Nairobi - A fire on the slopes of Kenya's tallest mountain is sending big game animals like elephants fleeing for their lives, as wildlife agents and British troops are fighting to put out several fires, officials said on Monday.
The flames have already consumed hundreds of hectares of forest on Mount Kenya, said Paul Udoto, a spokesperson for the Kenya Wildlife Service. The fire has covered the spiky mountain in a haze of smoke.
Tourists staying in mountain lodges are safe, Udoto said, but elephants are among the many animals fleeing.
"The elephants fled the area, but they are still within the protected areas of the mountain," Udoto said.
Firefighters said they haven't come across any animal hurt or killed by the fire.
Photos of the fire show small bursts of flame and thick white smoke hanging over the mountain's lower elevations. Mount Kenya is the second-highest peak in Africa, at 5 199m.
"There's fires all over the place," said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of the group Save the Elephants. "It's because of the dryness. But I bet people are setting the fires ... accidental, but human-generated."
Fires are also burning in the nearby Aberdare National Park. Douglas-Hamilton said the fires will deprive animals of food and that he expects some to get caught in the flames.
Mount Kenya is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The UN organisation describes the region as "one of the most impressive landscapes of Eastern Africa, with its rugged glacier-clad summits, Afro-alpine moorlands and diverse forests".
Susie Weeks, the executive officer of the Mount Kenya Trust, a group that works to protect the mountain's wildlife, said at least three separate fires were burning. She said in an e-mail that the British military and the Kenya Wildlife Service were co-ordinating "beautifully" on Monday.
"Today is a much better day! Less chaos, more help, low winds and a bit of cloud. However, we need to sustain this level of attack on the fires for a couple of days to succeed," she wrote.
The fire is burning forest that serves as a water catchment, potentially affecting the region's water supply and hydroelectric dams. Wildlife would also be forced to move, said Gitau, the deputy warden of Mount Kenya National Park.
Gitau said four of six burning sites in the forest had been suppressed, but there is a chance the fire will re-ignite because of the dry and windy conditions. He said the cause of the fire is not known, but 90% of the fires in Mount Kenya are caused by human activity, either poachers or honey gatherers.
"Sometimes it's accidental like a cigarette butt that hasn't been completely extinguished," he said.
Patrick Wanjohi, the director of the Mountain Rock Lodge, a holiday resort on the lower slopes of Mount Kenya, said the forest will not regenerate fast because of the high altitude. He said animals are likely to flee into farms at lower elevations, leading to human-animal conflict.
Capt. Maz Kingston, a spokesperson for the British army training unit Kenya, said the British military has helped carry out an aerial assessment of the fire, and is providing command and control for the firefighting response. British military vehicles are helping move firefighters close to the flames.
"Fires have been going on for the last couple months with varying degrees of intensity," Kingston said.
"It's very intense and it's quite extensive across the mountain. ... We had a little bit of rain last night which tamped it down a little bit."
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