Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Udzungwa Mountains National Park

21st February 2013

The Udzungwa Mountains National Park is a sumptuous forested reserve that has recently been declared the sacred preserve of hikers and walkers. The land is ancient, a portion of the Eastern Arc mountains pushed upwards by faulting in the earth’s crust millions of years ago, and its steep slopes preserve a rare tropical forest that is home to a realm of unique plants, birds and animals. It is also the only area in Tanzania where the forest cover remains unbroken from the lowlands all the way into the high mountain forests.

These forests are remarkably unspoilt; a wilderness of extremely beautiful woodland routes – with no driving tracks at all. Of the five official trails, two bring walkers to the spectacular 170 m drop of Sanje Falls, with colourful and long ranging views of up to 100km across the Kilombero sugar plantations and mosaic of grasslands from the top. The areas around the Sanje Falls become an incredible blur of butterfly colour after the rains in December, April, May and June, when flowers and air alike are often filled with hundreds of Swallowtails and Blue Salamis. Another leads up to Mwanihana’s peak, a demanding but rewarding hike that demands a degree of fitness from those who choose to climb. The highest peak of all is Luhomero, reaching 2,576 m (8,587 ft), above sea level, a distance requiring two nights and three days to climb there and back.

A number of rivers, streams and waterfalls make their way down these slopes into the Great Ruaha River, accumulating enough velocity to power the majority of the country’s electricity from the hydro-electric turbines at Kidatu, and irrigate the crops to the south.

Udzungwa Mountain National Park – Specialist and endemic species

Among all the species of wildlife in the Uzungwa forests, there have been found several that are unique to this area. The endangered Iringa (or Uhehe) Red Colobus monkey (Colobus badius gondonorum) is found here, and a much more rare and shy Sanje Crested Mangabey (Cercocebus galeritus sanjei), discovered in 1979 as a result of an unusual encounter by two wildlife ecology researchers from Dar es Salaam University. While collecting plants in the forest, they heard a strange sound that seemed to resemble a Mangabey monkey call, but as the next nearest populations of Mangabey are thought to be limited to those in forests in Southern Kenya, the researchers imagined that they were suffering hallucinations. However, their Tanzanian guide described the animal that they had heard, although he only knew it as ‘n’golaga’, the Swahili name for the species, and clearly distinguished it from a colobus, vervet or Sykes monkey, or a baboon. When he took them to find some n’golaga in the forest canopy the next day, the researchers glimpsed the first sight of this unique species of Mangabey in the early morning mist. Unlike the Kenyan species, the Sanje Mangabey has a pale face and light grey body, and stands about 0.75m tall, excluding its long tail. But the researchers wanted to get a better look, and were delighted when their guide took them to see a tame n’golaga which had been adopted by local children after their father accidentally shot her mother when he mistook her for a yellow baboon. The researchers knew that this species was unique, and were even more excited to discover its unusual tufty fringe, which seemed to indicate a very distinguished strain of Mangabey – until it became clear that the children had styled her Mangabey crest an extreme haircut, to keep the hair out of her eyes.

The other extremely rare species unique to the Udzungwas is a bird, the ‘globally threatened’ Udzungwa forest Partridge, which was first recognised as a significant, unusual species of Partridge in July 1991. Legend tells how a researcher living in the forest had just devoured his partridge supper when, on closer inspection, he realised that the bird was unfamiliar, and for a time became concerned that he might have eaten the last one. Fortunately, although still rare in the Udzungwa forests, the Partridge has since been spotted more frequently in the west of the National Park, and recently also near Luhomero Mountain.

The Udzungwa Partridge is just one of many extremely rare bird species in this region, and features among many other unusual species, such as the Iringa akalat (Sheppardia montana), mainly spotted between 1,600 and 2,400 metres in regions around the outskirts of the National Park, and the White Winged Apalis, (Apalis Chariessa), which may be seen feeding among other birds on the forest floor. The recently discovered Rufous red-winged sunbird (Nectarinia Rufipennis) was identified here in 1981, and is more common in the forests between 600 and 1,700 metres – it joins two other very rare species of sunbird in the Udzungwa forests, the Amani (Anthreptes pallidigaster) and the Banded-green sunbird, (Anthreptes rubritorques).

Other rare species exist in the Udzungwas in denser populations than found elsewhere, such as the Dappled Mountain Robin (Arcanator Orostruthus) the Olive-flanked ground robin (Cossypha anomala), the Black-backed cisticola (Cisticola eximus) and the Red-capped forest warbler, (Othotomus Metopias). Another pretty bird common to the area is the red-brown-headed Mrs Moreau’s warbler, (Bathmocercus Winifredi), named by the highly acclaimed Africa ornithologist R.E Moreau after his wife, Winnifred. The Moreaus were also responsible for naming another warbler after a family member, when they called a small tail-wagging warbler after their daughter, Prinnia.

Five amphibian and reptile species have also been discovered to be unique to the area, including a new species of toad, a tree frog, a chameleon, a forest gecko, (Cnemaspis Uzungwae) and a skink. The tiny Udzungwa Puddle frog, with its distinctive band across its eyes, was distinguished and recorded in 1983.

Udzungwa Mountains National Park – History

Udzungwa Mountains National Park is the most recently gazetted of Tanzania’s National Parks, although it has been a forest reserve since the British created the Mwanihana and West Kilombero Scarp reserves in the early fifties. The park covers 1,990 sq km, almost one-fifth of the 10,000 sq km that comprises the Udzungwa mountain range, and is bordered by the Great Ruaha River to the north and Kilombero Valley to the southeast. The present park was discussed for a decade before its fruition in 1992, and is the first National Park to be declared on the merits of its forests rather than animal population. The history of this land is an ancient one. The base of these mountains dates from 450 to 650 million years ago, and the dense tropical forest that covers the mountain is thought to be a pocket of vegetation preserved from the time of the Gondwanaland supercontinent that existed up to 30 million years ago. Leaping forwards through the spectrum of time, archaeological finds around this area and Isimila have unearthed Stone Age hand axes and tools that were carefully crafted by hunter-gatherers. The somewhat limited archaeological study that has been carried out here also provides evidence of a major migration through this area during 1st and 2nd centuries, during which iron-working Bantu tribes progressed eastwards and displaced native hunter-gatherers.

Later, the Wadzungwa people, one of the 6 sub-groups of Hehe who resisted German colonisation for seven years before the Maji Maji rebellion, were pushed out of the Iringa area by their fellow tribesmen and took up resistance on side of mountain. From the position of weakness that saw them succumbing to the pressure to move, the Wadzungwa found themselves in a stronger position around a richly fertile mountain, watered with abundant rain and spring source rivers. Their name means ‘people who live on the side of the mountain’, and the name Udzungwa has probably evolved as a result of another linguistic corruption by German interpreters.

Such a naturally attractive area has not been overlooked by other peoples from different areas, and has attracted a migration of tribes including the Wapogoro (farmers and hunters), the Wabena from the Upper Kilombero valley, some WaChagga from the region around Kilimanjaro and others. The people on the Eastern side of the mountain believe in a mountain god they call ‘Bokela’, and they use certain regions of the park for sacrifice and worship, especially during hard times such as drought, disease and famine. There was great unease when TANAPA started to assess the mountains, as it was thought that Bokela would be offended if the area was to be farmed or used for logging. Happily, it is now widely believed that Bokela is contented with the present situation, and supports this conservation of his mountain.

The late development of the National Park has meant that it has benefit from recent TANAPA and CCS (Community Conservation Services) policies that take account for the people that will be affected by the conservation measures. The Udzungwa local communities have therefore not suffered quite as drastically as their country people surrounding previous national parks, and they have been party to a new policy of communication, consultation and compromise with regard to the implications the new restrictions will have on their lifestyle. Local people have traditionally relied on the forests for centuries, using the wood for building, fuel, medicines, household utensils and weaving materials, honey gathering and utensils. Bamboo and reeds are used to make baskets for carrying agricultural produce, and animals such as the bush pig, tree hyrax and forest antelopes have traditionally been hunted for protein. The Hehe people traditionally used the furs of the Black and White Colobus monkeys as a part of their ceremonial dress.

Since the National Park has been established, local people are allowed into the forests on Fridays and Sundays to collect dead wood for cooking and grass for thatching, but any form of axe or knife is prohibited within the boundaries. If you are between Kidatu and Mang’ula on either of these days you will see scores of women of all ages emerging from the forests with vast bundles of wood balanced on their heads. Frequently the load is so great that it might exceed her own height and require the help of someone else to lift it into position. But once arranged, she will often then carry it a number of kilometres home. The WWF are supporting an extensive reforestation program, to educate and encourage the community to plant trees and seedlings, for both fruit and wood, around their land, and another concession grants those with practical knowledge of traditional medicines a three month pass to gather the required ingredients from the forest.

There is a good atmosphere in this local enclave, slightly reminiscent of the mountain-dwelling communities around Kilimanjaro and Lushoto in the Usambaras. The mountains obviously once attracted missionary zeal, and there are a number of schools and various denominations of churches dotting the steep sloping hillsides. Yards are well-kept, and gardens grow with fruit and flowers for decoration. Fat chickens and bright coloured khangas give a good air of contentment and well-being here, and the road passes high numbers of lime stacks for burning limestone, showing a growth in construction and hand made housing.