Nairobi — Kakamega Forest, the only remaining tropical rainforest in Kenya, is threatened with extinction.
From the outside, the thick canopy gives the impression of a forest that has been shielded from destruction. Don't be deceived; it is a camouflage.
A walk through the forest tells a different story. Wanton destruction of the forest by both large-scale loggers and charcoal burners has left the foliage of the once blossoming forest bare.
The forest has experienced severe degradation during the past three decades. Presently, more than half of the indigenous forest cover is bare. The closed canopy indigenous forest covers a paltry 25 per cent of the gazetted forest area.
The forest is currently estimated to have over 5,000 hectares of bare patches while thousands of hectares of the "rehabilitated" sites are under coniferous trees thus undermining the forest's ecological and biodiversity functions.
Unlike other forests that bore the brunt of illegal loggers, Kakamega's virgin forest with its rare indigenous mature trees was a gem that attracted even the Government officials who were supposed to protect it from loggers.
Indigenous trees felled
The forest was gazetted in 1932 with an area of 15,480 ha, of which 13,888 ha comprised virgin indigenous forest cover.
Large-scale logging started in earnest in the late 1980s when the Nyayo Tea Zones Corporation came knocking with a proposal to create a buffer against encroachment. A large chunk of the forest came tumbling down under the guise of clearing way for a 100-metre perimeter tea plantation around the forest. Residents and leaders alike hailed the project as a brilliant idea in an area where tea was not widely grown.
Thousands of hectares of indigenous trees were felled indiscriminately. From then on, it was plunder unlimited. With the custodians being the culprits, the villagers watched helplessly as the big timers pillaged their heritage. Looking at it in retrospect, residents now say the establishment of the tea estates acted as smokescreen for the provincial administrators and politicians to rape the virgin forest.
Kakamega County Council chairman Samuel Mwanzi says the idea to plant a 100-metre tea belt around the forest was noble but was abused.
"At Isecheno area, where tea was planted, the original indigenous forest is intact. It is unfortunate that tea was never planted on the entire perimeter of the forest," he said.
Factory project never took off
Although tea was planted on part of the land, thousands of hectares remained fallow even after the forest was cleared.
"The loggers came in with big saws and carried thousands of lorries full of hardwood as we watched," says Dominic Masabi, a resident.
The destruction went a notch higher when the Government decided to construct a Sh311m tea factory on the fringes of the forest. The reasoning then was: What is the need to have a tea plantation without a factory to process it?
Provincial administrators and powerful politicians scrambled for the permits to harvest the trees that were to be felled "to clear the ground for the factory". While the small charcoal burner was arrested and charged for destroying the forest, the large-scale loggers enjoyed massive protection.
"I think they were arresting charcoal burners for fear that they would finish the best trees for them," says Masabi sarcastically.
Needless to say, the factory project has never taken off but thousands of hectares of trees were felled.
The National Environment Management Authority approved the construction of the factory, thus opening the way for the raping of what once used to be Kenya's only virgin forest.
Law enforcement haphazard
Part of the forestland was also annexed to Shikusa Maximum Prison and the Western Kenya Agricultural Society of Kenya Show Ground among other institutions.
Agricultural encroachment, human settlement, forest fires and indiscriminate logging by small-scale illegal loggers have also contributed to the degradation.
The Forest department is not only ill equipped to ward off plunderers but also lacks the legal muscle to stop powerful provincial administrators and politically well connected loggers.
A monkey enjoys the morning sun in the diminishing Kakamega forest.
A source at the Forest office in Kakamega said foresters are helpless "especially when a logger comes armed with a letter from the provincial administration or a high political office."
Western Provincial Forest Officer Joseph Nzwili declined to comment on the allegation but said the destruction continues because law enforcement is haphazard and thin.
"My officers are at times discouraged by the penalty awarded in court because logging is considered a petty offence. Someone who fells trees worth a million shillings is only fined Sh600. The value of destruction to trees, soil and the entire ecosystem is not taken into consideration," said Nzwili.
Important biological resources
He says that even though the department has intensified patrolling, it is experiencing acute shortage of staff and vehicles.
"We have only eight forest guards. Before the retrenchment, we had 25. Policing the forest with such thin staff is difficult," says the PFO.
The forest has been a resource for local people for generations, as a source of wood for fuel, building poles, timber, vine-ropes and food stuff such as honey and bush meat. These traditional uses are now outlawed but the degradation persists.
Powerful people have allegedly allocated themselves large chunks of land in the forest to speculate on it in the event that the Government decides to excise it.
Kakamega Forest is one of the largest moist lowland forest ecosystems in Kenya holding important biological resources (flora, fauna and avifauna). It is home to a great deal of biodiversity. These include over 350 plant species, 367 bird species, over 40 snake species, 400 species of butterflies and about seven primate species endemic to the forest.
Once viewed as an island of relatively 'natural' habitat in a sea of human-dominated landscape, it is now just but a shell.
Replacing indigenous forest with exotic trees
A recent study shows that about 10 to 20 per cent of the animal species in the forest are not found elsewhere in Kenya. Primates in the forest include blue monkeys, red tailed monkeys, de Brazza's monkeys, black and white colobus, olive baboons, and pottos. Occasionally, one can see a vervet.
Nzwili says the department has recovered over 2,000ha of land that had been excised and given to institutions. Some 1,200ha have been recovered from Sukusa Maximum Prison and Western Kenya Show Ground.
He says over 200ha have been replanted with trees in the last two years by the department and another 50ha through the assistance of Pan African Paper Mills of Webuye.
But a quick look through the forest indicates that attempts at regeneration and enrichment have focused on exotic species where thousands of hectares are now under pinus, cypress and eucalyptus. The net result has been the overwhelming undermining of the forest's biodiversity.
"It is illogical to replace an indigenous forest with exotic trees," said Mwanzi.
A researcher with Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) John Otwoma says there is always a temptation to replace indigenous trees with exotic species because they grow faster. This is why, he says, the forestry department have been replacing tropical hardwood trees with faster growing conifers.
Rehabilitating degraded sites
Under the Government Forest Policy of 2005, communities leaving near forests have the mandate to manage the resource. Because of this, Nzwili says, the Green Zones Development Support Project was initiated while location conservation committees have been formed using funding from the African Development Bank.
The project is aimed at promoting forest regeneration and conservation through improved rural livelihoods and incomes, especially of women, living adjacent to the forests.
KEFRI in partnership with local community groups has also initiated research activities aimed at demonstrating techniques of rehabilitating degraded sites.
"Findings are expected to enhance management planning and supporting accelerated tree recruitment and re-growth," he said.
Rehabilitation attempts have, however, been hampered by vandalism and forest fires.
Reducing pressure on the forest
KEFRIi has also initiated a system where targeted species of indigenous medicinal trees have been planted in institutions with the aim of reducing pressure on the forest.
"We have established woodlots of medicinal trees at Isecheno Primary School. We also encourage medicine men to start their own," says Charles Koech, also a researcher with Kefri.
This has seen the establishment of Muliru Farmers Conservation Group under the Community-based Medicinal Plant Enterprise.
The aim is to bring together a team of traditional medicinal practitioners to identify, document and conserve priority medicinal plants and a gene bank. Nine species have been isolated into a woodlot including prunus africanus, Morenga and Mukombera, which are used in prostate cancer treatment, water purification and aphrodisiac respectively.
Mwanzi says Kakamega County Council has petitioned the Government to allow it to plant tea on the 100-metre perimeter that was cleared but not put under tea.
"We will spend Sh30 million we receive as contribution in lieu of rates to plant tea. We plan to hire a firm to manage the tea estates for us," said Mwanzi.
Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (Keep) has been formed to educate local residents on the fragile forest ecosystem. They are taught sustainable methods of income generation such as butterfly farming, ecotourism, use of energy-efficient technology and honey production. Other activities are zero grazing and snake farming.
Maseno Kefri Centre Director Dr Mercy Gichora says apart from working with Keep and Muliru Conservation Group, the institute plans to rehabilitate several hectares of the forest this financial year.
"Restoration of a tropical forest is not easy but it is a journey we must embark on even if it takes 50 years," says Dr Gichora.
However, the rehabilitation programme may be undermined by the plans by Government to lift the ban on logging to check a looming timber crisis.
The foresters and researchers only hope that the lifting of the ban will not wet the appetite of marauding loggers who often decimate forests with indiscriminate abandon.