A syndicate involved in illegal logging of indigenous trees from Kenya's largest forest has been bribing police and civil servants in order to continue its activities, Kenyan forestry officials charge.
"Corruption involving the police and civil servants in illegal logging activities in the Mau Forest is a serious problem," said David Mutoro, acting director of the Kenya Forest Service. "The destruction (has been) happening (since) the government launched reforestation efforts in mid-2009. It is a frustrating setback."
Covering more than 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres), the Mau Forest, Kenya's largest, acts as a "water tower", generating and storing rainfall. The woodland complex supplies water to the Mara River, known for its annual wildebeest migration. The forest also provides domestic water to 10 million residents of Nairobi and other urban centres in the country.
The Kenyan government does not allow commercial logging in the Mau Forest, but about a quarter of the complex has been cleared of trees in the past 15 years, affecting rainfall and river flows.
Mutoro said government cars are being used in the illegal operations, either by corrupt officials engaged in smuggling timber themselves, or by people living illegally within the forest with connections to those officials. By using official vehicles or corruptly obtaining work authorisation papers, the loggers pass through police checkpoints, sometimes paying bribes to the police along the way, Mutoro said.
He said that several arrests had been made in the past few months, including the occupants of a truck full of podo and cedar trees headed to Nakuru.
"We are making weekly arrests and we believe that there is a syndicate (behind) these activities," Mutoro said.
According to the forest service chief, the truck loaded with podo and cedar logs was heading to the home of a senior military officer in the town of Lanet, close to Nakuru. Mutoro did not name the officer because investigations are still ongoing.
Kenya police boss Mathew Iteere has described corruption as "a disease that needs to be tackled" within the police service and said there was a great need for recently initiated reforms, which will combine the Administration Police and the Kenya Police, to be carried out before elections scheduled for March next year.
"Corruption in the force is a problem, but the ongoing police reforms will do a lot of (required) changes," said Iteere.
He said some police officers have recently been dismissed for taking bribes from timber smugglers.
The consequences of illegal logging are visible in the Mara River, which has seen its usual flow cut to half in some periods of the year. Experts attribute the drop to the effects of deforestation, exacerbated by climate change more generally.
EFFECT ON GAME RESERVE
Apart from the damage to ecosystems, there is an economic price to be paid as well for the illegal deforestation. The Maasai Mara game reserve is an important source of income for communities near its borders, as they share in the profits derived from park fees, explained John Gatugatu, a tour driver.
"If the river dries up completely, a lot of income will be lost as there will be no tourists who will come to witness the wildebeest migration, which is world-famous. We will witness more poverty," Gatugatu said.
In a move the Kenyan government hopes will enable it to continue its reforestation efforts, more than 60,000 illegal settlers are due to be evicted from the Mau Forest before the end of the year. In the past, many had been allowed to move into the supposedly protected area by politicians currying political favour, with little regard for the environmental impact.
Some settlers have been involved in illegal logging, while others plant crops on land that has already been cleared. Those evicted from the forest will be resettled by the government, which has recently pledged over $99 million to improve reforestation efforts by planting indigenous trees and is seeking further rehabilitation funding.
The Forest Service's Mutoro acknowledged that strong demand for high-quality furniture wood is likely to lead to further destruction of the Mau Forest by those seeking to make money from valuable timber.
"But we will continue to be hawk-eyed in our job as foresters," he said.
Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.