The Usambara Mountains are a mountain range in North-East Tanzania, approximately 70 miles (110 km) long and ranging from 20 to 40 miles (64 km) in width. Mountains in the range rise as high as 8,000 ft (2,440 m). They are part of the Eastern Arc Mountains, which stretch from Kenya through Tanzania, and are one of the world’s Biodiversity hotspots. The range is accessible from the towns of Lushoto in the West, and Amani in the East. The Usambaras are commonly split into two sub-ranges, the West Usambara and the East Usambara. The East Usambara is closer to the coast, receives more rainfall, and is significantly smaller than the West Usambara.
The Usambaras are fairly unique in that, being in East Africa, their unspoiled regions are covered in the tropical forest, which today remains mainly in the West of the continent. The mountain range was formed nearly two billion years ago and due to a lack of glaciations and a relatively consistent climate, the rainforest has gone through a long term and unique evolution resulting in an impressive amount of endemism and an old growth cloud rain forest (Lovett 1993). West and East Usambaras are large ranges of Precambrian metamorphic geologic formations of acid-gneisses, pyroxenes and amphiboles. These mountains were formed by faulting and uplifting creating the drainage system of troughs that form many watersheds, which provide water to a majority of the population of northeast Tanzania (Lundgren 1980). Considered tremendously significant ecologically, there are many protected zones throughout the range, which are being expanded and contributed to by the Tanzanian government, associated NGO’s and research teams, and donor countries such as Norway. Several species are endemic to the Usambara forests, including the Usambara Eagle-owl (Bubo vosseleri), the UsambaraAkalat (Sheppardiamontana), the Usambara Weaver (Ploceusnicolli), and the tree Calodendrumeickii.
Historically the Usambara Mountains have been inhabited by the Bantu, Sambaa, and Maasai people who were a mix of agriculturalists and pastoralists. In the late 19th century, German colonialists came to the area bringing with them a mix of cash crops like lumber trees, coffee, tea, and quinine, and also designated forests as reserves for either water conservation or timber use (Rogers 2009). They also brought a slew of new, western ideas which were, in many ways, diametrically opposed to traditional beliefs such as coexistence with the forest versus forest as a “separate wilderness” (Korschun 2007). The result of colonialism was a massive change in the way forests were perceived in the community, and conversion of traditional agriculture to cultivating cash crops such as quinine, pine trees, bananas, maize, tea, and coffee.
Today, the population of the Usambaras has one of the highest growth rates (about 4% compared to the national average of 2.1%), a staggering amount of poverty and highest densities of people in all of Tanzania (R. Matthews 2009). Most of the inhabitants are subsistence farmers who rely heavily on the forests around them for timber, medicinal plants, clearing for agriculture, and fuel wood (S. Kiparo 2009). Furthermore 70% of the original forest cover of the West and East Usambaras has been lost (Doggart et al. 2005). Major land and forest degradation remain a pressing issue. However, there are still many places that attract tourists looking for an adventure off the beaten path. These include the bustling trade town of Lushoto, the once popular German resort Amani Nature Reserve and farm, and Mazumbai University Forest, which is considered the last example of a pristine forest in the East Usambaras.