Mt Kulal Biosphere Reserve

Date of Submission: 30/06/2023
Criteria: (vii)(ix)(x)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
National Museums of Kenya
State, Province or Region:
Marsabit County
Coordinates: N2 40 0 E36 49 59
Ref.: 6660

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Mt Kulal is commonly referred to as a ‘Gem in the Desert’, is an eroded extinct Pleistocene volcano in Northern Kenya, east of the southern end of Lake Turkana. Rising to 2300 m asl, the top is covered by mist forest which forms the core zone of the Mt Kulal Biosphere Reserve. It was designated as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) Reserve in 1979. The forest is managed by the local community and Marsabit County. The mountain covers an area of about 750 sq. km. It is divided by deep ravine remains of a crater into a northern and southern section. The northern section is wetter with an annual average rainfall of 900 to 1000mm than the south with an annual average of 200 to 300mm, while the surrounding desert or near desert receives no more than 150mm annual rainfall. The habitat consists of various vegetation types including forest patches, grassland, evergreen shrubland and bushland.

There are 20 mammal species recorded on the mountain. This includes Leopard, Striped Hyaena, Spotted Hyaena, Silver backed jackal, Bat eared fox, Bushbuck, Waterbuck, Impala among others. Large wild herbivores such as African Elephant and Cape Buffalo were extirpated in the 1970s through poaching. Small mammals in this site include data deficient Naked-rumped Tomb bat, and Kenyan endemic Samburu serotine bat.

 The avifaunal diversity comprises about 95 species (Borghesio and Ndanganga 2001), which is considered low diversity compared to other similar montane forests in Kenya, suggesting that probably the mountain was never connected to other any forest blocks of East Africa (Moreau 1966) and exhibits classic island biogeography processes of extinction and recolonization (Diamond and Keith 1980). There are over 900 plant species. The mountain is poorly studied and many other groups include invertebrates and amphibians are less understood. However, an endemic chameleon species was described from a brief survey in early 2000.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Mt Kulal present one of the most dramatic and impressive landscapes of Africa, with its unique location in desert, its vegetation characteristic that constitutes upland forest at the top, green woodland in the middle, and open thickets at the bottom and integrates with lowland xeric ones. This vegetation gradation is intertwined with rugged, terrain, streams and rocky cliffs.

In rising from a general landscape of about 400m above sea level (asl), to about 2,300m, Mt Kula is an inland island, with impactful hydrological and ecological consequences. More importantly and as a result of its rise, the mountain harbours evergreen forest on the top, woodland and grassland at mid elevation and bushland at the bottom, all of which are in contrast to the adjacent xeric L. Turkana and Chalbi desert ecosystems. In this latter case, Mt Kulal serves as an ecological and hydrological island. It is partly due to this “ecological island” state that enables it to host unique fauna and flora that include Kulal Chameleon (reptile) and Kula white eye (bird) which are found nowhere else on earth.

Recent data collected as part of ecological impact of wind farm in the area, shows that many birds of prey in the L. Turkana ecosystem actually use the Kulal ridges for breeding and feeding.

Furthermore, the volcanic mountain’s main ridge is 50 km long and 15 km wide and runs in a north-south direction parallel to the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. Wide and deep gorges, hundreds of metres deep, run east and west from the main ridge, giving the mountain a splendid “leaf-vein” appearance from aerial view.

Criterion (vii): The original crater is located about halfway the ridge but the rim has been eroded over millennia resulting in a rift comprising the Mismis, Ngo’oing’oi and Lkijata gorges which split Mt. Kulal into a southern and a northern block. This spectacular topography offers views of Lake Turkana and Chalbi desert.

Criterion (ix): Mt Kulal montane forest is unique in that it constitutes an inland island (isolated mountain surround by altitudinally low-lying semi-desert) exhibiting the classic island biogeography processes of extinction and recolonization (Diamond and Keith 1980). It is the only refuge for the endemic Kulal White-eye Zosterops kulalensis). For this it is recognized as a secondary endemic bird area (BirdLife International 2023). The Mountain system is also home to the endemic Kula Chameleon, Chameleo narraioca (Necas et al 2003).

Criterion (x): Being isolated within a harsh environment Mt Kulal acts as a refugium for many bird species including passage Palaearctic migrants. In addition to the near-threatened endemic Kulal White-eye the mountain harbours several species of conservation concern including Egyptian Endangered Vulture Neophron percnopterus (En), and Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus (En) Critically endangered Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus (CR);) and Near threatened Mountain Buzzard Buteo oreophilus (NT). It is also one of the two only sites in Kenya where the endangered Lammergeier Gypeatus barbatus still persists.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Mt Kulal was designated as a UNESCO man and biosphere reserve in 1979 with the core zone (51,436 ha) being the forest within the mountain area and the buffer zone extending to the shores of Lake Turkana. Though not formally/legally protected, the forest is among the well-conserved forests in Kenya.  It is jointly managed by the local community elders and the Marsabit county government.  Communities dependent on the forest for livelihoods still practice traditional form of forest protection where fines can be imposed and in some cases culprits may be cursed. Through the support of GEF a management plan has been developed to help safeguard the forest, and to ensure the sustainable use of the its resources.

Conservation issues
Though surrounded by desert Mt. Kulal is the lifeline of the communities living around it and associated biodiversity, the communal management system requires reinforcement from County, central and international input.

Comparison with other similar properties

Mt Kulal, is quite similar to Mt Marsabit which equally rises from sample landscape scale to over 2000m above sea level. Mt Marsabit also harbour cloud forest on top. However, Marsabit is legally and formally protected by the government and is managed by KWS as a National Park and KFS as a Forest Reserve. Furthermore, while elephant and buffalo populations in Kulala were hunted to extinction, those in Marsabit still survive under the pressure of sprawling Marasbit town and agricultural expansions.

No mountain ecosystem is similar to Kulal by its location adjacent to Semi-salty lake in one side and a desert on another side. This naturally strategic location between these two extreme ecological systems, underscores its exceptional ecological value in the entire landscape.

Ennedi Massif in Chad
Mt Kulal is similar to Ennedi Massif in Chad, North Africa in terms of being located in xeric environment. They are also similar in terms of history of wildlife poaching that has decimated African bush elephant and Buffalos (in Kulala) and West African Lions (in Ennedi) in 1970s and 1940s respectively.

However, Mt. Kulal differ from Ennedi Massiff have fundamental differences in their formation and surrounding landscape characteristics. Whereas Mt Kulal is of Volcanic origin, Ennedi is a plateau of sand/rock formation. These formations underpin soil properties and plant diversity which ultimately influence their respective biodiversity characteristics.

While Ennedi is surrounded homogeneously by desert ecosystem, Mt Kulal cloud forest ecosystem is uniquely and heterogeously surrounded by a mix of Lake system (L. Turkana to the west), Savannah-scrubland (South and North) and desert (Chalbi in the East).

In terms of management and protection, significant part of Ennedi is protected by Chadian government as a Natural and Cultural Reserve since 2019. Kulala is managed by local communities.