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.

How butterflies protect Arabuko-Sokoke Forest

March 3 is World Wildlife Day. The day was set aside by the United Nations (UN) to celebrate and raise awareness of wild animals and plants. “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet” is this year’s theme. The theme highlights the central role of forests, forest species and ecosystems services in sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people globally, and particularly of indigenous and local communities with historic ties to forested and forest-adjacent areas.

“It is all about the trees, the butterflies and my sweep net. The trees bring the butterflies and these butterflies earn me a livelihood,” says Abbas Athman, an Arabuko-Sokoke forest-adjacent dweller.

Athman has mastered the patience, calmness and agility to dart and flit with butterflies in one of the most rewarding businesses in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest: butterfly farming. He can tiptoe, then dart just like the butterflies before bringing them down with a swoop of his net. For 15 years, a sweep net and several indigenous trees dotting his compound are among his precious investments.

Athman neighbours Arabuko-Sokoke forest, the largest remnant of coastal forest in East Africa and a home to many endangered species, a reason why conservation of the forest is critical. However, pressure from the growing population in tandem with the soaring demand for wood fuel and building materials placed the forest in danger.

Enter the butterflies, unlikely saviours. The butterfly export project, which started in 1993 as an initiative by Nature Kenya and the National Museums of Kenya to conserve the forest, has brought together hundreds of farmers living around Arabuko-Sokoke forest. While conserving the critical ecosystem, the project boosts the livelihoods of farmers from across 50 villages around Arabuko-Sokoke who, in a good season, can each earn up to Ksh 15,000.

In the butterfly project, farmers trap adult butterflies and keep them in transparent cages made from nets. Within these cages are different types of trees, which are food for the caterpillars that will become butterflies.

The butterflies lay eggs, which hatch into larvae – caterpillars. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of forest trees, and grow until they turn into pupae. A pupa is a resting stage. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar changes into a butterfly.

Butterfly farmers collect the pupae and bring them to the Kipepeo office, where the farmers are paid for each pupa. The pupae are then exported to different countries where they become part of live butterfly exhibitions.

Exporting pupae does not reduce the butterfly species within the forest, since a butterfly can lay up to 120 eggs. Farmers usually have butterflies in excess and often release them.

The project, Nature Kenya’s Coast Regional Coordinator Francis Kagema said, has helped ease cases of destruction in Arabuko-Sokoke.

“The project has demonstrated to communities the importance of these forests and whenever there are cases of destruction, it is the communities who tip authorities on the case. The project has also demonstrated the importance of growing indigenous trees, a move which has boosted forest cover in the region,” Kagema said.

Protecting the trees for the butterflies has been key in conservation of endemic and endangered species of Arabuko-Sokoke, says Paul Gacheru, Nature Kenya species expert. The forest, he says, hosts six of the rarest and globally threatened bird species including Clarke’s (Kilifi) Weaver, Amani Sunbird, East Coast Akalat, Spotted Ground Thrush, Sokoke Pipit and Sokoke Scops Owl. Arabuko Sokoke is also home to the unique Golden-rumped Sengi (elephant-shrew), over 230 bird species and 250 butterfly species.

Last year when Covid-19 struck, butterfly exhibits closed all over the world, and exports stopped suddenly. Nature Kenya and some of its members provided funds to support the butterfly farmers with small loans and seeds to grow food. This helped them through the worst of the pandemic, and now butterfly exhibits are opening again – including Butterfly House at Fort Jesus, Mombasa.

Indigenous and Community Conserved Area to Safeguard Critical Ecosystems and Livelihoods in Yala Swamp

“It’s not enough to talk about development, what is the benefit of development to local communities? It’s about identity, it’s about ownership, it’s about rights, it’s about access, it’s about representation, it’s about involvement in decision making, it’s about values derived from wise use of resources, it’s about fairness and equity in distribution of benefits accrued from investments, it’s about taking charge to ensure sustainability, most of all, it’s about perpetuating our heritage,” said Thomas Achando, the recently elected Chairperson of the Yala Swamp ICCA management committee who also sits in the Luo Council of Elders.

Yala Swamp, located on the north-eastern shore of Lake Victoria, is a Key Biodiversity Area and a proposed Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance. For thousands of fisherfolk and farming communities who depend on it, it’s their “gold”, as they fondly call it. Over the last few decades, there has been a significant decline in the abundance of natural resources due to a number of threats, including over-exploitation, encroachment, habitat degradation, climate change and high levels of poverty.

Through a multi-stakeholder approach, Nature Kenya worked with local communities and the Siaya and Busia county governments to develop a Land Use Plan (LUP) to balance the various interests and address the threats to the wetland. To kick start the implementation of the LUP, multi-agency stakeholders with support from Nature Kenya established an 8,404ha Indigenous and Community Conserved Area (ICCA) at the heart of Yala Swamp.

The ICCA constitutes natural areas surrounded by open-access farming and grazing land, riverine forest and papyrus wetland. Guided by a management plan with technical backstopping from the government, the ICCA will be managed for multiple-use for the benefit of important cultural values and biodiversity, as well as ecotourism, farmers, livestock herders, fisherfolk and island dwellers. The ICCA will guarantee a continued flow of ecosystem services to enable production and ensure development overall is sustainable.

“Those are the striking features about the Yala Swamp ICCA model. I’m happy to take up leadership that will deliver the vision for local inhabitants of Yala Swamp through a balanced all-inclusive approach”, says Achando.

Meanwhile, Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group, the local community conservation champions, have intensified awareness campaigns to rally support for the LUP and ICCA through chief’s barazas and on vernacular radio station Bulala FM, in Budalang’i, Busia County. The forums have been quite instrumental for community members to ask questions, seek advice and clarification and allay fears held by local community members.

“When I received news about a meeting from my village elder with the agenda being our swamp, I was disturbed. Issues concerning Yala swamp have always been jinxed, from history, so I hardly slept at night. I was anticipating the worst, my intuition told me that we were going to lose our rights to access land for subsistence farming, because who cares about the vulnerable?” said one elderly woman from Usonga, Siaya county, during a sensitization meeting at Mlambo village in early January 2021.

“We are thankful for the information we’ve been provided with. Through the Land Use Plan we have a roadmap to finding lasting solutions for issues affecting Yala swamp. I can’t wait for the County Assemblies to give their nod of approval for the Yala Swamp Land Use Plan,” added the elderly woman.

To enhance ownership of biodiversity conservation at the village level, Nature Kenya is supporting formation of Village Natural Resource and Land Use Committees (VNRLUCs) in all the swamp-adjacent villages. VNRLUCs will facilitate governance, conservation and development actions and diversify sustainable livelihoods in line with the ICCA model.

Promoting sustainable livelihoods to conserve the Tana River Delta

The lush, green fields make it difficult to imagine the calamities that Idsowe village within the vast Tana River Delta experiences whenever floods or drought strike.

The Tana River Delta is a land of alternating flood and drought. In the old days, people moved when disaster struck. This is no longer feasible. So today, farmers and pastoralists are adopting ambitious climate-smart agriculture projects geared towards improving livelihoods, resilience to climate change, and conserving the 130,000-hectare Tana River Delta.

Tana River Delta is one of the most important wetland ecosystems in East Africa. The Delta spreads out to cover parts of Tana River and Lamu counties, comprising of flood plains, riverine forests, mangrove systems, savannas, grasslands, lakes and pristine beaches, that form a network of natural and productive areas like Idsowe.

With over 350 species of birds, including globally important large flocks or “congregations”, Tana River Delta is a Key Biodiversity Area and a Ramsar site (wetland of international importance). Tana River Delta is also home to two globally endangered monkeys: the Tana River Red Colobus and the Tana River Crested Mangabey.

When undisturbed, the Delta acts like a sponge, absorbing floods, storing water, something that makes it lush and green even during the dry season. Today, with climate change increasing the severity of droughts and floods, and people unable to move elsewhere, Tana Delta is experiencing challenges. This is the reason why ambitious initiatives like chilli farming, bee-keeping, fish ponds and mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture in production systems are taking root under the REBUILD project.

The project seeks to contribute towards increased resilience of communities in arid and semi-arid land (ASAL) areas of Kenya to drought and other effects of climate change. This is done through enhancing food and nutrition security of vulnerable households, especially for women and children, generating sustainable livelihoods and protecting productive assets in Tana River County. Funded by the European Union (EU), the REBUILD project is implemented by CISP in collaboration with Nature Kenya, the National Drought Management Authority, GROOTS and Procasur.

“Part of solving the problems the Delta residents are facing is mainstreaming climate-smart agriculture. Farmers can choose crops that withstand the changing climate to boost their production. Livestock farmers can choose the right breeds to boost productivity while minimizing the negative impact on the environment,” says Nature Kenya Executive Director Dr Paul Matiku.

“For the first time, our group comprising of 133 members tried out chilli farming after Nature Kenya provided us with the seeds,” says Milcah Amaro, the chairperson of Harakisa group. “Thirty-five active members planted chilli in quarter-acre plots on their farms in July 2019. By December that year, the crop was ready for the market. In a good month, one can make between Ksh 12,000 to 15,000,”.

Despite frequent floods that have been ravaging the delta and flooding farms, Harakisa Group members continue to prepare parcels of land away from the previous fields for chilli farming.

“Previously, we used to farm crops like maize, but the production kept dwindling. Coupled with frequent floods and droughts, it became difficult to cope until chilli farming came along. This has since reduced dependency on forest products, especially trees, where some people had resorted to cutting trees and burning charcoal to earn a living,” says Dorcas Helbon, a chilli farmer.

Ismael Komoro from Handaraku says the introduction of the Galla goat breed is a step towards improving productivity for goat farmers. Nature Kenya has distributed 180 male Galla goats.

“Unlike the breed we have, Galla goats are big, meaning a farmer can get more profit by keeping a few goats of this breed,” Komoro says. Having fewer but more productive goats also means less pressure on the Delta, hence less degradation.

Residents on the lower side of the Tana Delta, in Ozi and Mpeketoni villages, are conserving mangroves and dryland forests as they engage in rice and fish farming. The fish farming project is supporting fourteen fish ponds in Ozi.

“Fish farming in Ozi will solve challenges of overfishing within the mangroves, which are fish breeding zones,” says George Odera, Nature Kenya’s Tana Delta project manager. “A lot of fishing has been going on in the mangrove areas as most local fishers cannot access the deep sea due to lack of proper gear. Fish farming in ponds will give a lifeline to these communities while also conserving the critical mangrove forests and breeding zones.”

“Nature Kenya previously supported us with fingerlings to restock our six ponds. The Department of Fisheries stepped in to train us on how to make feeds. Fishing is now manageable for the 50 farmers under this group. In July we harvested 2,400 kilograms of fish which we sold for Ksh. 200 a kilo, translating to Ksh. 480,000,” says Abdallah Hassan Mohammed, the secretary of Moto Fish farmers in Ozi.

For farmers in the Delta, getting certified seeds has been one of their biggest challenges. Nature Kenya has stepped in to distribute certified seeds and incorporated extension officers who visit farmers to enhance mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture in production systems.

Rice farming within Ozi and Mpeketoni villages received a boost after 247 farmers received 4,720 kilogrammes of rice seed. Farmers expect to boost their production while conserving the critical mangrove and dryland forests.

“Although we are yet to harvest, we can see the difference of the certified seeds distributed by Nature Kenya from the ones we normally plant. They are also fast-maturing,” says Godhana Chalalu Dhadho, a rice seed beneficiary.

Mary Mwende, a beneficiary of climate-smart agriculture training, says the introduction of certified maize seeds in Hurara in Tana Delta has boosted productivity within the area.

“Initially, we thought it was cheaper getting seeds from the old harvest, a situation which resulted in poor production. The latest harvest from the distribution of certified seeds yielded double of what we used to harvest. From the initial three bags we used to harvest from an acre, we currently harvest between 8 to 10 bags,” Mwende says.

Farmer field schools have also been set up, with one being at Minjila near Garsen to enhance mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture. Farmers can walk in and learn best farming practices to adapt to the changing climate.

Nature Kenya is also implementing another project in Tana River Delta: The Restoration Initiative (TRI) Tana Delta. This project, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), aims at restoring degraded forest landscapes in Tana River and Lamu counties.