An Overview of Impacts of Climate Change on Mountain Biota and Dependant Livelihoods: A Global Perspective with a Focus on Tropical Mountains

 Kennedy W. Nyongesa1, Daniel O. Olago2, Nicholas O. Oguge2, Shem O. Wandiga2

1 Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation (ICCA), University of Nairobi 2 Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation (ICCA), University of Nairobi Corresponding Author Email:


Mountains exhibit biological richness, their diversity of life zones and habitats leads to unique flora and fauna and to the exceptional cultural diversity of mountain people, making mountains especially important sites for conservation efforts and projects. Recent research shows that climate change will be more pronounced in high-elevation mountain ranges, which are warming faster than adjacent lowlands, and that the pace of climate zone shifts will be higher in such regions than in lowlands. This implies that mountain biota is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Mountain biodiversity provides ecosystem goods and services directly used by humans, including high elevation medicinal plants, mountain crops, timber and other montane forest products; it ensures a steady flow of clean water, provides an unpolluted and healthy environment for residents, and offers attractive landscapes for Eco-tourism. The benefits and the services provided by mountain biodiversity are huge, in economic, political and social terms hence  the costs of losing the services provided by mountain vegetation are huge – both in ecological and economic terms. Mountain biodiversity also ensures the basis for the production of healthy food needed for expanding markets worldwide. Traditional indigenous communities often use and manage biodiversity in mountain-protected areas, and could be more threatened than biodiversity itself; thus, human interaction with regional species and climatic drivers has shaped mountain biodiversity for centuries. Local people should be encouraged towards stewardship of both their natural and cultural heritage. Participation of mountain communities at all stages is crucial in the sustainable management and use of biodiversity. This theoretical review paper gives an exposé of climate change related threats to the survival of mountain biodiversity and the human livelihoods that depend on it. In this paper, a conclusion is drawn and a conclusive working model in the context of Adaptive Resource Management is illustrated and discussed.

Key Words: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Impacts,Indicator Species, Livelihoods, Mountains


Biodiversity underpins the functioning of ecosystems on which humanity depends for food, water, health and other diversified facets of human livelihoods (Sinclair, 2003). The impacts of climate change on biodiversity can be observed around the world (Dawson et al., 2011; Cahill et al., 2012; CBD, 2009). Biota refers to the animal and plant life of a particular region, habitat, ecosystem or geological period.

The ecology of hoofed big-game species known as ungulates, in the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States of America, is strongly influenced by climate (Lawton & Gaston, 2001). Climate change impacts on summer precipitation, winter snow pack, and the timing of spring green-up, all of which control animal physiology, demography, diet, habitat selection and predator prey interactions. However, the degree of response to these impacts from animals such as elk, moose, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope is uncertain. Thus, impacts of climate change can not only directly impact ungulate species, but also the ability of managers to promote conservation through tourism; a direct hit on the economies of many states (Parmesan & Yohe 2003).

Not all species are affected by climate change equally due to the complex interaction of species within the ecosystem (Shilla, 2014). Species differ in size, genetic makeup and physiological requirements and functions that all together inform the behavior, life cycles, habits, habitats, diet, reproduction, geographical distribution and their response to environmental stressors including climate change stressors such as high temperatures and droughts (Tylianakis et al., 2008).

The overall vulnerability of species or ecological communities to climate change can be determined by assessing the relationship between three primary components: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity (Mawdsley et al., 2009). Exposure is the degree or magnitude of stress placed upon a species or habitat due to changing climate conditions or increased climate variability (IUFRO, 2009). This could be measured in relationship to direct climate effects like drought and heat stress. Exposure can also be assessed relative to indirect factors such as natural or man-made barriers to distribution and land-use changes in response to climate change. Sensitivity is the degree to which a species or habitat will be affected by or is responsive to climate change and variability (Hulme, 2005). For any given species, the level of sensitivity could relate to dispersal ability, physical habitat specificity, or temperature and precipitation requirements (Vie et al., 2009; Mawdsley and Lamb, 2013). Adaptive capacity is the potential or capability of a species or habitat to adjust to climate change as a means to moderate potential damages, take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with consequences (Hulme, 2005). Generally, the higher the adaptive capacity of an organism or wildlife habitat to the potential impacts of the threat, the lower the overall vulnerability (Glick et al., 2011).

Cernea and Schmidt-Soltau (2003) posit that there is already undeniable evidence that animals and plants are affected by climate change in both their distribution and behavior. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are severely reduced, climate change could cause a quarter of terrestrial animals, birdlife and plants to become extinct (IPCC, 2007). Climate change directly erodes natural capital, and thus the resource base for human enterprise (ACCESS/IUCN, 2014).

Literature Review

Impacts of Climate Change in Tropical Mountains on Human Communities

Mountains represent unique areas for the detection of climatic change and the assessment of climate-related impacts (Beniston, 2003; IMD, 2006).This view is supported by recent research on climate change in tropical mountain ecosystems and its implications on the mountain communities (ACCESS/IUCN 2014). Recent research shows that climate change will be more pronounced in high-elevation mountain ranges, which are warming faster than adjacent lowlands (World Bank, 2008; Macchi, 2011), and that the pace of climate zone shifts will be higher in such regions than in lowlands (Mahlstein et al., 2013). The mountain ecosystems in Africa appear to be undergoing significant observed changes that are likely due to complex climate-land interactions and climate change (IPCC, 2007). Research suggests that at least some of the world’s forested ecosystems may already be experiencing climate change impacts and raise concern that forests may become increasingly vulnerable to higher tree mortality rates and die-off in response to future warming and drought, even in environments that are not normally considered water limited (Allen et al., 2010; Sharma et al., 2010a).Warming and drying trends on Mt. Kilimanjaro have increased fire impacts, which have caused a 400-m downward contraction of closed (cloud) forest, now replaced by an open, dry alpine system (Hemp, 2005).

The tropical African climate is also favorable to most major vector-borne diseases, including: malaria, schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis, trypanosomiasis, filariasis, leishmaniasis, plague, Rift Valley fever, yellow fever and tick-borne haemorrhagic fevers (Githeko et al., 2000). The African continent has a high diversity of vector species complexes that have the potential to redistribute themselves to new climate-driven habitats leading to new disease patterns (ACCESS/IUCN, 2014); this relates not only to human health, but also to the health of all other groups or classes of living organisms, both in the animal and plant kingdoms (Nyongesa,Omuya and Sitati, 2016. There is growing scientific evidence that many mountain regions have become increasingly disaster-prone in recent decades (Sharma et al., 2010b), and are more frequently affected than other environments by destructive natural processes including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, dam bursts or glacial lake outbursts, as well as avalanches and landslides (Kaltenborn, et al., 2010)).

Considerable loss of woodlands and forest cover due to deforestation and cultivation, particularly on steep concave slopes of the Mt. Elgon National Park in Uganda, has induced a series of shallow and deep landslides in the area during rainfall events (Mugagga et al., 2012). Globally, climate change is very likely to increase the pressure exerted by non-seismic hazards: casualties and damage due to hazards in mountain regions will increase irrespective of global warming, especially where populations are growing and infrastructure is developed at exposed locations (ACCESS/IUCN, 2014).

Vulnerability of Mountain Biodiversity and Human Livelihoods to Climate Change

Körner et al. (2010) observe that mountain vegetation secures watersheds from slope failure such as erosion, mudflows and avalanches. Mountain freshwater supplies, which are crucial for all downstream areas, greatly depend on stable and intact vegetation in catchments (Hamilton and McMillan, 2004); a highly structured, diverse ground cover with different root systems is probably the best insurance for slope stability and for securing railway lines, roads and settlements worth billions of dollars.

Hamilton and McMillan (2004) posit that the ongoing socio-economic changes cause a dramatic reduction in traditional land care and overexploitation of easily accessible terrain. In many regions of the world traditional mountain landscapes disappear, and with these the associated wild and domesticated species and breeds. Hamilton (2006) posits that from a development perspective, where poverty alleviation and improvement of livelihoods are core concerns, efforts thus need to be undertaken to preserve biological diversity as an important asset of mountain people. These are often characterized by a multitude of distinct societies and cultures that belong to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable rural communities to be found on earth (Baron et al., 2009). Traditional indigenous communities often use and manage biodiversity in mountain-protected areas, and may be even more threatened than biodiversity itself (Hamilton and McMillan, 2004); thus, human interaction with regional species and climatic drivers has shaped mountain biodiversity for centuries.

According to Hamilton and McMillan (2004), sub-tropical and tropical mountains offer striking examples of intensification of human pressure on montane areas, e.g. in African mountains, humans have traditionally settled in uplands, where the climate is mild and the environment relatively disease-free compared to the arid or very humid lowlands. However, more recently, increasing population pressure has led to unsustainable land practices and land use detrimental to biodiversity (Molg et al, .2012). Land use effects can be more dramatic than natural disasters or climatic change (Noroozi et al., 2008; Nyongesa et al,.2016).

Climate-Change Vulnerabilities of Africa’s Large Mammals

The threat of climate change has become an overwhelming concern in the field of wildlife conservation; projected changes in the world’s ecosystems are already being observed (Hulme et al., 2001). IPCC (2007) reports that these world’s ecosystem changes are occurring faster than expected in Africa, particularly in southern Africa. The numbers of mammal species in the national parks in sub-Saharan Africa could decline by 24% to 40% (IPCC, 2014). One study predicts that 66% of animal species in South Africa’s Kruger National Park could go extinct due to extreme droughts (Erasmus et al., 2002). A study in Namibia showed a positive correlation between the richness of large wildlife species and income from ecotourism and trophy hunting (Naidoo et al., 2011).

The vulnerability of a species to climate change is a factor of the extent of change to which it will be exposed, its sensitivity to the altered conditions and its ability to adapt (Glick et al., 2011); the adaptive capacity, or resilience, of a species depends upon its ability to tolerate and/or adjust to climate change. Reviews of climate change vulnerabilities for the African large mammals indicate that there are several key areas of vulnerability shared by many of these species (Hulme et al., 2001). Chief among these is the need for surface water. Many of the species are water-dependent, and many must drink daily. Some large mammals such as the African elephant and hippopotamus have enormous water requirements that can best be met by large bodies of water such as lakes and rivers (Naidoo et al., 2011). Heat stress is another common vulnerability shared across many of the African large mammal species (Maloiy et al., 2008). The lack of habitat connectivity has been mentioned as a contributing element to climate vulnerability in many of the African mega fauna species (Gaylard et al., 2009). Figure 1 shows the conceptual framework as contemplated in this paper. The framework exhibits the systems approach-transdisplinary display of the interdependence of concepts.

Figure 1: The Systems Approach-Transdisplinary display of the Interdependence of Concepts

Source: Nyongesa et al, 2019

The conceptual framework in this study depicts a concept map that shows the integration, interrelation, interaction and interdependence of climate change, vulnerability of indicator species to climate change impacts, the three complexities of transdisciplinarity, climate change scenarios on indicator species and policies and strategies to support adaptation mechanisms.

Indicator Species and Keystone Species in Ecosystems

The use of organisms to indicate the state of, and changes to the environment has numerous tried and tested applications (Lawton and Gaston, 2001). Amphibians are highly diverse in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia and have been used as indicator species to climate change (Körner, 2004).The alpine and nival belts represent the only life zones on the globe that occur at all latitudes, although at different altitudes, which makes them very attractive for global comparisons of biodiversity and climate change effects (CBD, 2009). An ecosystem is a local or regional grouping of biotic and abiotic components functioning together (CBD, 2009). Ecologists have contributed concepts such as the balance of nature, the stability-diversity hypothesis, and chaos theories, some of which are undergoing revision as the science of ecology continues to develop (Tylianakis et al., 2008). According to Shilla(2014) indicator species are those that reveal evidence for, or the impacts of, environmental change. On the other hand keystone species refers to a species whose presence or absence determines the stability or instability of an ecosystem (Sinclair, 2003).

Studies have shown that losses of keystone species and indicator species in an ecosystem have had considerable impacts on the ecosystems, thus protecting these species against anthropogenic activities is imperative (Shilla, 2014); carnivores are considered as keystone species.  Migratory bogong moths are a keystone species in the snowy mountains of Australia, as they are an important food source for a number of animals (Spehn et al., 2010); however, earlier snowmelt due to climate change is not being matched by earlier moth arrival, resulting in serious consequences for the endangered pygmy-possum.

The effects of climate change on plants shall affect all the food chain and food web dynamics in the mountain ecosystems because plants are the biological primary producers (Noroozi et al., 2008). Climate change impact models have suggested serious biodiversity losses, and have indicated that plants in mountain regions may be among those most affected (Körner and Spehn, 2002). Further, climate and land use often interact in ways that influence biodiversity, implying that these factors cannot be considered in isolation (ACCESS/IUCN, 2014) for example, land use may modify climatic impacts on species distributions by altering dispersal routes. Where land use creates barriers to dispersal for native species and facilitates dispersal for invasive species; climate change in human-dominated landscapes is likely to select for invasive species and against many native species (Sinclair, 2003). The responses of ecological systems to global climate change reflect the organisms that are within them (Barthlott et al., 2007); it is the responses of individual organisms that begin the cascade of ecological processes that  manifest as changes in system properties, some of which feedback to influence climate and land use.

Impacts of Climate Change on Mountain Plant Species

According to Pohl et al. (2009), the world’s high mountain regions harbour a large number of highly specialized plant species that are governed by low-temperature conditions; climate warming may force many of these species towards ever higher elevations and finally to mountain-top extinction. Long term observation sites, therefore, are a crucial prerequisite for assessing the impacts of climate change in high mountain regions (Körner and Spehn, 2002). Large, slowly reproducing organisms such as the large mammals with small populations would be expected to be on the losing side (Barthlott et al., 2007). Not surprisingly, plant species in higher elevations that belong to a generalist group of weeds have an advantage (Noroozi et al., 2008). 

Mutke and Barthlott (2005) observe that some late successional plant species, however, are so resilient that they have hardly been affected by climatic change. Others may escape problems by making use of the diverse mosaics of high elevation microhabitats (Körner et al., 2010).  Usually, a temperature increase of 1–2°C exerts little short term change on alpine vegetation, due to the substantial natural inertia of high elevation plant species (Pohl et al., 2009); more pronounced warming is likely to bring substantial changes. Because each species responds individually, new assemblages are expected, rather than a migration of established communities. Changes in plant communities also imply changes in animal habitats (Noroozi et al., 2008). Especially for large mammal species with a narrow geographic and climatic range, the risk of extinction increases with climate warming (Vie et al., 2009).

Noroozi et al. (2008) observe that in the timeframe of climatic warming, the evolution of new taxa is very unlikely. New adapted communities usually assemble by replacement of species by other species migrating into the community from lower elevations. When neither acclimation nor behavioral changes match the new demands, migration becomes inevitable, and in cases, where migration is not possible, species will disappear, at least locally. Körner et al. (2010) posit that species with a higher risk of vulnerability given the rapidity of climate change include: large territorial animals, late successional plant species (K-strategists), species with small restricted populations, and species confined to summits or the plains.  Barthlott et al. (2007) emphasize that species with a lower risk of vulnerability to climate change include:  small highly mobile organisms, ruderal plant species (r-strategists), widespread species with large populations and mid-slope species

Adaptive Management and Land Use Changes in view of Climate Change

Adaptive Management (AM), also known as Adaptive Resource Management (ARM), is a structured, iterative process of robust decision making in the face of uncertainty, with an aim to reducing uncertainty over time via system monitoring (Habron, 2003); in this way, decision making simultaneously meets one or more resource management objectives and, either passively or actively, accrues information needed to improve future management. Adaptive management is a tool which should be used not only to change a system, but also to learn about the system (Stankey et al., 2005).  Bunnell et al. (2007) posit that because adaptive management is based on a learning process, it improves long-term management outcomes; the challenge in using the adaptive management approach lies in finding the correct balance between gaining knowledge to improve management in the face of relentless global climate change.

Theoretical Analysis

In fact, one-third (32%) of all protected areas, regardless of status and size, is in mountains, including 88 World Heritage Natural Sites, and 40% of all UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserves(MAB) (Körner, 2009). The total number of mountain protected areas is 21,400 km2, on a total area of 5,996,075 km2 (World Bank, 2008). Climate change will definitely increase risk since expected increases of heavy rainfall, heat waves, and glacier melt will amplify hazards in many mountains worldwide, and in areas where they have not been known in the past (Hamilton and McMillan, 2004). In a study in eastern Uganda covering part of Mount Elgon, it was observed that over 90% of the households have attempted changing their farming operations in response to climate variability and extremes (Kansiime, 2012).


Desk top studies indicate that land use planning strategies are an important part of Adaptive Resource Management (ARM) in response to mitigating, adapting and preparing for climate change (Wolf and Moser, 2011); in many ways, land use planning is a valuable tool for responding to the effects of climate change due to its broad scope of application and relative flexibility as a mechanism for controlling land use and development. However, there can also be numerous challenges and barriers in applying land use planning instruments to address climate change issues and in considering climate change projections when formulating and applying land use planning measures (Habron, 2003). According to Körner et al. (2010), global climate change is often perceived as human-induced modifications in climate, indeed human activities have undeniably altered the atmosphere, and probably the climate as well.

At the same time, most of the world’s forests have also been extensively modified by human use of the land (Habron, 2003); thus, climate and land use are two prongs of human-induced global change and the organisms within forests mediate the effect of these forces on forests. Consideration of climate, land use and biodiversity is key to understanding forests ecosystems response to global climate change (Körner et al., 2010).

Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) about peoples’ environment including weather and climate suggests not only that knowledge passed down through generations is still used today but that it can complement scientific knowledge and potentially help to adapt to faster changes than would be associated with variability alone (Wolf and Moser, 2011). In the Himalayas, for example, it has been noted that there is very little literature on the impacts or the response of the communities, yet there is a wealth of information in the form of local knowledge of the indigenous communities based on their observations, perceptions and experiences over the years that can be effectively utilized to complement scientific data to improve climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies (Ingty and Bawa, 2012).


Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) could be used to design sustainable conservation strategies while complementing scientific data. The changing climate has made the existing conservation approaches to become increasingly unreliable partly because of the lag in adoption of Adaptive Resource Management (ARM) approaches by managers. Figure 2 shows the Conclusive Working Model as envisaged in this paper.

Figure 2: The Inter-link between Mountain Biota, Global Climate Change Impacts, Dependant Human Livelihoods and the resultant Development Activities

Source: Nyongesa et al, 2019

The Conclusive Working Model in this paper illustrates that there is a feedback relationship between mountain biota and dependent human livelihoods together with the resultant development activities. The biota and the ecosystems in which they are habituated provide ecological services to the mountain people, which enable them to make development activities. For peoples’ livelihoods to be sustainable they have to be involved in the conservation of the biota at all stages especially with the help of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) complementing Scientific Data to have the resultant Adaptive Resource Management (ARM). Climate change has impacts on both the mountain biota and human livelihoods, hence for effective resilience and adaptation mountain biota and dependent human livelihoods must have mutual facilitation for each other.


I thank my supervisors who took me through my Doctorate research work and for their unequivocal mentorship. These are Prof. Shem O. Wandiga, Prof.Daniel O. Olago and Prof. Nicholas O. Oguge  who also co-authored this work.


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