, over the years, established a set of 64 research plots (50 m2) at a range of altitudes, meaning that vegetation studies are well advanced for these plots. It’s just the microbial studies that have never been attempted.

A Tanzanian student, Mr  Paul Mrosso, with a BSc from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania,  was selected to work on this project as his Master’s thesis and will start in January 2018. Initially, he will work with the Mt Kili team to collect around 70 - 100 soil samples from an designated altitudinal transect and bring them to Prof Cowan’s CMEG lab at the University of Pretoria.  As the project will be a ‘sub-project’ under the Mt Kili project, it will be easier for the Mt Kili project leaders to get the permits for the collection and export the soil samples to South Africa. In Pretoria, the student will collaborate with CMEG researchers to do the soil chemistry on the samples and then undertake the metagenomics studies. This study will align perfectly with a larger CMEG project:  the African Soil Microbiology (AfSM) project.

Mt Kilimanjaro
Mt Kilimanjaro (Photo credit: Dr Claudia Hemp)

The key research aims are to explore the microbial diversity across the altitudinal gradients at Mt Kilimanjaro and compare this with the soil physico-chemistry and local vegetation on the selected plots. Finally, the project is expected to yield information about the drivers of microbial diversity across an altitudinal transect on the highest (and coldest) mountain in Africa.



1st West Africa Mountain Forum

From October 5 to 8, 2017 in Kpalimé, Togo (West Africa), the 1st West Africa Mountain Forum will be organized by the Platform of Civil Society Organizations for the Safeguard of Mountains (PSM) in partnership with the Togolese Ministry of Environment and Forest Resources and the Mountain Partnership. The main theme of the event is “The contribution of mountains to the development of the economy and adaptation to climate change” and aims to is to promote sustainability and environmental justice by urging governments, local decision makers, traditional leaders and NGOs dealing with environmental protection to take into account the sustainable management of mountain ecosystems in their national development’s policies and action plans.

The meeting will gather scientists, researchers, traditional leaders, representatives of women right’s organizations, national and international NGO representatives from Africa, Europe, Asia and America and all those who have the possibility and willing to contribute through their experience so that the event be successful are kindly invited.
Registration: The registration process will start from May 30 to July 31, 2017 and the registration form is available on the forum website: - it should be filled in and send back to:



Editor’s Choice - selected new literature

Global plight of native temperate grasslands: going, going, gone? Carbutt, C., Henwood, W.D. and Gilfedder, L.A. (2017):, Biodiversity and Conservation doi: 10.1007/s10531-017-1398-5. The paper can be viewed at the following link:

Abstract: The indelible imprint of humanity is credited for the major degradation of natural systems worldwide. Nowhere are the transforming qualities of mankind more apparent than in the native temperate grassland regions of the world. Formerly occupying some 9 million km2, or 8% of the planet’s terrestrial surface, native temperate grasslands have been reduced to vestiges of their former glory. Only 4.6% are conserved globally within protected areas—a testament to being the least protected and the most extensively transformed of the world’s terrestrial biomes. The aim of this paper is to continue promoting the conservation value of native temperate grasslands, and reiterate the need for further protection and sustainable management before further losses and inadequate protection undermine ecological integrity any further. A new strategic direction is presented for the next decade, underpinned by ten key focus areas. The most realistic opportunities to improve protection lie in central, eastern and western Asia where landscape-scale tracts of native temperate grassland remain in reasonable condition. Such a course necessitates a strong reliance on integrating sustainable use and conservation by promoting concepts such as Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas as legitimate and recognized forms of protected areas. Here the conservation value of working rangeland landscapes utilised by nomadic pastoralists comes to the fore. The naïve and shortsighted approach to viewing the temperate grasslands merely as a palette for transformation and intensive utilization should be weighed more objectively against an understanding of the myriad of benefits they provide.


A climatology of potential severe convective environments across South Africa. Blamey RC, Middleton C, Lennard C and Reason CJC (2017). Climate Dynamics. 49, 5-6:1-18. DOI:10.1007/s00382-016-3434-7


Variability in the Botswana High and its relationships with rainfall and temperature characteristics over southern Africa. Driver P and Reason CJC (2017). Int. J. Climatol., DOI:10.1002/joc.5022


Satyrium liltvedianum: A newly discovered orchid species from the Kogelberg Mountains of the Cape Floristic Region (South Africa). Van der Niet, T (2017). SOUTH AFRICAN JOURNAL OF BOTANY, 111 126-133; 10.1016/j.sajb.2017.03.018 JUL 2017


Geomorphologic proxies for bedrock rivers: A case study from the Rwenzori Mountains, East African Rift system. Xue, Liang; Gani, Nahid D.; Abdelsalam, Mohamed G. (2017). GEOMORPHOLOGY, 285 374-398; 10.1016/j.geomorph.2017.01.009 MAY 15 2017


Managing Climate Change Risks in Africa - A Global Perspective. Adenle et al. (2017). Ecological Economics, Volume 141, November 2017, Pages 190-201


The Impact of Land Use Change on Carbon Stored in Mountain Grasslands and Shrublands. Ward A, Yin K-S, Dargusch P., Fulton EA and Aziz AA (2017). Ecological Economics, Volume 135: 114-124


Drainage network morphometry and evolution in the eastern Lesotho highlands, southern Africa. Knight and Grab (2017). Quaternary International, In press, corrected proof, Available online 26 July 2017


Due South: A first assessment of the potential impacts of climate change on Cape vulture occurrence. Phipps WL, Diekmann M, MNacTavish LM and Mendelsohn JM (2017). Biological Conservation, Volume 210, Part A:16-25