Bird and human mutualism: The Greater Honeyguide and honey-hunters

Greater Honeyguides know where bees’ nests are located and like to eat beeswax; humans know how to subdue the bees using fire, and open the nest using axes. By working together, the two species can locate the bee nest, overcome the bees’ defences and gain access to the nest, thus providing beeswax for the honeyguides and honey for the humans.

This specialised relationship is a rare example of animal-human cooperation – mutualism – that has evolved through natural selection. Pioneering research was done in Kenya by Dr Hussein Isack in the 1980s, who first demonstrated scientifically how the mutualism functions. Now we have the opportunity to take part in a citizen science study.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK and the University of Cape Town in South Africa are working in close cooperation with rural honey-hunting communities in Africa to study the foraging partnership between the Greater Honeyguide and the human honey-hunters whom it guides to bees’ nests. They want to understand the ecology, evolution and conservation implications of the honeyguide-human relationship, as a window into the origin and maintenance of mutually beneficial interactions between species (mutualisms).

If you have seen or heard a Greater Honeyguide anywhere in Africa, and whether or not it guided you, please tell them about it! Visit the citizen science project at <> for more information and to submit a sighting.

“The honeyguide-human relationship is currently dwindling throughout Africa, and before it fades away, we need to understand this ancient part of our own species’ evolutionary history in those few places where it still thrives. This is relevant to conservation, because mutualisms can have wide reach in shaping ecological communities,” reads an excerpt from the Honeyguide Research Project.

Partnerships to restore Mt. Kenya forest

March 21 is the International Day of Forests – this year’s theme being ‘Forests and Biodiversity’. This day is marked to raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests. Nature Kenya and forest-adjacent communities are striving to restore the forest landscape on the iconic Mount Kenya and other parts of Kenya.

Enhancing the capacity of communities to engage various stakeholders in forest conservation is key to ensuring the sustainability of forest landscape restoration initiatives. Eleven Community Forest Associations (CFAs) in Mt. Kenya, working closely with Nature Kenya, are among the recipients of Ksh32 million funding from Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project to boost restoration of the Mt. Kenya forest.

The 11 CFAs are Gatere, Murinduko and Irangi from Murang’a, Kirinyaga and Embu counties respectively; Ruthumbi and Mweru from Meru county; Chuka and Kiera Hills from Tharaka Nithi county; and Cheche, Naromoru, Ragati and Hombe from Nyeri county.

The funding to the CFAs marks a milestone for the participatory forest management approach in Mt. Kenya, where community groups are now directly engaging public and private entities to finance their conservation activities. This follows a series of training programs undertaken by Nature Kenya to build the capacity of the CFAs. The groups have been trained on governance, advocacy, writing of business plans and funding proposals, among other subjects.

“The main aim of the training is to help the CFAs diversify their financial resource base to complement their forest restoration efforts,” says Charles Kiama, Nature Kenya’s Conservation Officer.

The funds will go towards supporting various sustainable livelihood projects like establishment of tree nurseries, eco-tourism and fish farming. These activities are aimed at improving livelihoods, creating employment and reducing poverty levels among forest adjacent communities through conservation, management and sustainable utilization of the forest resource.

Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project, or Upper Tana Project as it is widely known, supports communities to sustainably manage natural resources. Besides providing funding, part of their mandate is to improve the incomes and the living standards of the target groups through interventions that are beneficial to the management of the natural resources. Last year, 22 CFAs from the Mt. Kenya block received their first Ksh20 million grant from the Upper Tana Project.

Nature Kenya, with funding from World Land Trust and The Darwin Initiative, is partnering with CFAs and other stakeholders to restore degraded sections of the Mt. Kenya forest. About 650,000 trees have been planted since 2017 covering close to 650 hectares of degraded forest area. Last year, 421,800 trees were planted during the heavy rains of October and November. The work of nurturing tree seedlings to maturity was done by members of 22 CFAs. Kiama says that they hope to capitalize on the long rains from March to May to double these numbers. To achieve this, Nature Kenya is partnering with five county governments – Meru, Nyeri, Embu, Tharaka-Nithi and Kirinyaga  – and like-minded locally based community organizations, among them CFAs and Site Support Groups.

A business case has been developed for Mt. Kenya forest. The business case seeks to enhance the wellbeing of forest-adjacent communities by providing an incentive to conserve, manage and restore the Mt. Kenya ecosystem.  The communities (water ‘sellers’) engage in protection and rehabilitation of the watershed, with financial support from downstream water users (‘the buyers’).  Kenya Breweries Limited adopted the business case in 2017 and has since facilitated the planting and nurturing of 100,000 seedlings in Mt Kenya.

“Our main target is large-scale water buyers and consumers of resources from Mt Kenya. We are supporting CFAs to partner with the stakeholders who are willing to engage in forest restoration activities,” says Kiama.

Mt. Kenya forest is an irreplaceable biodiversity hotspot with unique flora and fauna of conservation importance, which underpins its Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) status and government protection. The forest is a cornerstone of Kenya’s economy through provision of varied socio-economic and ecosystem services: Mt. Kenya forest is a major carbon sink and a major water tower.


Counting gains of participatory forest management

For many years the government has experimented with various community-based forest conservation approaches. None of these approaches has stood the test of time like the participatory forest management (PFM) model.

Participatory Forest Management deliberately involves forest-adjacent communities and other stakeholders in the management of forests within a structure that contributes to the communities’ livelihoods. PFM has contributed to increased conservation awareness leading to better conservation of forests. It has also inculcated a sense of ownership among forest-adjacent communities who actively engage in forest conservation activities.

Communities living adjacent to forests are first required to register with the Registrar of Societies as Community Forest Associations (CFAs). The CFAs then enter into a collaborative management agreement with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) after presenting a Participatory Forest Management Plan. Once  permission is granted by KFS to participate in the conservation and management of forest resources, CFAs are allowed to utilize certain forest resources through livelihood activities like butterfly farming, poultry farming, bee keeping, Aloe farming and sale of herbal medicine.

Participatory Forest Management was first piloted in Kenya in 1997 at Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, East Africa’s largest and most intact coastal forest. The pilot area covered three villages: Dida, Kahingoni and Kafidsoni, located in the south-western part of the forest. These villages represented a small percentage of the entire forest adjacent communities which comprise of 52 villages.

The main aim of PFM is to engage communities in the management of forests by sharing with them benefits accrued from forest resources. For starters, unusual activities hardly go unnoticed in this iconic forest. The community members are vigilant and promptly relay information on any illegal activity to the concerned authorities. Also, trained community scouts conduct regular patrols within the forest. The scouts also undertake de-snaring exercises.

Site monitoring is another activity conducted by volunteers from the community. This includes biodiversity and common bird monitoring. Data collected from these citizen science-led initiatives is used to determine the status, threats and responses at the site. The communities also engage in forest restoration activities, that not only serve to protect the environment but also improve the livelihoods of people who are dependent on the forest.

On the livelihood front, nature-based enterprises such as butterfly farming and beekeeping are being promoted to reduce pressure on the forest for sustenance. Agro-forestry is also being adopted as a livelihood option with ecological as well as economic values. Community groups have established tree nursery and donated tens of thousands of seedlings for planting in the forest while also planting some in their individual farms.

Much as there is good news to write home about, Arabuko-Sokoke Forest still faces a myriad of threats ranging from illegal harvesting of forest products such as building poles to the poaching of wild animals. This is happening despite massive investment in awareness creation against such practices, promotion of alternative livelihoods and improved forest governance. High demand for illegally sourced forest products and perceived limited access to PFM gains are some of the reasons behind the destructive activities.

As we continue to celebrate the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest PFM milestones, there is a need to critically review the extent of its reach and benefits to the target population. As much as it has been demonstrated that communities derive ecosystem benefits from the forest, these benefits may not be obvious to all, or may not be deemed sufficient. Since Arabuko-Sokoke is a conservation forest, communities do not have the opportunity to grow crops around tree plantations, which is available under the Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme (PELIS).

PFM in Arabuko-Sokoke could be more successful if more households were included. Forest adjacent communities also need to be encouraged to tap into unexploited opportunities, such as the presence of wildlife in the forest, to position Arabuko-Sokoke as a tourist attraction. This will broaden revenue streams for the communities as they engage in ecotourism ventures.

Herps of Dakatcha Woodland: a first glimpse

Dakatcha Woodland is famed for its unique bird species. However, little is known about its other flora and fauna. To begin to bridge this gap, members of the Kenya Herpetofauna Working Group set out to explore the amphibians and reptiles of this expansive woodland and also share information on snakebite management with the local community. The excursion took place on 21-22 September 2019. Julio Mwambire, a local guide, welcomed the team to Marafa. Divided into two groups, the team proceeded to the forest in search of herpetofauna at the Marafa Community Conservation Area. Two hours later the groups emerged with interesting findings: three species of lizards and one snake were recorded!

The hot sun took a toll on everyone and the party retreated to the campsite to pitch tents and prepare lunch. During the lunch break, three other lizard species were recorded: Sudan plated lizard, Large-headed Tree gecko and Tree skink. The most abundant on the roof was the Mombasa Dwarf gecko.

In the evening the team set out again, this time in search of amphibians. Julio took the team to the Kwanguluwe pond that was teeming with different species of frogs that were croaking. Some team members searched around the pond’s edges with flashlights seeking to identify the croaking frogs. Male frogs sat on stones and leaves floating on water. Frogs recorded were the East African (Acridoides) Puddle frog, Red-legged Kassina, Galam’s White-lipped frog and Guttural toad.

The team, excited from the findings at Kwanguluwe pond, requested Julio to take them to a nearby pond – Agina dam. Agina dam appeared to be more crowded than Kwanguluwe. The croaking sounds from the dam could be heard from the main road. Six frog species were recorded there, four of which had not been spotted at Kwanguluwe. The team returned to the camping site at around 10 pm.

Having not recorded a single snake species, four team members embarked on a survey around the campsite in search of them. Thirty minutes into the search no snake had been spotted. Just as the group was about to call off the search, screams from one member alerted the rest of a snake sighting. Fortunately, the snake was a harmless Brown House snake.

The next morning, the team headed to the Bore Community Forest Centre for opportunistic searches. The site was on an eroded hill and it was quite easy to climb down the hill. Three snake species were recorded at this site: Speckled Sand snake, Spotted Green snake and Spotted Beaked snake.

The peak moment of the day was the awareness session with community members at Kafunyalalo Primary School in Marafa. Community members were educated on the various types of snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, found in their locality. Lack of knowledge on snakes among the people was evident from the interaction, and the team took time to differentiate the venomous and non-venomous snakes. The local people acknowledged seeing snakes with some having killed several. Snake bites were apparently a big problem in the area with a majority of the community members knowing at least one person who had been bitten. Getting treatment for snake bites was a major challenge to the local people as the nearest health facility was far and transport was poor in their area. Other topics discussed were how to avoid snake bites, do’s and don’ts of snake bites and snake bite treatments. Myths and misconceptions about snakes and traditional snakebite treatment methods were also shared, and the team dispelled some of the myths.

That evening the team explored Hell’s Kitchen in search of more reptiles, snakes in particular. Hell’s Kitchen – a dramatic erosion feature – is a major tourist attraction in Dakatcha and is famed for its beautiful sunsets. The hike was exciting as the team explored the dark gorges with the aid of flashlights and took photos of the amazing view of the canyons. There was panic when the team got lost in the middle of the gorges under darkness. They, however, traced their way back by following footsteps.

The team is grateful to Nature Kenya for providing funds for this project, the Herpetology Section of the National Museums of Kenya under the leadership of Dr P.K. Malonza, and members of the Kenya Herpetofauna Working Group led by Dr Beryl A. Bwong for their contribution and support towards the success of this project.

Wetlands and biodiversity

February 2 is World Wetlands Day. This day commemorates the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention) in Ramsar, Iran, 49 years ago. It’s also a day set aside to raise public awareness on wetland values to promote their conservation and wise use.

Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems on earth. Wetlands provide water for daily use, soils for agriculture, fish for food, pasture for cattle and materials for construction. Millions of people across the world, including Kenya, directly depend on them for their livelihoods! These unique ecosystems also provide essential services such as flood control, water filtration, protecting soil from erosion and carbon sequestration (removing carbon from the atmosphere and depositing it in a reservoir – in this case, in plants).

We dedicate this issue to highlighting some of the measures being undertaken by Nature Kenya to conserve two of the country’s most important wetlands – the Tana River Delta and Yala Swamp.

The Tana River Delta

The Tana River Delta is an unprotected wetland on the Kenyan coast. The Delta, a designated Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), covers 130,000 ha and is Kenya’s largest wetland. The Tana River Delta is also a designated Ramsar site – a recognized wetland of global importance. The Delta's abundant biodiversity is a reflection of its rich and diverse habitats which comprise of a vast patchwork of palm savannah, seasonally flooded grassland, forest fragments, acacia woodlands, lakes, marine wetlands and the river itself. The Tana River Delta is, therefore, one of the most important wetlands in Africa.

The Tana River Delta is also known for being a highly fragile and dynamic wetland system, flooding in times of good rain and drying off again. Over the years, Nature Kenya has been working with the people of the Delta, seeking to maintain a balance as any small change in the hydrological system could potentially upset the delicate natural balance, disrupting the ecosystem.

Nature Kenya is currently involved in the implementation of the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan (LUP). The LUP’s implementation process seeks to ensure that biodiversity needs are considered in the planning of development activities within the Delta. In the past, during planning processes, the intangible ecosystem services offered by the Delta were often overlooked.

The Tana Delta LUP was developed between 2011 and 2016 in a process that brought together local communities, over 18 government ministries and departments, the county governments of Tana River and Lamu, and international planning experts who offered technical assistance. The process aimed at striking a balance between human development needs and the conservation of biodiversity. A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) informed the development of the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan, unlike all other planning processes previously conducted in the country.

Through a Darwin Initiative funded project, local communities, county governments of Tana River and Lamu and national government agencies with the support of Nature Kenya have identified 95,000 ha out of the 130,000 ha in the Delta for the establishment of Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs). As part of the implementation of the Land Use Plan, Nature Kenya is supporting the designation of ICCAs to conserve important cultural values and biodiversity and also promote ecotourism. The ICCAs will ensure that biodiversity conservation is recognized as a key use for land equal to other uses such as farming, pastoralism and fishing. Nature Kenya has also targeted the restoration of at least 10,000 ha of land to enable and foster the increased survival of biodiversity.

Currently, Nature Kenya is engaging and supporting local communities to promote sustainable crop, livestock and fish farming, ecotourism, beekeeping and other nature-based enterprises. This will complement and support the conservation of wildlife and other forms of biodiversity. All stakeholders, including the National and County government ministries and departments, community-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, local communities and private investors, are being encouraged to take action towards a sustainably managed Tana Delta. The Tana Delta Conservation Network – the Tana River Delta KBA site support group – is the taking lead in coordinating conservation activities within the community areas.

To further ensure that biodiversity conservation has support at the village level and that local communities own the process, Nature Kenya has formed Village Natural Resource and Land Use committees in all Delta villages to facilitate governance, conservation and development actions.

Yala Swamp

Yala swamp lies on the north-eastern shore of Lake Victoria. The swamp is Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland (the Tana Delta is both freshwater and marine), a Key Biodiversity Area and a proposed Ramsar site. Thousands of communities depend on the wetland for fishing and farming as core backbone livelihood activities.

The wetland, however, faces a myriad threats. Over-exploitation of its natural resources is one major threat. Others are encroachment, habitat degradation and biodiversity loss. Through a multi-stakeholder approach, Nature Kenya worked with local communities and the Siaya and Busia county governments to develop a Land Use Plan to balance the various interests within the wetland. This plan has been endorsed by H.E. Cornel Rasanga, Governor Siaya County, H.E. Sospeter Ojaamong’, Governor Busia County and H.E. The Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga, Prime Minister, Republic of Kenya (2008-2013) and African Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development.

Nature Kenya, through funding from the Darwin Initiative, is now keen on supporting the adoption and implementation of the Land Use Plan to ensure development overall is sustainable and compatible with biodiversity protection. As part of the implementation of the Land Use Plan, Nature Kenya is supporting the designation of ICCAs to conserve important cultural values and biodiversity and also promote ecotourism. Initial sensitization meetings with the national and county administration are on-going, spearheaded by the Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group (the Yala Swamp KBA site support group). Awareness creation meetings on ICCAs will culminate into the formation of village-level Natural Resource and Land Use Committees. The Land Use committees will be supported to deliver ICCA conservation actions on the ground. The Land Use committees will also be an integral part of the ICCA governance structure.