Mount Kenya

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description (baseline)
An imposing extinct volcano that dominates the landscape of the Kenyan highlands east of the Rift Valley, Mount Kenya lies c.140 km north-north-east of Nairobi, with its northern flanks across the equator. The mountain’s sprawling slopes are cloaked in forest, bamboo, scrub and moorland, giving way on the high central peaks to rock, ice and snow. Mount Kenya is an extremely important water catchment area, supplying the Tana and Northern Ewaso Ngiro systems. The wet south-eastern slopes (with rainfall up to 2,500 mm/year) hold luxuriant rainforest up to 2,400 m, with valuable timber trees such as camphorwood Ocotea usambarensis. Five other main forest-types are recognized, including Newtonia buchananii forest (lower eastern slopes, up to 1,800 m); Juniperus procera–Nuxia congesta–Podocarpus falcatus forest (eastern slopes, to 2,300 m); forest dominated by Croton megalocarpus, Brachylaena huillensis and Calodendrum capense (south-western slopes, up to 1,900 m); more open Juniperus procera–Olea europaea forest (on the drier western and north-western slopes, to c.2,300 m); and mixed Podocarpus latifolius forest (north-western slopes, up to 2,600 m). From c.2,400 m altitude, the forest gives way to dense stands of bamboo Arundinaria alpina, with scattered trees. There is no forest on the dry northern slopes, which receive as little as 800 mm of rain/year and support only scrubby vegetation. Above about 2,850 m, the bamboo merges with an open woodland of Hagenia abyssinica trees and Hypericum shrubs. This in turn grades into Erica heathland above 3,000 m, where ‘everlasting’ flowers, Helichrysum spp., are conspicuous. Above this, the Afro-alpine moorlands are outstanding both scenically and floristically, with giant groundsels Senecio keniodendron and S. johnstonii battiscombei, giant lobelias Lobelia deckenii keniensis and L. telekii, and various tussock grasses. The forest (originally 199,500 ha, of which c.2,520 ha was degazetted in 2001) was gazetted as a Forest Reserve in 1943 and until recently was administered from 15 forest stations in six administrative districts. In July 2000, this area (given in the gazette notice as 21,240 ha) was re-designated as Mount Kenya National Reserve and entrusted to the management of the Kenya Wildlife Service. It has been estimated that c.61,000 ha of the gazetted area was closed-canopy forest. Almost all of this lies between 2,000–2,900 m altitude, with only small fragments on the lowest slopes, down to 1,600 m. Bamboo and bamboo/forest mosaic make up another 63,000 ha, forest and scrub 20,000 ha, with c.20,500 ha of plantations and 35,000 ha of non-forest, including scrub, grassland and cultivation. The National Park covers 71,500 ha, almost entirely above the tree line; it includes all the land above 3,200 m, with two small ‘salients’ extending lower down along the Sirimon and Naro Moru tracks.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. Mount Kenya has a rich montane bird fauna. It is undoubtedly a stronghold for the threatened and little-known Cinnyricinclus femoralis, even though there are few recent records (probably due to its nomadic nature whilst in search of fruiting trees). Falco naumanni is a passage migrant on the moorland. Euplectes jacksoni can be found in grassland up to 3,000 m, and Macronyx sharpei is known from the north-west slopes, although its present status is uncertain. Regionally threatened species include Bostrychia olivacea (a scarce resident); Gypaetus barbatus (no recent records, but formerly nested on moorland cliffs); Hieraaetus ayresii (a scarce resident); Stephanoaetus coronatus; Tyto capensis (no recent records); Bubo capensis; Campephaga quiscalina (uncommon in montane forest); and Euplectes progne (status uncertain). The rare and little-known race graueri of Asio abyssinicus has been recorded from the high forest. Nectarinia johnstoni is particularly common on the high moorland. Apart from the nearby Nyambeni Hills, Mount Kenya is the only Kenyan site for Poeoptera kenricki.

Non-bird biodiversity: Mammals of global conservation concern include Tragelaphus eurycerus (LR/nt), Diceros bicornis (CR) and Loxodonta africana (EN), together with the uncommon central Kenya race of Cephalophus nigrifrons hooki. Levels of endemism among the small mammals depend on the classification adopted. Notable Mount Kenya taxa include Surdisorex polulus (VU), Tachyoryctes rex (EN), Grammomys gigas (EN), Crocidura allex alpina (VU) and Procavia johnstoni mackinderi. The reptiles Atheris desaixi and Chameleo schubotzi are notable endemics, while Vipera hindii is found only on Mount Kenya and the Aberdare mountains (IBA KE001). The butterfly Capys meruensis is restricted to the Mount Kenya area. Endemics or near-endemics among the alpine flora include Senecio keniodendron (also on the Aberdares), Senecio keniensis keniensis, Lobelia deckenii keniensis and L. bambuseti (also on the Aberdares), Alchemilla argyrophylla and A. cyclophylla (both also on the Aberdares). In the forest, endemics or near-endemics include the rare shrubs Ixora scheffleri keniensis, Pavetta hymenophylla, Maytenus keniensis and Embelia keniensis and the climber Rubus keniensis.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Apart from its biodiversity importance, Mount Kenya (or Kirinyaga) has enormous traditional religious significance for the Kikuyu people who live around it. Numerous important traditional uses are made of the forest. The mountain is a vital water catchment for the Tana and Ewaso Ngiro rivers, while the moorland (with its extraordinary Afro-alpine vegetation) and the peaks attract a steady stream of tourists. Unfortunately, the former Forest Reserves on Mount Kenya appear to have suffered an almost complete breakdown of forest protection. Most of the forest has already been logged over for valuable trees such as Ocotea usambarensis, Vitex keniensis and Podocarpus species. Demand for indigenous timber continues to be extremely high despite a ban on extraction. The Forest Department, hampered by poor roads, a lack of transport and equipment, and underpaid and demotivated personnel, has proved unable to control the situation. The result is much continuing damage to the forest. Allied to this is the problem of encroachment and squatters in the forest. Population densities around the mountain are high, especially in the south-east, and encroachment has fragmented and destroyed the lower altitude forest over a number of years. Many former Forestry Department staff and sawmill workers (some of them made redundant when sawmilling of indigenous timber ceased) are living and farming within the reserves. The reinstatement in 1993 of the controversial ‘shamba’ system of plantation management, where small-scale farmers plant crops alongside saplings, has resulted in farms high on the mountainside. This has created enormous problems in policing forest use. Such ‘farming’ includes the cultivation of illegal but lucrative gardens of Cannabis sativa, which are widespread in forest clearings on the lower slopes. Forest grazing is a serious problem, although theoretically banned. The scale of the pressure on Mount Kenya was evident during recent droughts, when many thousands of hectares of precious forest were set ablaze and destroyed by land-hungry people, expecting to be able to move in and farm the area thereafter.

Management problems have only intensified since redesignation as a National Reserve. The Kenya Wildlife Service assumed responsibility at short notice and has been struggling to exert control, with inadequate staff of its own on the ground but disgruntled Forest Department employees still present. In 2001, despite countrywide protests at the likely environmental effects, forest in the Ragati, Hombe and Sirimon areas (totalling around 2,500 ha) was excised by the Government for ‘settlement’.

‘Problem animals’ are a major issue around Mount Kenya, where substantial populations of large forest mammals close to intensive agriculture create severe conflicts. Elephants Loxodonta africana, account for the bulk of both crop damage and human injuries and deaths. Electrical fencing of the Forest Reserves is an expensive solution with a number of attendant problems, but may become necessary in some areas. Illegal hunting of wildlife is also common, and Tauraco hartlaubi is hunted for its red flight feathers, which are in demand or manufacturing fishing flies. Elephant pressure on the indigenous forest is also high, now that their traditional migration routes outside the mountain are cut off, and debarking and uprooting of forest trees is a problem. In some areas the animals appear to have developed a particular taste for valuable trees such as camphorwood. Buffalo similarly damage the Hagenia–Hypericum ground community.

Threats within the National Park are much less severe, although there has been concern about damage to vegetation and littering by the many visitors following the standard walking routes to the peaks. Food and rubbish left by visitors has also caused a population boom of hyrax and rodents in the Teleki Valley, which is damaging vegetation. Although this is a very visible problem, it is localized and affects a small proportion of the moorland area. Poaching of wildlife in the park has been exacerbated by the reinstated ‘shamba’ system, allowing poachers easy access to the upper reaches of the forests and to the moorland. Mount Kenya urgently needs a coherent management plan to address the fundamental issues of forest policing, squatters and problem animals. The avifauna of Mount Kenya is reasonably well-known but there is very little information on the seasonality, distribution and habitat requirements of the threatened birds, particularly Cinnyricinclus femoralis. The status of Macronyx sharpei is also uncertain. Future research should target these species in particular.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Important Bird Area factsheet: Mount Kenya. Downloaded from on 30/05/2023.