The Lungs of Kenya

Published on the 26th of January, 2023

“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree — and there will be one.”

I recently read this wonderful quote from the American ecologist Aldo Leopold.

Planting a tree is indeed an act of creation. From the tiniest seedlings, the greatest forests take root. We are proud to support reforestation efforts across Kenya, working with local communities and growing thousands of indigenous trees in our nurseries. We recently celebrated the milestone of 11.8 million mangroves planted in Lamu, a precious marine habitat on the northern coast, over the course of two years.

While we commit acts of creation, we are also committed to acts of preservation. This month, I wanted to delve into our wider efforts to protect forests across Kenya. It’s an area of our work that we don’t talk much about, but it plays a vital role in our wider goal to save habitats and the creatures who call them home.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Lungs of Kenya

When one conjures up visions of Kenya, the mind travels from sweeping plains to dense bushland. Rarely does a forest come to mind. And yet, it is within these deep roots and sprawling branches that we find the lungs of our country, breathing life into habitats, creatures, and communities.

But our living lungs are at extreme risk. Between 1980 and 2000, Kenya lost nearly 50 percent of its forests. Over the course of just two decades, some 740,000 acres of woodland were destroyed through human activities. This is a trend echoed around the planet: Since 1990, the world has lost about a billion acres of forest. (To put that figure in perspective, that’s nearly half the land acreage of the United States.) In recent years, however, rates of deforestation have decreased, which is a hopeful indicator that environmental efforts are successfully taking root.

Kenya has proportionately low forest cover, but they are vital to the health of the entire country

There’s a reason Kenya is synonymous with vast savannahs and bushland. It is a country with relatively low forest cover, with woodlands making up about 5.9 percent of the total national area. However, that doesn’t make its forests any less important — that just means that every acre counts.

In Kenya, montane forests play an intrinsic role in the health of the entire country. Known as ‘water towers,’ these wooded mountains more than earn their nickname: With their higher elevation, they are uniquely positioned to intercept dense clouds gusting off the Indian Ocean. The water that is trapped in these catchment areas travels down into rivers and springs that flow across East Africa.

Forests serve as water catchments that fuel arid ecosystems like Tsavo

Kenya is dotted with important water towers. The Chyulu Hills, sandwiched between the Tsavo and Amboseli ecosystems, is near and dear to our hearts. This spectacular cloud forest is a lifeforce for southern Kenya, supplying much of the water that feeds our wild-living orphans and the communities who live alongside them. Every day, we see evidence of how this relatively small area allows entire ecosystems to flourish. Tsavo’s Mzima Springs, which produces over 100 million litres of crystal clear water each day, supplies people as far as Mombasa. These springs percolate only because of the Chyulu Hills.

Mzima Springs is one of the many waterways fuelled by Kenya's forests

The Chyulus also shape the Umani Springs, located next door in the Kibwezi Forest. Water filters through kilometres of volcanic rock and then presents itself through bubbling, crystal clear springs. When we began working in the Kibwezi Forest in 2008, the area was severely degraded. By putting a conservation management template in place, we have been able to transform this special landscape.

The Chyulu Hills are an area where we focus our conservation work

In East Africa, water is a treasured resource, largely reserved for the precious few landscapes which are able to capture it. However, Kenya’s forests share their wealth. Kenya’s five main water towers — the Aberdare Mountains, the Mau Forest, Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon, and the Cherangani Hills — cover just 2 percent of the country, but they supply more than 75 percent of its renewable surface water.

Umani Springs is home to all manner of wildlife — including many of our orphaned elephants

Historically, we have focused our conservation efforts in the wider Tsavo ecosystem. In recent years, however, we got the opportunity to support Kenya’s precious water towers. Fittingly, it began with the highest peak in the country and the second highest peak in the continent. Instantly recognisable for its hulking, craggy outline, Mount Kenya is an icon of the African wilderness. But even a 17,000-foot mountain is no match for human encroachment. In the past several decades, Mount Kenya National Park had effectively become an island, surrounded by dense settlements and agriculture.

Heaven meets earth at Mount Kenya

Mount Kenya Trust was established to forge a future for the ecosystem, driving conservation and reducing conflict between local communities and the creatures who live alongside them. It spearheaded the Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor, a 14-kilometre elephant migration route that effectively extends the mountain’s footprint for wildlife, connecting it to the Ngare Ndare Forest, Borana Ranch, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and beyond to Samburu National Reserve. Over 1,000 elephant crossings take place along this route each year.

Mount Kenya Trust secures the landscape through their camping patrols

Through regular mobile camping patrols, Mount Kenya Trust effectively secures the mountain, elephant corridor, and surrounding areas against pervasive threats. They respond to any emergency calls within the region, tackling poaching issues and illegal activities, while also supporting elephant rescues and veterinary interventions. Many of their patrols take place on horseback, which allows rangers to efficiently trek through the thick forest.

However, these teams need proper funding to do their important work. Since 2017, we have supported Mount Kenya Trust and their camping patrols by funding salaries, equipment, rations, fuel, and logistics of the mobile team. We also donated a Land Rover Defender 4x4, and last year, a fully equipped new Toyota Land Cruiser, to complement their field efforts. These vehicles take their daily operations to the next level.

Countless species rely on the Mau Forest for their survival

The year after we began working in Mount Kenya, we got the opportunity to significantly expand our support for forests. The Mau Forest is the largest forested area in Kenya and its most important water tower. Located in the heart of the Rift Valley, it fuels the main rivers that provide water to the western region of the country.

Humans depend on the Mau Forest for their survival, but it is human actions that put its very existence at risk. Over the past half century, nearly 37 percent of the forest’s original area has disappeared. Many perennial rivers have become seasonal, while the clear-cutting of trees has led to soil erosion and flooding. Propelled by steep gradients, eroded soil laden with pollutants and agrochemicals end up in the Mara River, which is the primary water source for countless wildlife and people.

The Mau Teams show how a dedicated anti-poaching presence can bring a landscape back from the brink

The pressures facing the Mau Forest are many and varied, ranging from land encroachment for settlements to forest degradation through grazing, fires, illegal logging, and poaching. To face these challenges head-on, we teamed up with Mara Elephant Project in 2018 to establish the Mau Anti-Poaching Team. The following year, we deployed a second team in the ecosystem.

These Anti-Poaching Teams exemplify how boots on the ground can transform an unprotected area. Indeed, their impact was immediate. Not only did the first team support the arrest of poachers, the seizure of ivory, and the removal of snares and other contraband, but their mere presence acted as a powerful deterrent. One of the most impressive side-effects was the buy-in from surrounding communities. There was a huge turnout for the recruitment for the second Anti-Poaching Team, and we have since trained an outstanding team of rangers. At last, local citizens felt inspired and empowered to help protect the wilderness on their doorstep.

In the Aberdares, forested ravines and open moorland provide sanctuary for an array of wildlife

Another key water tower fringes the western side of the Rift Valley. The Aberdares is a hauntingly beautiful landscape, dominated by misty forests and open moorlands. It is known for its trout fishing, but a number of rare and threatened species call the area home, including elephants, black rhinos, leopards, and bongos. Our SWT/KWS Mount Kenya Mobile Veterinary Unit serves the area. Oftentimes, their veterinary operations reflect the wider challenges facing the Aberdares, from human-wildlife conflict to poaching to habitat loss.

Mount Elgon, another of Kenya’s main water towers, straddles the border of Kenya and Uganda. Swathed in mist, the volcanic giant is believed to be the oldest extinct volcano in East Africa. Crowned by a massive caldera, the interior of Mount Elgon is honeycombed by a network of caves. Kitum Cave is a favourite haunt of the local elephant population, who use their tusks to excavate salt deposits from the inner walls.

The mysterious, caldera-capped silhouette of Mount Elgon hides a network of caves within

Above ground, however, Mount Elgon is in trouble. With limited local awareness on the importance of preserving the water tower, it has struggled from illegal logging, encroachment, charcoal burning, human-wildlife conflict, and forest fires. The Kenya Wildlife Service protect the area, but as we have seen time and again, teams must be fully mobile in order to work effectively. To help them reach their full potential, we organised a recent vehicle donation. In 2022, we proudly handed over the keys to a customised Toyota Land Cruiser 4x4 vehicle, which will give these rangers the rapid response capabilities they need.

These are but a few examples of our wide-ranging and ever-evolving support in Kenya’s forests. In the Shimba Hills, a tree-filled paradise on the coast, our latest large-scale conservation initiative is unfurling. Modelling the conservation management template we successfully deployed in the Kibwezi Forest, we are building a human/wildlife-proof electric fenceline around the entire Shimba-Mwaluganje conservation area, establishing dedicated Anti-Poaching Teams, empowering community scouts, improving essential infrastructure, and supporting local communities. We are in the early stages of the same undertaking in the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, another threatened coastal habitat.

Forests shape the future of our planet

But these are stories for another day. For now, we have habitats to protect, wildlife to save, and trees to plant. Through these humble, everyday actions, a much bigger future for Kenya’s forests is taking root.

Harkening back to Aldo Leopold’s words, “Let there be a tree — and there will be one.”

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.

We deeply appreciate any contribution you are able to make. Your donation will be directed where it is needed most, as we work to secure Kenya's great landscapes and protect the creatures who call them home.

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