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Seed collecting on Mount Kilimanjaro

Emma Williams
18 April 2013
Kew Gardens botanist Emma Williams recounts her experiences on a recent seed collecting expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

The Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) and four Tanzanian organisations have been working together to conserve the Tanzanian flora through ex-situ seed conservation since 2006. I joined John Elia a botanist at the National Herbarium of Tanzania (NHT) and Lourance Mapunda a seed scientist at the Tanzania National Plant Genetic Resources Centre (NPGRC) on a seed collecting trip to Mount Kilimanjaro in February.

Mount Kilimanjaro, as well as being the highest mountain in Africa at 5,895m high, is also a UNESCO world heritage site, part of Conservation International's “Eastern Afromontane” global biodiversity hotspot, and a popular tourist destination. It has a large flora of around 2,500 plant species with many Tanzania endemic species (i.e. species that are only found in Tanzania)... Lots of potential for a successful seed collecting trip! 

Two Peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro
View of the two peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, Kibo (on the left) and Mawenzi

Before the trip began I produced a target list of species for our fieldwork focusing on Tanzanian endemic species and those restricted to high altitudes. Mountain species are particularly vulnerable to climate change. As the climate warms, alpine plant species move higher up the mountain and are at risk of extinction as their area of suitable habitat to live in decreases. I used the recently finished 'Flora of Tropical East Africa' to find descriptions of my target species, and studied herbarium specimens at Kew to find locations on Mount Kilimanjaro where they had been recorded before. 

Dendrosenecio kilimanjari on Mount Kilimanjaro
Dendrosenecio kilimanjari – a Mount Kilimanjaro endemic and one of our target species. Some of these plants could be several hundred years old.

I flew to Tanzania at the end of January and spent a few days in Arusha studying specimens at the National Herbarium, organising the trip logistics and obtaining a collecting permit from the Tanzania National Park Authority who manage Mount Kilimanjaro.

The first part of our trip was a trek up the Marangu route on the south east side of the mountain. We began at the park gates at 1,900m in tropical forest and would eventually walk up to 4,100m, at almost the limit of vegetation on the mountainside. We hired porters and a cook to help with the trip; once we started walking up the steep trail we were certainly grateful that we didn't have to carry all our bags ourselves! We stayed in small mountain huts at Mandara camp (2,700m) and Horombo camp (3,700m). Although it was sunny and warm during the day the temperature quickly dropped at night. 

Emma Williams and Tanzania Field Team
Fieldwork team of Emma Williams (2nd from left), Lourance Mapunda (3rd from left) and John Elia (1st on right) with our porters at the start of the Marangu route.

The flora and scenery on the route were spectacular. We found 3 species endemic to the mountain in flower - the stunning giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari), Euryops dacrydioides and Lobelia deckenii which was also fruiting so we made a good seed collection. We made 17 seed collections on our six day trek. For each seed collection we also took herbarium specimens to identify back at Kew’s Herbarium, a GPS recording of our location, and filled in a data sheet with all the information about the collection. 

Lobelia deckenii flowers
Lobelia deckenii – a Mount Kilimanjaro endemic, now conserved at NPGRC and the MSBP seed banks.

For the rest of our field trip we carried out day-trips up part of two other routes on the south of the mountain. On the Machame route we collected seeds in a lush tropical rainforest with tree ferns, impatiens and epiphytic orchids and ferns. Whilst the Shira Plateau route was drier and dominated by Erica, Hypericum (St John's Wort) and many species of Asteraceae (the daisy family).

At the end of the trip we had made 31 seed collections and taken 21 herbarium specimens of plants in flower which we can target on future trips. The seeds will be cleaned at NPGRC and each collection will be divided into two. Half will be kept in cold storage in Tanzania and the other half will be sent to be stored at the MSBP. We are now planning our next trip to Mount Kilimanjaro in December and hope to explore some of the other routes on the mountain.

- Emma -

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