Nairobi — Beautiful birds singing in giant trees and butterflies fluttering their wings reduced our anxiety over the danger of wild animals in the dark Arabuko Sokoke forest.
We had set out to investigate the destruction of the forest amid warnings from Mijikenda elders that wild animals often attacked those who dared to go deep into the forest without armed guards.
Malindi Mijikenda elders Samson Katana and Shariff Baya show the destruction of indigenous mrihi trees at the Arabuko Sokoke forest.
But the majority of the elders opposed the idea of getting forest guards since they would have thwarted our mission of investigating the destruction of the forest.
"We must gather courage and move on our own if we are to save this earthly treasure. The guards will obviously stop us from investigating the destruction of the forest," said a daring Samson Katana, one of the elders.
As we soldiered on with caution under the canopy of the huge trees, we were caught in a downpour and were soaked to the skin within minutes. After an hour's walk, the thick forest gave way to huge open spaces where one could even bask in the sun.
Ahead of us lay countless tree stumps dotting a vast area resembling a deserted war field, thanks to illegal logging. Beside most stumps lay tree branches and dry firewood. The stumps looked like those left behind after the trees were cut down by power saws.
The felling of the trees, however, was done randomly, probably to cover up the money-minting racket.
Our undercover investigation took us over three hours, revealing a scenario of destruction of mature indigenous trees, most probably for timber. We could not go farther as the elders were worried that we might end up getting into elephant territory.
But we had seen what we were looking for: Dozens upon dozens of giant trees cut down with power saws. It looked as if loggers were rushing to cash in on the biting shortage of timber following a Government ban on logging a few years back.
Shariff Baya, an elder from Mkongani village, said the poachers of indigenous trees went into the forest at night. Baya, whose farm neighbours the forest, said he had often seen trucks getting into the forest after midnight.
"Several times, we have seen lorries going into the forest at night. We wonder what kind of business they have there if it is not carrying logs," he said.
Baya, a member of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (Asfada), condemned the massive illegal logging in the area.
Local Mijikenda elders living on the forest edge to protect it from destruction formed Asfada.
Baya said illegal loggers penetrated the forest with ease since patrols by forest rangers were not consistent.
He said although Asfada members sometimes reported the illegal activities to the forest department, logging continued unabated.
"Unless stringent measures are put in place to prevent the felling of indigenous trees the forest will be depleted," he said.
Katana said as a result of the destruction of the forest, elephants have been moving several kilometres away from their usual habitat as loggers cleared the vegetation. The elder said timber merchants mostly targeted a hardwood tree locally known as mrihi - which takes over 100 years to mature - while woodcarvers went for mhuhu, which is used to make curios for tourists.
Another elder, Mohamed Omar Thoya, 80, said the endangered birds and mammals risked being wiped out if illegal logging at the forest was not contained. Twenty elders convened a meeting last month at the forest to protest against illegal logging.
The elders wondered why the State was not serious about the protection of the forest, which is home to rare birds, mammals and beetles.
"This forest gives us rain and harbours creatures which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The rich biodiversity at this forest must be conserved for the future," said Thoya.
He wondered why illegal logging continued yet forest and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers patrolled the area.
Elders want to protect forest
A Kilifi elder, Dickson Kalama, expresses his fury over the destruction of the forest famed for its rich biodiversity, including six rare birds. Pics by Mathias Ringa
He suggested that the Government give the elders the mandate to protect the forest if the forest department could not prevent the destruction.
"If the officers cannot protect the forest then we elders can arm ourselves with bows and arrows to protect our heritage," he said.
Another elder, Dickson Kalama, said on most nights, at least two loaded lorries emerged from the forest near Mkongani-Matsangoni area.
"When we report the matter to the officers no action is taken. The officers seem not to care about the forest," Kalama said.
Kazungu Ngumbao from Malanga village said wood carvers had cleared a huge section of the forest. Ngumbao said some carvers had set up camp at Malanga, which borders the forest, to evade patrols.
"Dozens of wood carvers clear the forest daily for an indigenous mhuhu tree. The large-scale clearance of the forest for wood carving might wipe out this important asset," Ngumbao said.
But contacted, Malindi District Forest Officer Joseph Bwana denied that there was massive illegal logging at the forest.
"These are just mere allegations from the village elders. The cutting of trees at the forest is not for commercial purposes but subsistence. Villagers sneak in and cut a few trees to building houses," he said.
Bwana said the forest department and the KWS jointly patrolled the forest to prevent felling of trees.
He said last year, they arrested some wood carvers and impounded 300 logs of the endangered mhuhu tree in Malindi.
"We have so far arrested several people who cut indigenous trees at the forest and taken them to court," he said.
World heritage site
The forest department, he said, has launched education campaigns for wood carvers in Malindi against the cutting of indigenous trees.
"We have held several meetings to prevent them from using mhuhu tree for wood carving," said Bwana.
The Arabuko Sokoke is the largest remaining coastal forest in East Africa and was gazetted as crown forest in 1943. It covers 42,000 hectares between Kilifi and Malindi districts.
The forest is one of the world's top 25 biodiversity hotspots and has been declared the second most important forest in Africa for bird conservation.
The forest, which is being considered for listing as a world heritage site, is home to six globally threatened bird species, namely Sokoke pipit, spotted ground thrush, Amani sunbird, Sokoke scops owl, East Coast akalat and Clarke's weaver.
Rare mammals native to the forest include Ader's duiker and the yellow rumped elephant shrew.
Others are birds, butterfly species, elephants, mongoose, amphibians and medicinal plants.
The forest attracts thousands of tourists every year, foreign and local scientists and students from all over the world.
If logging continues unabated, all these may soon be history.