Local people protect nature in Tanzania’s biodiversity hotspot

The Guardian Tanzania
East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania
Local people protect nature in Tanzania’s biodiversity hotspot

In 2001, German biologist Viola Clausnitzer was working in the Amani-Sigi Forest in Tanzania’s East Usambara Mountains when she spotted something special. At a small, boulder-strewn stream in the dense forest, she had found a kind of dragonfly that had not been seen since 1962, when it was first described for science.

“It was exciting,” says Clausnitzer. “Virtually nothing was known about its ecology, behaviour and habitat.”

The dragonfly was an Amani flatwing (Amanipodagrion gilliesi). It is today known from just one location and is considered to be critically-endangered. But it is just one of many rare and threatened species that are found nowhere else on Earth than in the East Usambara Mountains. They include birds and snakes and frogs and plants. With threats to these species increasing, local people are now working together to increase habitat and safeguard this special place.

The critically-endangered Amani flatwing dragonfly is known only from a single stream. Credit: Viola Clausnitzer
The critically-endangered Amani flatwing dragonfly is known only from a single stream / Credit: Viola Clausnitzer.

The East Usambara Mountains are part of what scientists call a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ because of the rich variety and uniqueness of the species that live there. This includes more than 340 bird species and ten times that many species of plants. But many of the region’s species are at risk from logging, gold mining, pollution and the expansion of agriculture into forest areas.

These threats are particularly acute for endangered species such as the Usambara spotted worm snake, Usambara garter snake, Giant East Usambara blade-horned chameleon, Mazumbai warty frog and Usambara blue-bellied frog and, among birds, the Usambara akalat, Usambara weaver, Usambara hyliota, and the critically-endangered Long-billed forest warbler (see Hope for rare species as villagers remove invasive umbrella trees).

“Many more species of flora and fauna are threatened in these mountains,” says ornithologist Martin Joho. “That’s why we want to conserve the area and plant indigenous trees to improve biodiversity and the natural environment”.

Caring friends

Joho is a member of the Amani Friends of Nature, an organisation created by local people after they recognised the environmental problems and became concerned about the future of this important area for biodiversity and the communities that live there.

The organisation was officially registered in 2020, and is based in Amani ward, Muheza district, Tanga region. Its activities include planting trees, conducting research and training future eco-tourism guides in communities near the Amani Nature Reserve, which at 8,380 hectares is the largest block of forest in the East Usambara Mountains.

“Learning about, sharing and conserving our resources will build cooperation among local communities that will sustain our future,” says Joho.

Amani Friends of Nature aims to plant at least 10,000 indigenous trees each year to reforest degraded areas. The aim is to conserve and increase forest habitat, including by connecting forest fragments. As Joho explains, indigenous trees create important habitat for birds, as they provide food, breeding sites and nesting materials.

Amani Friends of Nature manages this nursery where indigenous tree seedlings are grown and studied before being planted Credit: Victor Mkongewa
Amani Friends of Nature manages this nursery where indigenous tree seedlings are grown and studied before being planted / Credit: Victor Mkongewa

“Right now, we will start planting indigenous trees in almost 20 acres [8 hectares] of open land that villages have asked us to restore back into forest,” says Joho. “Where appropriate, the agroforestry system of farming will be encouraged, for example by mixing crops such as cinnamon, black pepper and clove with native trees.”

The trees will be planted at Ubiri and Sakare villages located in Mbomole village 50 kilometres from Muheza district council. During the project, Amani Friends of Nature and local villagers will also remove invasive umbrella trees that harm native species of plants and animals.

Amani Friends of Nature has extended its activities to the West Usambara Mountains, which have also suffered from extensive habitat loss and fragmentation. In Lushoto district, 80 hectares of land at Magamba Nature Reserve have been allocated for indigenous tree planting to connect two blocks of forest.

“Establishing a forested linkage between the two largest forest fragments in the Magamba Nature Reserve will increase the effective population size of species by expanding available habitat,” says Martin Joho.

He says the reforested linkage will also permit species to more readily move upslope in response to climate change, whose adverse impacts on the demography and distribution of forest bird species have been recently documented in the Usambara Mountains.

Joyneth Mbogo, executive director of Amani Friends of Nature, says the organisation is looking for financial support from donors in Tanzania and across the world, as it needs at least USD 35,000 so it can fully implement its plans.

Local support and benefits

Meanwhile, there is strong support for conservation among local communities, according to Hamis Barua, chairman of Shebomeza ward. He says that so far 20 villages alongside Amani Nature Reserve have embarked on activities aimed at conserving the reserve’s biodiversity and water resources, which include tributaries of the Zigi River, whose water people across the Tanga region depend for home use and farming.

In Shebomeza, villagers have formed an environment committee that regularly patrols the boundaries of the nature reserve to keep out encroachers who enter it to cut down trees, conduct illegal mining and agricultural activities, or pollute water sources.

The village has also formulated by-laws that prohibit anyone from cutting trees for timber inside the reserve. Its residents now practise agroforestry in the nature reserve’s buffer zone and on their farms to sustainably manage forest products, reduce local dependence on biodiversity in the reserve and control the spread of the invasive tree (Maesopsis eminii).

Planting indigenous tree species after removal of the invasive umbrella tree. Credit: Victor Mkongewa
Planting indigenous tree species after removal of the invasive umbrella tree / Credit: Victor Mkongewa

All of this conservation activity is not just good for wild species. Local people benefit too. Planting trees helps to protect the water catchment, control soil erosion, regulate the climate and increase supplies of building materials. Healthy, diverse forests also attract eco-tourists in search of birds and other species that are found nowhere else on Earth.

Fikiri Maiba, chief conservator of Amani Nature Reserve, says the current number of visitors is low because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in a normal year the reserve would receive visitors from many countries in Europe, as well as from Australia, Canada, China and the United States. He adds that 20 percent of revenue generated from eco-tourism is shared with local villages.

“Conservation is only sustainable if done with local communities and people,” says Clausnitzer, the biologist who re-discovered the Amani flatwing. When I asked her why people in Tanzania should care about that species of insect, she reminded me that the viable populations of this species are known only from one small stream in the Amani-Sigi Forest.

“If something happens to that stream, such as pollution or forest clearing, the Amani flatwing might easily become extinct,” she says. “Extinction is forever and we, the people inhabiting every corner of the planet, using and often over-using most of the resources, have to take care of species and our planet.”

“Every living being has an intrinsic value and a right to be here,” she says. “The people of Tanzania should be proud that there are still so many rare and special animals in their country.”

Signs informing people about the Amani flatwing and how to conserve its habitat. Credit: Viola Clausnitzer
Signs informing people about the Amani flatwing and how to conserve its habitat / Credit: Viola Clausnitzer

Beatrice Philemon produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published on 10 June 2021 by Tanzania’s The Guardian newspaper. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.

Banner image: A male Vosseler's blade-horned chameleon (Kinyongia vosseleri), an endangered species found only in Tanzania’s East Usambara Mountains / Credit: Norbert Cordeiro.

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