KAMPALA – For close to 20 years, Mr Ezekiel Kizangi and his wife remained organic farmers who grew crops at the slopes of Mt Elgon and heavily harvested enough for the family.
Then Mt Elgon soils were fertile and Kizangi was using Organic farming, an agricultural production without the use of synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives.
The practice emphasises a holistic farm management approach, where rotations and animals play an integral role to the system and here soil fertility is used in organic management.
But when the soils lost fertility at Mt Elgon due to over cultivation, settlement and logging, Kizangi was advised to apply synthetic nutrients[fertlisers] to restore degraded soil instead of concentrating on maintaining soil fertility primarily through their basic farming practices.
Today the land is barren, can’t support growth of crops because the soil properties have changed as a result of artificial fertilisation, there is topsoil erosion or nutrient exhaustion.
Across the ridges, agricultural activities have also affected forest ecosystems in diverse ways and removal of trees to enhance agricultural production has changed canopy structure, light regimes and the structure of populations and communities.
Research reveals that human activities have had effects on the Mt Elgon forest, in particular, overgrazing by cattle and goats has destroyed the vegetation layer and prevented plant regeneration which in the long run might determine the disappearance of the forest.
According to Kizangi, in the 1970s through the 1980s, Mt Elgon remained grassy, with various trees that lay unperturbed by activities of man – the trees stood out and the forest cover remained green.
He added that at a distance, along the slopes of Mt Elgon, the wind would whistle by and the trees would bend to allow it pass.
Reports from environmentalists indicate that In all directions from Bugisu, Sebei and across the border to Kenya, trees, imposingly stood out in every garden and the land was all veiled in green as organisms lived in symbiotically [having an interdependence relationship].
But that sadly today; they can only have nostalgic images of this past where trees stood out in the gardens and organisms interrelated freely without man’s interference.
Mr Fredric Kiiza, the Mt Elgon chief warden says the relationships among animals and plants including eating helped make up food webs to the level that organisms could also affect each other by providing habitat or competing for resources.
He added that the foundation of all ecosystems in the community of plants that make up the base of energy flow through the system as well as providing habitat, shade, building materials for nests, and many other interactions could be felt.
An ecosystem is a community of plants, animals and other living organisms that share the benefits of a particular space or environment such as air, food, water and soil. It’s no different from our human community where every citizen of a town relies on its own resources and interacts with its environment.
Mr Kiiza said clearing habitats for agriculture, for example, is the principal cause of habitat destruction and that other important causes of habitat destruction include soil mining, logging, excessive harvesting of the Mt Elgon resources and hunting by humans.
He explained that habitat destruction is currently ranked as the primary cause of species extinction worldwide.
“We must know that there is no organism without an environment, but there is no environment without an organism. And I want to state that habitat loss—due to destruction, fragmentation, or degradation of habitat—is the primary threat to the survival of wildlife and other species,” said Mr Kiiza.
He revealed that today at Mt Elgon, there is fast extinction of organisms that is likely to damage the entire Eco-system adding that environmental degradation is the major contributor in the extinction of some animals and plants.
Mr Kizangi agrees with UWA chief warden that the eco-system including trees that formed part of Mt Elgon, have over the years been destroyed as people struggle to get land for settlement and farming, the land has been stripped off their vegetative cover.
“The land no longer supports farming, it appears barren because all organisms that support plant growth have been destroyed, trees have been cut to create land for settlement and farming, the birds, animals and insects whose habitat was Mt Elgon have all escaped,” said Mr Kizangi.
He said because trees have been cut, their children are growing up without knowing that birds are there, they only see the small ones and chicken at home.
Ms Sarah Bisikwa, the Manafwa district senior environment officer says that habitat destruction is the biggest issue that Mt Elgon is facing and that habitat loss is a serious problem for wildlife and humans alike.
“As Wildlife Habitat Without habitat, there is no wildlife. It’s that simple and without wildlife, there is no healthy functioning of the ecosystem services upon which we depend on,” Ms Bisikwa said.
“Imagine waking up one day, only to discover that everything you’ve always known has instantly changed. The home you’ve lived in for your entire life is gone, all around you are elements that could cause harm and this is what happens every day to wildlife and species as their habitats are destroyed at Mt Elgon,” she added.
Ms Bisikwa said about 35 years ago, man began encroaching on the Park land for farming, settlement, devouring the trees from this natural environment and that the forest is slowly vanishing through deforestation.
“And once the forest is damaged, the eco-system is also damaged, the life processes, interactions and adaptations of a specific species are also destroyed,” said Ms Bisikwa.
She said no matter how it happens, the plants, animals, and other organisms whose habitat has been destroyed no longer have a home and that at Mt Elgon the Ecosystem destruction is already happening.
Mr Charles Wakube, the Mbale district natural resources officer said in an ecosystem, each organism has its role and purpose and that disturbing the balance of an ecosystem can be disastrous for all the living things relying on it.
“Ecosystems, species, wildlife, organisms within soils, breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing at Mt Elgon and this loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being,” said Mr Wakube.
He explained that the major causes are the direct exploitation of wildlife by human beings through hunting, the impact of climate change, pollution, desire for land for settlement and the spread of invasive species.
Mr Wakube revealed that habitat destruction by human activities has rendered the entire Mt Elgon habitats functionally unable to support the species and that biodiversity has reduced.
A paper titled; A funny place to store carbon”: UWA-FACE Foundation’s tree planting project in Mount Elgon National Park, Uganda by Mr Chris Yang and Mr Timothy Byakola, 2006 says clearing areas for agricultural purposes is the main cause of habitat destruction and that other principle causes include settlement, mining and logging.
This comes at the time a UN environment report 2019 says more than 40 percent of insect species are dying out and that the most affected insects according to the United Nations include bees, ants, butterflies and remoths at various mountains.
Mr Walter Odokrwot, the warden in charge conservation at Mt Elgon says the earth is considered as an ecosystem on a much larger scale and that once external factors such as too much carbon dioxide or methane are introduced, the balance of the ecosystem is destroyed which in turn affects human beings.
“And the result is global warming, water shortage, extinction of species, etc. This impacts every living thing on the planet, which includes us and the impact of ecosystem destruction will be felt by everything eventually making life very difficult for every living thing,” said Mr Odokrwot.
He revealed that at Mt Elgon habitat loss was endangering animal species, bird species, plant species and that even apex predators are being affected – the lion, leopard and even the mountain monkeys are all being threatened by habitat loss.
Reports in UWA indicate that the natural ecosystems are finding it hard to cope with the different pressures and are unable to adjust and that if humans continue depleting resources and destroying the environment, soon it will be too late for it to recover.
According to Mr Kiiza local people have invaded Mt Elgon national Park forest and some landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants—and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses.
“They have cut the trees; they kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts and when this happens, they need a new host which they will eventually find in us,” said Mr Kiiza.
“Actually scientists and ecologists have now started studies on how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,” he added.
Reports Uganda National Meteorological Authority https://www.unma.go.ug/ indicate that Bugisu, Sebei and lower parts of Mt Elgon, climate change and increased weather variability has been observed and is manifested in the increase in frequency and intensity of weather extremes, including high temperatures leading to prolonged drought and erratic rainfall patterns.
The reports indicate that the area is now facing rising heavy rainfall patterns that are scattered across, flooding, mudslides, storms, droughts and frequent and intense heat due to climate change.
Mr Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) says while we still can, let’s do our share to stop degrading our ecosystems adding that “Our lives depend on all of us interacting in a sustainable environment.”
He explained that human are destroying nature at an unprecedented rate, threatening the survival of a million species – and our own future, too but that it was not too late to save them and us.
A Sciencing Web reveals that large scale tree cutting can lead to deforestation, a transformation of an area from forest to terrain with little vegetation and that plants create oxygen and absorbs greenhouse gases.
“So the destruction of trees may, therefore, encourage global warming and changing temperatures can alter which organisms can survive in an ecosystem,” reads the report by Sciencing website.
It adds that mass removal of trees increases the soil erosion by water runoff and that excessive runoff muddies waterways harms aquatic life.
The report says that the soil decreases in quality once the falling leaves that provide nutrient-rich humus are gone and that this harms the habitat of dirt-dwelling organisms.
Mr Kizza explains that clearing of any area of native vegetation at Mt Elgon is having significant impact on biological diversity of the mountain.
He added that the destruction of habitat is the major cause of loss of biological diversity, the species of restricted distribution are facing extinction and that for more widespread species there is likely to be loss of local genotypes.
Mr Muramuzi of NAPE says that clearing of forested areas has been identified as a threat to a number of species, communities and populations listed under the Threatened Species Conservation Act and could cause species, populations or ecological communities that are not threatened to become threatened.
He revealed that in many cases native vegetation and native fauna are negatively impacted by inappropriate levels of cutting-back, farming and clearing land for settlement that leads to removal of dead plant material.
“For some fauna species, the removal of single living or dead trees (standing or lying, and including in the last stages of decay) can have serious consequences for breeding and survival,” added Mr Muramuzi.
It is clear that Ecosystems maintain a very delicate balance in the environment and various human activities which are threatening to disrupt this balance could destroy the Mt Elgon’s ecosystems.
A paper by UWA entitled how to save Mt Elgon suggests that reducing negative human impact requires three concepts: environmental management, management of human consumption of resources, and awareness of cultural and political concerns to increase sustainability.