Mt Elgon indigenous trees, the sacred trees used for herbal medicines, face extinction

Women emerge from Mt Elgon national park after collecting firewood_ they also cut down indgenous trees for firewood the land organisms from breeding and survival (PHOTO/ David Mafabi)

As Uganda Wildlife Authority ponders incentives to slow the degradation of Mt Elgon forest, a huge, unanswered question looms: What exactly is degraded?

From the air the thick forests of Mt Elgon stretch as far as the eye can see, broken only by distant, shining ribbons of rivers, valleys and streams.

Dense, deep, seemingly impenetrable, the forests of Mt Elgon extend to Kenya, inspiring awe and sometimes dread among residents and visitors, and provided refuge for everything from rare and endangered plants and animals.

Straddled between the Ugandan and Kenyan border, lies Mount Elgon; a dormant volcano whose slopes are covered in a lush forest ecosystem. Some of the most common trees found here include Elgon teak and massive Podocarpus trees.

But today it is difficult to imagine that such vast ancient woodlands are at risk of extinction.

Mt Elgon national Park biodiversity has heavily been degraded.

The increasing demand for wood and forest products has continually degraded indigenous forest patches and trees in Mt Elgon in both Bugisu and Sebei sub-regions.

Although the forest patches contain 51 threatened tree species and represent some of the last remaining fragments of the Mt Elgon forest Biodiversity, degradation is increasing at the first rate with settlements now inside the Park.

The continuous degradation, settlements and tree felling of indigenous trees species poses a great threat to indigenous trees.

Reports from UWA indicate that the Elgon Mountain is a luscious Ecosystem that was made of huge indigenous traditional medicinal trees that have been used by man since time in memorial

But today the ecosystem is facing serious threats, from encroachment and commercial logging to charcoal burning, these plus the rising population are putting a strain on Mt Elgon, as people clear more land to cultivate crops.

This has depleted native tree species that were being used for herbal medicine in the region and degraded fragile swamps and slopes.

And for the millions of people who rely on the forest for food, water and fuel wood, the impact is devastating.

Mr John Hun Wick the Mt Elgon tourism Investor says the famous traditional trees meant for medicine and tourist attractions have been destroyed and are facing extinction.

He added that there’s no doubt that the future of Mount Elgon’s forest ecosystem is at risk and that there is an urgent need for a holistic approach to restore degraded areas and protect this important water catchment area.  “ And one way to do this is through community-led restoration”.

“And when a forest is degraded it still exists, but it can no longer function well. It becomes a shell of its former self; its health declines until it can no longer support people and wildlife by, for example, filtering the air we breathe and water we drink or providing animals with food and places to live,” said Mr Hun Wick while addressing the Elgon tourism Expo last week.

Mr Richard Matanda, the senior warden Matheniko-Bokora reserve [also part f Mt Elgon conservation area] says one of the region’s unique trees, Prunus africana, is threatened with extinction due to demand in Europe and America for a medicinal extract produced from its bark.

He consented that the Mt Elgon traditional indigenous trees like the Elgon Teak, Mahogany Neoboutonia macrocalyx and Podocarpus latifolius and other medicinal trees, are also facing extinction as man scrambles to settle and do farming.


“ True, the Mt Elgon sub-region used to have mixed forest/bamboo, bush land, grassland and various medicinal trees but today most of these are facing extinction due to massive encroachment on the park land” said Mr N=Matanda.,

According to Mr Matanda, the cutting of Mt Elgon’s traditional trees, is a destruction of the traditional ‘pharmacy’ that was and is being used by the local people to heal diseases.

The trees are disappearing at an alarming rate and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), indigenous (also known as “old-growth”) forests in Africa are being cut down at a rate of more than 4 mn hectares per year — twice the world’s deforestation average.

According to the FAO, losses totaled more than 10 per cent of the continent’s total forest cover between 1980 and 1995 alone.

Mr Michael Sikoyo, the executive director of Mt Elgon Tree Planting Enterprise said saving Elgon’s forests from the chainsaw and axe of encroaching humanity is essential to the health and productivity of much of the country’s economy.

Mr Sikoyo, an expert in tree planting pointed out that the forests act as watersheds, defences against soil erosion and regulators of local weather conditions.

He revealed that the entry of poachers who illegally cut down and steal the oldest medicinal trees from Mt Elgon was a destruction of the traditional pharmacy which our indigenous community used for treatment of diseases.

Mr Sikoyo explained that the major problems facing indigenous trees and indigenous forests is the increasing human population pressure and changing societal needs resulting in change in settlement patterns and sedentary livelihoods, expansion of cropland and encroachment involving clearing of indigenous forests for subsistence and large-scale farming leading to clearing of indigenous forests.

“And other problems include illegal logging, charcoal production, firewood collection, increasing grazing, harsh climatic conditions and poor soil patterns,” Mr Sikoyo added..

The 2020 UWA conservation report indicates that although Mt Elgon eco-system stands as a catchment area for Lake Victoria, River Nile, Lake Kyoga and Lake Turkana in Kenya and was a home for about 400 elephants, Leopards, Buffaloes, antelopes, giant forest hogs, waterbucks and various types of herbivores and the famous protected Columbus and blue monkeys, these are no more as they have been poached by man.

Mr Samuel Amanya, the Mt Elgon area conservation manager says says whereas the mountain is covered by red laterite soils which favors the growth of thick undergrowth, the huge Elgon teak and cedar trees, man has cut these down to secure land for settlement and farming to the disservice of the functions of the big mountain.

Mr Amanya revealed that the park neighbours [encroachers] have mercilessly cut down valuable indigenous trees for timber and settlement and farming thereby scaring away the valuable birds and animals that are a major target for tourists.

The Encroachment;

Mr Amanya while speaking at Elgon Tourist Expo said encroachment, settlement and cultivation [farming] into the national park are the major threats to the Mt Elgon eco-system which serves not only the mountain settlers themselves but also the low lying surrounding settlers.

He added that encroachment has resulted into the deterioration of approximately 20.000 hectares within the past generation or about one fifth of Elgon’s forest.

“Vegetation, wildlife, soils, water, geology, climate and other natural disturbances that all contribute to the ecosystem diversity and ecological sustainability have been destroyed by man’s activities,” said Mr Amanya.

He added that the support to social and economic sustainability has been hindered and that this means that the destruction is going to be hazardous to Uganda as a country in the future.

The study

A study was undertaken by Mr Frank Mugaga, Mr Vincent Kakembo and Mr Mukadasi Buyinza in March 2012 titled Land use changes on the slopes of Mount Elgon and the implications for the occurrence of landslides , also says whereas there were minimal land use changes between 1960 and 1995, the period 1995–2006 marked a considerable loss of woodlands and forest cover, particularly on steep concave slopes (36°–58°) of the National Park.

The research study report adds that encroachment onto the critical slopes was noted to have induced a series of shallow and deep landslides in the area and that all the mapped landslides were noted to lie on steep concave slopes of a northerly orientation, which had been opened up for cultivation.

“Deforestation and cultivation alter the soil hydrological conditions on steep concave slopes, renders them susceptible to saturation and this may trigger debris flows during rainfall events,” reads the report in part.

The report advises that there is a need to restore forest cover on the fragile steep slopes and restrain local communities from opening up new areas for cultivation on critical slopes, particularly within the protected area to save indigenous medicinal trees..

The minister of Water and Environment Mr. Sam Cheptoris says for a host of ecological reasons, the loss of forest can act as an incubator for insect-borne and other infectious diseases that afflict humans.

“And clearing forests at Mt Elgon is a much greater threat to people, let alone farming, construction and settlement up hills that makes the water from the hills dirty for domestic use, we need to live sustainably with the environment and if we don’t, disaster is looming for us,” said Mr Cheptoris.

A paper titled; Ecology of Increasing Diseases: Population Growth and Environmental Degradation 2007 by D Pimentel and others says currently an estimated 40% of world deaths are due to environmental degradation, this means that the people around Mt Elgon must protect their environment in order to survive.

“The ecology of increasing diseases has complex factors of environmental degradation, population growth, and the current malnutrition of about 3.7 billion people in the world,” reads the paper in part.

About Forest degradation across the country

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the felling of Mt Elgon forests creates optimal conditions for the spread of diseases like mosquito-borne scourges, including malaria and dengue, and that Primate and other animals are also spreading disease from cleared forests to people.

Environmentalists say that Uganda’s forest cover has been depleted to 8 per cent up from 24 per cent in 1990s and the loss is attributed to human encroachment for different activities, including agriculture and tree-cutting for timber and charcoal and other stakeholders.

In the late 1980s, Approx. 75,000 km2 (31.7%) out of 236,040 km2 of total land in Uganda consisted of forest and woodland. Today, forests and woodlands cover is about 15.2% of Uganda’s land surface meaning that Uganda has lost 16.5% of forests and woodland cover.

To Top