Understanding the Dynamics of the Mount Kilimanjaro Cable Car: Part 1, Environment

Post by Steven Dale

Mount Kilimanjaro. Image via Wikipedia.

The proposed Mount Kilimanjaro Cable Car in Tanzania is controversial to say the least. 

The project envisions some combination of Chinese and Western interests constructing a cable car with an undefined length in an undefined location to the top of the highest mountain in Africa. The tourism board has been quoted in the media claiming that it would increase visitation to the mountain from 50,000 people per year to 75,000. The proposal has caused all sorts of outrage amongst a variety of stakeholders and the concept is currently just in the stage of feasibility analysis. 

This project is quite far from a done deal and will likely take years to be permitted. Given that the project was first mooted in 1968, a betting man would likely wager it will never be built.

Full disclosure: I’ve got no skin in this game. I’m just an interested observer. 

But what an interesting game it is to observe. The Mount Kilimanjaro Cable Car hits so many themes common to other recreational cable cars that I thought it worth the time to wade into the controversy.

Again — I want to repeat here that I have exactly zero vested interests in whether or not this project gets built. What interests me most isn’t the cable car itself, but the arguments surrounding it. They reveal how emotional matters like these become and how attempts to shift the discussion from the emotional to the rational are often predicated on false logic and reasoning. 

From this disinterested, agnostic vantage point, we can see the arguments both for and against the cable car pivot on three central issues that arise time and again with projects like these. As I see it, those three central issues could be called The Three E’s: Environment. Economics and Equality. 

Today we’ll start with the Environment. Given time constraints, I’ll save the discussion of Economics and Equality till next week.

As SBS News is quick to point out:

“First, trees and vegetation have to be cleared to create the cable line route causing adverse environmental impacts, as does erecting huge pylons and towers and stations that destroy the flora, which take years to recover, if at all.”

And referring to an unknown Twitter user:

“I’ve been fortunate to summit that amazing mountain twice, so far. Scarring its natural beauty with a cable car is a crime”

And as pointed out by a local tour guide in The East African:

“The (route) along which the cable car will be constructed is the birds’ migratory route, and electric wires will definitely harm them.”

These are all relatively common arguments against cable cars in environmentally protected areas and are (subjectively) reasonable matters to address.

For example, while there are certainly examples of cable cars built that do not require the clearing of vegetation along the entire route (the Cairns Skyrail comes to mind), those are the rarity and even the most sensitively designed cable car system will still require selective removal of vegetation at the locations of all towers and stations.

And yes, a cable car may cause some changes to the migratory paths of animals in the vicinity of the cable car and, yes, the presence of the system will alter the visual aesthetic of a (very small) portion of Kilimanjaro, though I take issue with the term “scarring.”

Furthermore, increasing the number of visitors to the mountain by 50% may sound is not something to ignore. Except that increase in visitors amounts to less than 70 extra people on the mountain per day. Not trivial, but not significant either.

The point here is that I’m quite certain the cable car will cause some degree of environmental harm to the mountain but the degree of that harm is unknown and likely far less than what detractors are claiming.

What really interests me, however, is not the harm the cable car could cause, but how little attention is paid to the flip side of the discussion; that one could make the argument that the existence of the cable car may cause a net benefit to the ecology of Kilimanjaro.

Here me out: 

There’s no shortage of studies demonstrating the negative ecological impacts of the recreational use of hiking trails. This single literature review alone cites 30 different studies to that effect. Here’s that paper’s summary:

Recreation such as hiking, jogging, horseback riding, and photography can cause negative ecological impacts to ecosystems, plants and wildlife including trampling, soil compaction, erosion, disturbance (due to noise & motion), pollution, nutrient loading, and introduction of non-native invasive plant species. Corridors such as trails and roads also cause habitat fragmentation and edge effects which may impact some plant and animal species. Thirty references are cited.”

According to The Guardian around 50,000 tourists per year hike, camp, sleep, eat and relieve themselves along Kilimanjaro’s mountainside trails. The Guardian article describes one camp where “nearly 100 tents housed climbers prior to their summit day, and groups were still streaming in.”

So how then could one argue that a cable car would be a net ecological benefit?

Two reasons:

Firstly, the amount of time a hiker spends on the mountain is vastly shorter than the amount of time a cable car visitor spends on the mountain.

Secondly, cable car visitors don’t require a throng of guides, cooks and porters to assist them up the mountain.

These two points are critical in our understanding of this project. Each of those 50,000 tourists mentioned are not on their own. They are escorted up Kilimanjaro by a massive group of porters, guides and cooks. According to the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), Partner Companies qualify for membership if (among other things) they agree to a minimum of 3 porters per climber. While the site makes no mention of how many cooks and guides per climber is required, it’s probably reasonable to assume 1 each. So let’s say 5 support staff per climber. That’s the number cited by the Guardian.

That’s a minimum of 300,000 people on the mountain per year. But KPAP is quoted as saying that number can be as high as 13 porters, 1 cook and 1 guide. That creates a maximum number of people on the mountain per year of up to 800,000.

But that’s just a small part of the analysis, because it isn’t just the number of people on the mountain that matters, but the time spent on the mountain as well. 

A casual web search reveals that the time needed for the climb (both ascent and descent) can be anywhere from 4 to 9 days depending upon the route. Longer journeys apparently result in a greater percentage of climbers actually reaching the summit suggesting that most climbers will opt for longer rather than shorter durations. 

So we now have anywhere from 300,000 to 800,000 people spending anywhere from 4 to 9 days on Kilimanjaro. For those doing the math, that’s anywhere from 1.2 million to 7.2 million total person-days per year on Kilimanjaro. And these are not partial days. These are people eating, sleeping, working and hiking 24 hours per day on the mountain. 

Recreational cable car users, meanwhile, rarely camp overnight on a mountain summit. These are by definition people who will never spend a full-day on the mountain. But let’s operate from the assumption that all of them will. Let’s assume some purpose-built facility is constructed at the summit of Kilimanjaro for the purposes of lodging and feeding guests. Let’s assume it’s staffed by a team of 100 people. That’s a completely arbitrary number and would be absurdly high for such a small number of visitors — but the absurdity of the number is useful for the purposes of this thought experiment. 

(Note — It’s highly unlikely that users of the cable car on Kilimanjaro would stay for prolonged periods of time on the mountain due to issues associated with altitude sickness. The idea presented above that all tourists would spend one entire day at altitude is meant solely as a simplifying assumption, nothing more.) 

Let’s now assume that one hundred percent of all of those hikers (50,000) switch to the cable car and stay for one full day on the mountain while being serviced by that team of one hundred workers. Then add in the additional 25,000 in visitation induced by the construction of the cable car (as predicted by the local tourism board) and the total number of person-days per year on Kilimanjaro plunges to just 111,500 — less than 10% of the minimum person-days that is the current business-as-usual. That’s a tremendous reduction in humankind’s impact on the mountain. 

Assuming the minimum of five guides/cooks/porters per tourist; were the construction of the cable car to cause just 2% of the 50,000 current hikers to switch from hiking the summit to utilizing the cable car, then the net total number of person-days on the mountain would be equal to the current situation — even when one includes the induced visitation of 25,000.

The point being made here is not that the cable car is environmentally benign or that it will be good for the Kilimanjaro ecology. Far smarter people than I need to do that work and analysis to determine actual impacts. The point instead is to demonstrate the nuance and complexity involved in these analyses.

Some people forget that humankind, for better or worse, is actually a part of the environment. The behaviour of people and all the costs and benefits we cause are complex. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t protect the environment; it’s to say that knee-jerk, reactionary positions in the name of saving the environment are sometimes just that: Knee-jerk and reactionary.

(In the second part of this analysis, I’ll discuss how economics is the real driving force behind both the support and opposition of this project.)

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