Fauna and Flora

Kilimanjaro’s terrain can be divided into 4 core eco-zones: the lower slopes and rainforest, the low alpine, the high altitude desert, and the Arctic ice cap. Each zone has its own distinct weather conditions, fauna and flora. As a rule, conditions become harsher, temperatures cooler, and plant, bird and animal life sparser as you ascend higher up the mountain, but all of Kilimanjaro’s zones have their own unique beauty.

Cultivated land and rainforest

Altitude: 800-3,000 metres
Rainfall: approx 2,000mm annually (concentrated on the southern slopes)
The once forested foothills of Kilimanjaro have largely been given over to pasture, yet just above the cultivated belt of land there is still rich rainforest to explore.

This zone is the most scenically diverse region of Kilimanjaro, housing the greatest variety of fauna and flora. It is also the wettest, receiving the brunt of Kilimanjaro’s large annual rainfall. The climate is hot and humid, albeit with sometimes cold nights.

In the forested foothills, colobus monkeys are often spotted, and, more rarely, olive baboon, tree hyrax and turacos. Leopard, genet, galago and bush pig are present but very seldom seen. The high rainfall and fertile volcanic soil naturally mean that the vegetation is incredibly rich. Of particular note are the wildflowers, which include the iconic elephant trunk flower, as well as myriad clovers, balsams, orchids and violets.

The wide band of rainforest that encircles Kilimanjaro is exceptionally beautiful and can be visited on a day hike.

It’s worth noting that Kilimanjaro’s northern face receives around half the rainfall of the southern face, resulting in a quite different community of plants – olive trees and juniper plants are more common here, for instance – and giving a different character to the initial days of the Rongai route trek, which approaches from the north.

Low alpine

Altitude: 3,000-4,000 metres
Rainfall: approx 900mm annually
Though it receives less rainfall than the forested foothills, Kilimanjaro’s heath and moorland zone is shrouded in an almost permanent fog. Damp, muddy conditions are not unusual, although the bogs can mostly be avoided. Temperatures are notably cool, often reaching sub-zero.

You will find some of Kilimanjaro’s most unusual vegetation in this zone, from giant lobelias (reaching up to 10m) to groundsels and ragworts. This vegetation does not take on the extreme proportions that it does in other East African mountain ranges, such as the Rwenzoris, but it is fascinating nonetheless.

The fauna becomes smaller in scale and quantity as you climb higher into the moorland zone. Lion have been known to climb as high as Shira Plateau, as have eland and duiker, but you shouldn’t expect to encounter them or any other large mammals. More commonly seen are white-necked raven and rock hyrax.

High alpine desert

Altitude: 4,000-5,000m
Rainfall: approx 250mm annually.
Above the band of cloud that pours rain on the forested foothills and shrouds the heaths in mist, the highland desert experiences almost drought-like conditions. Vegetation is sparse—just lichen and everlastings. Instead, there are dramatic rock formations to contemplate, such as Lava Rock and the Greater and Lesser Barrancos.

With little cloud cover, the sunlight can be intense above 4,000m, resulting in daytime temperatures as high as 40c. Night time and early morning, by contrast, can be exceptionally cold.

Expect wonderful views—up to Kibo and Mawenzi and, on a clear day, to the great African plains below—as you ascend the highland desert on the approach to Kilimanjaro’s summit; as well as ample opportunities for star-gazing!

Ice cap

Altitude: 5,000m+
Rainfall: less than 100mm annually
The Kibo ice cap, Kilimanjaro’s summit, is characterised by Arctic conditions – freezing, sub-zero temperatures at night and harsh sun during the day (remember your sun protection, as there’s little atmosphere to protect you!) There’s barely any life at this altitude, but Kilimanjaro’s gleaming glaciers lend the summit a certain beauty.

It would be a mistake to say that there’s no life on Kilimanjaro’s ice cap. Rare everlasting flowers can be seen on the approach to the summit. Lichen, too, are found on the rocks and are thought to be among the oldest living things on earth—hundreds or even thousands of years old! There are even unusual (and frankly rather dubious!) tales of leopard and other mammals being found frozen on the summit.

Kilimanjaro’s summit experiences little to no rainfall, but snow is common, especially between Nov-March. Oxygen levels are around half that at sea level.