Mobile App to boost mammal monitoring in Kenya

The Mammal Committee of Nature Kenya and the National Museums of Kenya have partnered with Spotteron Citizen Science to develop a mobile app to monitor mammals in Kenya.

The mobile app, known as Mammal Atlas Kenya (Makenya), is currently available on Google Play and Spotteron (www.spotteron. net). Spotteron is a web-based platform that hosts citizen science, environment protection and volunteer monitoring apps.

Makenya seeks to involve naturalists in collecting scientific data to map the distribution of over 390 mammal species. Data collected will then inform the development of a distribution map for mammals in Kenya.

“The app allows users to record mammal sightings using their mobile phones. It captures locations where the mammals were recorded. The captured data is then used to populate distribution maps,” Simon Musila, Head of Mammalogy section of the National Museums of Kenya said.

The availability of the Makenya app also marks the incorporation of technology in mammal conservation efforts. Citizens can now be actively involved in the monitoring of Kenyan mammals. Users are encouraged to share sightings of common and rare mammals.

“There are many mammal species in Kenya and the distribution of some of them is not known. This app will help experts consolidate shared information into a single database for an informed distribution map,” Musila said.

Wildlife enthusiasts can download and install the app on their Android or Apple IOS mobile devices for free. Once installed, they can now start contributing to monitoring of mammals across Kenya’s extensive network of protected and unprotected areas, including national parks, game reserves and forests.

The app allows users to record GPS coordinates of the area they spotted a particular mammal and even share pictures. Makenya users can utilise the app anywhere; on land, in water, and even underground as long as they have a stable cellular network connection. The crowd-sourced data captured by Makenya will also be used to monitor mammal species distribution within their known ranges.

KYELENI, the village less traveled

Within Kilimambogo lies Kyeleni, an unexplored agricultural village. On 20th February 2021, the Nature Kenya Youth Committee embarked on a two-day mission to survey the biodiversity in this area. (Kilimambogo is also known as Ol Doinyo Sabuk.)

Our journey to the village took longer than expected. Despite being exhausted from the three-hour drive, the team eagerly anticipated its visit, unsure of what to expect. Mr Francis, our contact person, greeted us by the roadside and directed us to the camping area, which would be our home for the next 24 hours.

Upon arriving at the campsite, the team was divided into groups to ensure cooking was completed early, to allow more time for the evening survey. The groups were: team Ugali (funny how energetic the members of this group were), team Stew (the best cooks in the group), team Firewood (in charge of lighting the fire), and team AOB (in-charge of cleaning the cooking pots after meals).

Francis gave some members of the group a tour of his farm as lunch was being prepared. In the middle of his farm, not far from the camping area, was the main attraction – a mango tree. You can only imagine the excitement of the hungry group upon seeing this tree. Francis allowed them to pick some mangoes. He even went out of his way to harvest some maize for the team to roast before lunch.

You would be mistaken to imagine that after feasting on mangoes and roasted maize, only a few people would show up for lunch. There wasn’t a grain of rice nor a drop of soup left in the pots!

We converged at around 5 p.m. and went through some of the species present in the area, survey methods, and identification tools (iNaturalist, Makenya, and guide books) for use. We set out on our first survey, hoping to come across some interesting species.

Three hours into the search, we had spotted a few birds. Some of the birds had been identified by their calls. Darkness fell fast, and we retreated to the camping area.

After dinner, we gathered around a fire. The team was still going strong and decided to play a few games before calling it a night.

The following morning was chilly and quiet, with only the sweet melodies of birds heard. We started birding at 6 a.m. The bird experts in the group assisted the rest of the team with identification through calls. As the sun steadily rose higher into the sky, more birds became visible, making it easier to identify them.

Although no other species besides birds had been spotted hours into the survey, the herp and mammal lovers remained optimistic.

The day grew hotter, and we began to meet local residents who were puzzled as to why such a large group was in their village early in the morning. Francis explained that visitors from outside, particularly those interested in conducting research, were rare.

As we approached the foot of Mt. Kilimambogo, the team heard calls of excitement from within. “Come see a snake,” someone called.  The snake enthusiast hurriedly rushed to the scene to catch a glimpse of the snake while others moved further away. To their amazement, it was a Cape Wolf Snake. Unfortunately, it was dead. A few meters away, the group came across another dead one: an Olive Snake.

The two snake sightings were the team’s highest moments. This energized us for the rest of the hike to the base of the mountain.

This survey would not have been successful without the continued support of Nature Kenya. In total, we recorded 32 bird species, two amphibians, and two snakes, with the prominent plant species being Euphorbia, Croton trees, and Sisal.

Hope for Restoration

The ‘Tumaini la Urejesho‘ (Hope for Restoration) is currently airing on Amani FM, based in Garsen, Tana River Delta. The program seeks to inform and educates the public on forest landscape restoration (FLR) in Kenya, focusing on an ongoing project at the Tana River Delta. The project dubbed the Restoration Initiative Tana River Delta is supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Nature Kenya is the executing partner. Listen in here

More resources:

The Restoration Initiative Year in Review 2019

Tales from the Wild: In Pursuit of the Sokoke Scops Owl

It was on a Friday, the last day of our community-led Sokoke Scops Owl survey, and my colleagues and I drove smoothly up the wide and well-surfaced Malindi-Tsavo East road towards Jilore. Our mission was to find a forest track and lay transects for the survey.

“Only three more transects to go,” I encouraged my colleagues.

We came to a stop adjacent to the famous Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, parked and locked up the vehicle. An electric fence separated us from the forest, so we crawled under. Once inside, we walked parallel to the fence, looking for a track.

After trekking for a while, we came to a clear track running deep into the forest. I, playing the role of supervisor this night, alerted the local forester of our presence and we ventured further inward, even as dusk was rapidly falling. Nothing could have prepared us for what was coming.

The Endangered Sokoke Scops Owl is one of six unique species of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. This diminutive owl is a habitat specialist. It has only been recorded in Cynometra webberi/Brachylaena huillensis forests and woodlands on the East African coast, from Dakatcha Woodland on Kenya’s north coast to the Usambara Mountains in north-eastern Tanzania.

Like the other 16 owl species found in Kenya, Sokoke Scops Owls, are predominantly nocturnal, active from dusk to dawn. Their large forward-facing eyes give them superior vision at night. This, combined with their sharp hearing, enable them to spot prey in darkness. Unlike other owls that feed on arthropods, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds, the Sokoke Scops Owl’s diet consists mainly of insects. Beetles and weevils are favorites. Grasshoppers, crickets, wasps, bees, and ants have also been identified as part of their diet.

Available data indicates that the owl’s population has remained relatively stable for the past 20 years or so.

However, the most recent data (an Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (ASFADA) survey) showed a southerly shift in the distribution of the bird’s population. Changing forest conditions in previously “preferred” habitat around Jilore and Komani were listed as probable causes.

Collecting data on the Sokoke Scops Owl is quite a daunting task. The surveys take months (November through to December), and take place at night (between 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.). Working in a forest filled with over 300 elephants is not for the faint-hearted. But to the citizen scientists or community volunteers that undertake the surveys, it is worth the risk posed by elephants to determine the status of the Sokoke Scops Owl. The volunteers involved include notable veteran guides Willy Kombe and ‘Mzee’ David Ngala, both of whom have been involved in countless research projects in this forest since 1990.

Survey teams are provided with equipment that includes data sheets, high-powered flashlights, GPS receivers, and machetes – all part of the daily routine. Every team comprises of three individuals each having a specialised task. There is an observer or owl whistler, a keen listener able to distinguish the Sokoke Scops Owl call from other forest sounds, which might be crickets, frogs, nightjars, bush babies, and other owl species. Next in line is a clerk or data recorder, followed by the navigator-cum-security officer tasked with reading the GPS and clearing the way for the other two.

Operations start just before dusk every day. Teams are assigned a starting point to a transect running along existing roads or old tracks, each for one kilometre. A supervisor coordinates the nightly effort and ensures the teams get to the forest and are dropped off at the right spots. Knowledge of the forest’s geography is important as a missed turn can lead to one getting lost.

Once a team is dropped off, a mark is made by cutting a twig (bush experience comes in handy). Each group makes marks to indicate the direction they have taken. There have been a few instances where groups have not marked their movement, sending the coordinating supervisor on a “wild goose drive” in the night.

On this night the fear of encountering elephants lingered in everyone’s mind, but nobody talked about it as we kept busy with our tasks. We were heading for our fifth stop when a thumping sound suddenly startled us. In the darkness, we could make out a silhouette of a charging elephant. Our survival instincts immediately kicked in. We dived into a nearby bush and lay listening as the elephant crushed trees along its path. Once again, we found ourselves crawling, only that this time, it was to save ourselves. Lucky for us, two spontaneous decisions we made paid off – the first was to move away from the road as we couldn’t outrun the elephant. Secondly, we stuck together. We remained on the ground motionless for two hours, before we attempted to head back to the road. Disoriented, we found ourselves going back in the wrong direction. Our GPS receiver had gone off. Somehow, after a long struggle we managed to get back to the vehicle. How we managed to escape with just a few bruises and only lost a pair of spectacles is a miracle.

This article first appeared in Issue 14, Kenya Birding magazine

For the love of Forests

“Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.”

 For many forest adjacent communities living around Mount Kenya the forest is their lifeline. It provides them with many products including water, firewood and timber. But, they have witnessed chunks of this once vast expanse of indigenous trees fall prey to over-exploitation and have felt the subsequent negative impacts – a constant reminder of the need to conserve the forest.

Drawing strength from their unity, communities have come together to form Community Forest Associations (CFAs), which are spread across Nyeri, Meru, Tharaka-Nithi, Embu and Kirinyaga counties. Nature Kenya is currently working with 27 CFAs around Mount Kenya with a cumulative membership of 67,500, including women, youth and persons living with disabilities.

Initially, the only focus of CFAs was to set up tree nurseries and propagate indigenous seedlings. They would then plant the seedlings in degraded forest blocks in their respective areas. Through training facilitated by Nature Kenya, and made possible by a project funded by the Darwin Initiative, CFAs have now started selling tree seedlings as a livelihood activity.

 

Growing interest in forest restoration

“Corporate bodies and people from further away are now complementing our efforts by providing implements like seeds, watering cans and growing bags. Our terms of service are very flexible and once the seedlings are ready for planting they can buy them at a discounted price. Also, we are at liberty to sell the remaining seedlings to other interested buyers at a cost we determine,” says 64- year old Elizabeth Kiogora, a member of North Imenti CFA.

The contribution of community members like Elizabeth does not end at the seedling propagation stage. Partnering organisations also engage the communities in clearing areas for planting, pitting and in the planting. CFA members are also hired to weed, replace dead seedlings and to nurture the tree seedlings until they are strong enough to grow on their own. During the short rains season (October-November) in 2019, Nature Kenya, with support from partners, mobilized 22 CFAs to plant 401,500 indigenous trees on 401 ha of degraded forest land.

Nature Kenya is also helping CFAs to establish other nature-based enterprises like beekeeping, eco-tourism and avitourism to supplement their livelihoods. Activities deemed as destructive to the forest are not permitted and CFAs are encouraged to diversify their sources of income by engaging in activities that promote forest conservation. “I was lucky to secure a piece of land close to the forest where I have set up a small woodlot. After doing some research on beekeeping I decided to put up a beehive in my woodlot as an experiment. Now I have two beehives, from which I get good returns. I have taken it upon myself to start educating fellow CFA members on beekeeping,” says 52-year-old Dorothy Naitore, a member of the Meru Forest Environmental Conservation and Protection CFA.

Dorothy also points out that it was only recently that members of her CFA realised that they had very beautiful nature trails in North Imenti. She has also noticed that birds are slowly returning to the areas that the CFA have restored.

“You can only appreciate the results of all the conservation work when you walk around the forest. Our next big plan is to engage in ecotourism. I think once tourists see the transformation, they will be encouraged to join us in restoring the Mount Kenya forest,” says Dorothy.

Both Dorothy and Elizabeth say that the fear of losing the glorious forest was what pushed them into conservation despite their advanced age. As if reading from the same script, the two agree that it should not take bad experiences like drying rivers for people to start conserving forests.