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

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.