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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Deliberate fires 'set Africa ablaze'
Frie, AP
Kruger National Park: Fires are a problem across Africa
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By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent, in Nairobi
An African wildlife expert says fires started deliberately in remote areas have become a serious problem across the continent.

He says the damage caused by the fires is putting severe strain on entire ecosystems. The problem, he argues, is often worsened by the regional warming associated with climate change.

You travel around, and on every hilltop you see someone slashing and burning

Bongo Woodley
The effects will increasingly be felt far from the site of the fires.

The expert, Bongo Woodley, is senior warden with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in Mount Kenya National Park north of here.

He was speaking at a conference on Africa's mountains being held at the Nairobi HQ of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).

The 'rainmakers'

Mr Woodley said Mount Kenya itself was under attack by four groups of fire raisers. One were arsonists, who hoped if they burned everything the government would give them the land.

A second was a squatters' group, who used fire to clear vegetation and create better grazing for their animals.

A third group were honey-gatherers, who had traditionally lit fires to smoke bees out of a tree, enabling them to take the honey.

The last group were "rainmakers", people who believed that lighting a fire would bring rain.

To some extent, Mr Woodley said, their belief was correct: "If conditions are right, the smoke from a fire will convert into cloud, and that may produce rain. I've seen it happen myself."

But while this group and the honey-gatherers were lighting fires in accordance with traditional practices, the damage they and others were causing was now intolerable.

Crop-spraying planes

Mr Woodley told BBC News Online: "These traditional beliefs were all very well years ago, but now they're totally inappropriate.

"When Kenya's population was small, fires probably weren't nearly as frequent. But the frequency now is unnatural."

Kilimanjaro, BBC
Mt Kilimanjaro: Climate warming may remove its ice fields
He said the answer lay in education, and in policy changes.

"I'd like us in KWS to have a policy on fire which would enable us to light fires pre-emptively", he said.

"Pre-burning of that sort is an ecological tool, to clear dead growth. I'd also like KWS to have an aerial fire-fighting capacity. In South Africa they use crop-spraying planes to fight fires, and we could do the same."

Mr Woodley said the problem was being worsened by the regional warming which many scientists believe is linked to human-induced climate change.

He said: "There is a prediction that by 2040 there'll be no glaciers left on Mount Kenya, just seasonal snowfields. Across the border in Tanzania, the glaciers on Kilimanjaro have retreated by about 80% in the last century."

Continent-wide problem

And the implications for people living at a distance from the mountains may be serious.

Mr Woodley said: "In Kenya we have five 'water towers' - Mount Kenya itself, and the other mountainous areas in the Mau forest, the Aberdare range, Mount Elgon and the Cheranganis.

My impression is that Africa is ablaze

Bongo Woodley
"The forests there act like a sponge. If you remove the trees - and they're going, through fire and logging - you iron out the surface of the sponge. The topsoil goes, the rivers flood in the rainy season, and they stop flowing altogether in the dry season.

"The fires that are causing us problems on Mount Kenya are burning on all the other Kenyan mountains."

There is evidence that fire is becoming a more serious problem in parts of the lowlands as well. And Mr Woodley believes it is becoming a continent-wide problem.

He told BBC News Online: "I flew back here from Senegal in West Africa recently. From Abidjan to Nairobi, about five hours, we were flying through the night, across Nigeria, Cameroun, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

"There were fires everywhere. You travel around, and on every hilltop you see someone slashing and burning. In Kenya there's an incredible carelessness with fire, and I think that's general. My impression is that Africa is ablaze."

See also:

19 Feb 01 | San Francisco
Kilimanjaro's white peak to disappear
29 Aug 01 | Africa
Fire hits Zimbabwe game park
07 Mar 00 | Africa
Ethiopian fires 'out of control'
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