Mahale Mountains National Park

The bird species list for Mahale now stands at 355, which represents about 80% of the species that are likely to be found in Mahale. In his field survey, Moyer (2006) noted that the Kabezi area in the north had the highest abundance of birds, but this probably reflects the better visibility in such open woodland habitat, rather than an actual higher abundance of birds. At Kabezi, many records were made of aerial foraging species, birds of prey and migratory species, whereas in the forested study areas (Kasoge and Mfitwa), sight records were a relatively small part of the total and vocal records made up the bulk of contacts. Aerial species may easily be missed when surveying in thick forest, and it can be difficult to detect birds unless they are very close or vocalizing.

Mahale Mountains National Park plays an extremely important role in the conservation of several bird subspecies that are endemic to the immediate area. All endemic taxa at Mahale are classified as ‘Vulnerable’ in the ICBP/IUCN Red Data Book.

Reptiles & Amphibians
Very scant information exists about the reptiles and amphibians of Mahale. The western Tanzania, and Mahale in particular, have been subject to very poor surveys with no accurate data of the past. There are still many things left to be learned about the herpetofauna of this park. A total of 26 reptile species have been recorded in Mahale, but building up a reasonably complete list is a task that will take many years of focused fieldwork.

In the first systematic study carried out in the park, Moyer (2006) collected twenty species of amphibians. This represents a minimum number for Mahale and the total is likely to be double or triple this figure. Subsequent fieldwork has identified two species (one frog and one gecko) that are likely to be new to science.

Lake Tanganyika is one of the oldest lakes in the world and has several million years of history. About 250 species of fish live in the lake, and most of these are endemic, occurring nowhere else on Earth. The lake is well known for the evolution and adaptive radiation of the Cichlidae family (Perciformes), to which around two thirds of the lake’s fish belong.

Offshore, in abyssal and littoral areas, a variety of complex and stable fish communities have developed. These are largely comprised of Cichlidae species, each of which occupies its own ecological niche, and interacts with others in specific and mutually beneficial ways.

Recently, some interesting aspects of the ecology of these fish have been discovered; for example, the fact that the scale-eating cichlid fish displays ‘mouth-sidedness’. Members of this species belong to one of two morphological types, ‘right-‘ or ‘left-sided’, and their ratio in a population is kept at 1:1 through frequency-dependent natural selection, which is exerted via prey alertness. In other words, if one type of fish becomes more common, prey become better able to detect that morphological type, putting it at a disadvantage, and tipping the balance in favour of the less common type, which subsequently breeds more successfully, and increases in frequency in the population. One cat-fish species provides another interesting example in the form of brood parasitism. Many cichlids keep their fertilized spawn in their mouths until the fry hatch. The fry of one cat-fish species take advantage of this by creeping into the cichlid’s mouth, where they grow whilst eating the fry of their host.

Miombo woodland (dominated by Brachystegia and Julbernardia species) covers about three quarters of the park. This is criss-crossed by narrow strips of riverine forest that grow along some watercourses. Where the mountain chain converges with the lake, there is a broad blanket of lowland forest, known locally as ‘Kasoge’, which extends up to 1 300 m a.s.l. Above this, on the mountain slopes, a mixture of bamboo bushland and montane forest can be found. The montane forest comprises of trees which belong to Podocarpus, Bersama, Nuxiacongesta, Macaranga, and Croton family which are also found in similar forests of Kilimanjaro. At about 2,300 meters, the slopes are characterized by montane grassland. This peculiar habitat mosaic results from the combined presence of Lake Tanganyika and the Mahale Mountains, which affect climatic conditions on a very localized scale.

The total number of plant species recorded in Mahale Mountains National Park is 1174. This list is largely the work of many years of collecting done in the park by the Japanese research team. However, their focus has been on chimpanzee food plants and there remains much general botanical fieldwork to be done in Mahale before the park can be considered well collected. The Albertine rift, an ecoregion which stretches from the northern end of Lake Albert to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, has a very high number of plant species (5793) and 567 of those are endemic to the region. The current recorded total of 1174 species for Mahale may represent fewer than half of the species actually present there

The lowland, or Kasoge, forest
The lowland forests of the Mahale are found on the western slopes of the Mahale Mountains along the lakeshore. It stretches for 7 Km from the Myako Valley down to Lubulungu River. The altitudinal difference of the mountain slopes ranges from from 780 m a.s.l. (lake level) to 1 300 m a.s.l. on the mountain slopes. It covers not only the valleys, but also parts of the ridge. The presence of this forest is due to a suitable local microclimate, which includes higher rainfall than in other parts of the park, and high levels of humidity throughout the year. Such climatic conditions are the result of a humid mass of air over the lake colliding with a cold mass of moving air blowing down from the Mahale Mountains from as high as 2 400 m a.s.l.

The Kasoge forest is an enclave of the central-African, tropical, semi-deciduous forest type. Tall trees belonging to genera such as Canarium, Albizia, Cynometra, Khaya, Xylopia, Pseudospondias, Ficus, Pycnanthus and Garcinia form the canopy of the forest and evergreen vines belonging to Saba and Landolphia are entwined around these.

Geographical features
Mahale Mountains National Park (1 613 km2) is about 128 km south of Kigoma Town, and forms a peninsula that juts out into Lake Tanganyika. Its centre lies 6°00’ – 6°28’ S and 29°43’ – 30°60’ E.

The western boundary of the park protects not only the lakeshore but also an adjacent 1.6 km-wide strip of Lake Tanganyika’s waters. The Park’s terrain is mostly rugged and hilly, and is dominated by the Mahale Mountains chain that runs from the northwest to the southeast across the park. The highest peak is 2,462 m a.s.l.

There are two seasons in the park. Generally, the dry season starts in mid-May and ends in mid-October with a maximum mean temperature of 31°C. The rainy season lasts from mid-October until mid-May. During both seasons, temperatures can fluctuate, particularly between day and night. The annual rainfall ranges between 1 500 and 2 500 mm.

Further reading

  • David C. Moyer (2006). Biodiversity of Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania. Unpublished report, Wildlife Conservation Society Tanzania Program.
  • Kyoto University Africa Primatological Expedition Exhibition at Bilenge.
  • Mahale Wildlife Conservation Society. Vegetation and area map for MMNP. Brochure.
  • Pan Africa News (Mahale Wildlife Conservation Society)
  • Anderson, S. and M. Baker. 2004. A Survey of the Avifauna of Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania. Report to the Mahale Ecosystem Management Project.
  • Baker, N. E. and E. Baker. 2001-2006. The Tanzania Bird Atlas project.
  • Behangana, M., D. Meirte, A. J. Plumptre, K. Howell and H. Hinkel. 2003. The Biodiversity of the Albertine Rift. Section 4: Reptiles. Albertine Rift Technical Reports No. 3, Wildlife Conservation Society.
  • Channing, A. and K. Howell 2006. Amphibians of East Africa. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press.
  • Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. London, Academic Press.
  • Spawls, S., K. Howell, R. Drewes, and J. Ashe. 2002. A Field Guide to the Reptile