A campaign has been launched in Kakamega Forest to save 'mukombero,' a traditional aphrodisiac.
The herb is believed to enhance sexual drive when its ginger-tasting root is chewed.
Craving for the climber, scientifically known as Mondia whitei, has led communities in western Kenya to engage in uncontrolled harvesting that has nearly decimated the once exuberant plant, forcing researchers to intervene.
Demand for 'mukombero' has led villagers in Kakamega East Sub-County to sneak into the forest and harvest the plant, before heading to busy market centres to deliver fresh supply of the herb.
Mr Silvester Mambili, a representative of the Community Forest Associations in Western Conservancy, said traders from Nairobi and Mombasa usually travel to Shinyalu in Kakamega County to buy large amounts of the roots for processing into powder.
"Mukombero from Kakamega Forest is very sweet, with a pleasant flavour when chewed. This has attracted people from as far as Mombasa, Nairobi and central Kenya to come and buy the herbal roots," said Mr Mambili.
The powder is also used as a flavour in tea, porridge and other drinks.
Efforts to save 'mukombero' from extinction are being co-ordinated by the Sustainable Land Management/Sustainable Forest Management project.
The programme targets to encourage communities living near the forest to plant the herb in their gardens instead of encroaching on the forest and damaging the fragile ecosystem.
The Ihondolo area of the Kakamega-Nandi forest ecosystem, which is about 100 hectares, has been severely degraded due to encroachment by communities.
A nursery for indigenous trees managed by the Kakamega community-based organisation has planted 8,000 tree seedlings in a bid to rehabilitate the forest. This year, the group has planted 4,447 tree seedlings on a 5.4-hectare parcel of land.
The group is working closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service in the campaign to rehabilitate and conserve the forest. They have distributed seedlings for 'mukombero' and other indigenous plants with medicinal value for planting.
Mr Mambili said unchecked encroachment on the forest is a major threat to its ecosystem and unique biodiversity.
This comes at a time when the final phase of an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (EIA) audit of the planned construction of an electric fence around Kakamega Forest is in the homestretch.
The project targets to promote conservation of the fragile biodiversity in the surviving vestige of the rainforest.
Kakamega and Vihiga governments have pledged Sh130 million to support the electric fencing.
Mr Jim Okuto, the Kenya Forest Service head of conservancy for western region, said the actual fencing of the forest is expected to start next month.
Mr Okuto said the environmental audit by the Kenya Wildlife Service involved sensitisation of the community on the benefits of the project.
The project is being implemented by the conservation charity Rhino Ark, which has contributed Sh100 million.
The forest covers 24,819 hectares of forest, gazetted as forest and national reserves.
The electric fence will be 117 kilometres in length.