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Deforestation threatens Kilimanjaro ice cap

* Mountain ice cap at risk

* Experts blame local land practices

KILIMANJARO, Tanzania, Dec 8 (Reuters) - At the foot of Africa's snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, images of the mountain adorn the sides of rusting zinc shacks and beer bottle labels, but the fate of the real version hangs in the balance.

As politicians and lobbyists try to thrash out a new climate deal in Copenhagen, experts in Tanzania say local land practices must increasingly take their share of the blame for the rapid shrinkage of the ice on Kilimanjaro's peak.

According to one recent U.S. scientific study, the cap on Africa's highest mountain may disappear by 2033. [ID:nL2210825]

"The forest itself is the key element in this. It completely affects the amount of rain running off the mountain," said Jo Anderson, director of Ecological Initiatives, an environmental consultancy based in northern Tanzania.

"Less vegetation; less rain. We're seeing local human impacts directly." With less rainfall on the lower slopes, there is also less snow on the summit.

Anderson said forests that have disappeared in the past 30 to 40 years on Kilimanjaro's lower slopes -- cut down by villagers for charcoal and open farmland -- were just as much to blame as rising temperatures worldwide.

Batilda Burian, Tanzania's environment minister, told Reuters that the east African country was losing 91,500 hectares (226,100 acres) a year, of its 33 million hectare total.

"It is a huge problem and most of it is happening because people don't have energy supplies so they are cutting down the trees to make charcoal," she said.

CARBON OFFSET PILOT

Burian said Tanzania, which has sent a delegation of 25 people to the Copenhagen summit, has been widely affected by climate change, from rising sea water levels, destruction of coral reefs and increased incidences of malaria in places previously too cold for mosquitoes.

"Because of a four-year drought 345,000 of our 1 million livestock here in Tanzania have been killed, most of them in one area, challenging the livelihoods of the people," she said.

Zakaria Kessy, a 45-year-old mountain guide standing at Kilimanjaro's base camp as a group of German tourists arrived to down to a congratulatory bottle of champagne, said he had seen big changes during his 18 years on the job.

"The snow used to start at 3,600 metres when I started, but now it's only at the very top," he said of the mountain, which rises 5,896 metres high.

Anderson, who has climbed the peak with tourists 58 times in the past 14 years, hopes a new focus on the importance of forest carbon schemes, touted at Copenhagen, will bring respite.

He is piloting a scheme under which tourists who fly in on carbon-spewing planes and take safaris in gas-guzzling 4x4 cars can offset the impact by contributing to the preservation of a local 50-hectare community forest. It is due to receive its first payment of $3,000-4,000 soon.

"I have never really considered the carbon cost of coming here," said German trekker Beatrice Macias, 37.

"It is in everyone's psyche that there's snow almost at the Equator," Anderson said of Kilimanjaro, which rakes in $50 million a year for the tourism-dependent country.

"It is pretty much the defining feature of the mountain for people coming to climb it."

Burian said she hopes plans for a widespread scheme that rewards developing countries for preserving or replanting their forests, called reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), will make headway in Copenhagen.

"I have much hope that the REDD programme will really assist us stop the destruction of the forests," she said. (Editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura and Dominic Evans)

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