The Perilous Journey

Every year, millions and millions of birds undertake a perilous journey across continents in search of food and good breeding sites. This journey, often covering thousands of kilometres, is called bird migration. Not all birds manage to survive this trip, let alone returning to their home countries. Many dangers await them as they fly over land and sea.

Climate change is one of the threats facing migratory birds. Climate change is already adversely affecting weather patterns. In Europe, where many of our migratory birds come from, it is causing warmer winters and earlier springs. By the time migrant birds arrive on their breeding grounds, the first flush of new leaves and the caterpillars that feed on them may already be over, so less food is available for parent birds with babies in the nest. Here in Africa, climate change is responsible for droughts leading to desertification. Migrating birds are being forced to fly across an area of deserts which keeps on increasing every year.

Changes in land use is another threat to migrating birds. Many common birds have for thousands of years lived alongside humans. However, farming methods have changed over the past few years. Vast tracts of land have been cleared for agriculture to cater for the growing demand for food. The use of chemicals to control pests and weeds has increased. As a result, birds have been left with fewer undisturbed spaces to forage for food and nest.

Cities and towns have expanded, leaving less space for birds to feed and rest. Tall buildings, roads, railways, power lines, wind turbines, and power transmission masts also present barriers to migrating birds. Wrongly placed infrastructure has been linked to the deaths of thousands of migratory birds every year.

Illegal hunting, trapping and killing also account for these birds’ population decline. Around half a billion (500 million) birds are killed by shooting or trapping as they migrate through the Mediterranean each year. Many of these birds belong to species that are already growing rare. This kind of hunting is often against the law, and against international agreements for the protection of migrating birds, but the people who do it often think they have a traditional right to kill birds.

The World Migratory Bird Day is marked each year in May and October. This day is dedicated to raising awareness on issues affecting migratory birds. It is also used to inspire people and organizations around the world to take action for the conservation of these birds. The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the African-Eurasian (Migratory) Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) – two intergovernmental wildlife treaties administered by UN Environment – organize this campaign in cooperation with Environment for the Americas (EFTA). Site Support Group (SSGs) across the country’s Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) joined the rest of the world in marking this day. Over 5,000 community members in Dunga Swamp, Yala Swamp, Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Dakatcha Woodland, Tana River Delta, Kinangop grasslands, Mt. Kenya Forest, Taita Hills forests, and Mida Creek, among other sites, participated in events to commemorate the day.

Spring Alive is another awareness campaign targeting migratory birds, undertaken annually by BirdLife International partners, including Nature Kenya. Spring Alive features indoor and outdoor activities for children, schools and the wider community to promote interest in nature and the conservation of migratory birds. Participants are encouraged to visit the project website ( to post their first sightings of five migratory bird species: Barn Swallow, White Stork, Common Cuckoo, Common Swift, and Eurasian Bee-eater. Through posting their records on the website, bird watchers from Europe, Central Asia and Africa help create a real-time map of the incredible journeys undertaken by these birds every year

Promoting conservation at grassroot level

Safeguarding Kenya’s sites of global biodiversity conservation importance – Key Biodiversity Areas – is crucial to the country’s well-being. The ecosystem services and goods provided by these sites are invaluable. Forests for instance, supply us with timber, food, fuel, and bioproducts, not to mention provision of ecological functions such as carbon storage, water storage and release, soil protection and nutrient cycling. Wetlands purify and replenish our water, reduce the impacts of drought and flood, and provide us with food and fibre. Putting in place good mitigation strategies to conserve these sites is key to their survival.

Local communities residing around such important sites play a big part in sustaining them. Engaging these communities positively in conservation activities is a sure way of ensuring ecological sustainability of these areas.

The site support groups (SSGs) model being promoted by Nature Kenya is an approach aimed at enhancing community engagement in conservation at site level. This model entails working closely with groups of local volunteers at Kenya’s Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). Currently, there are 26 SSGs spread across the country. These groups act as an entry point for wider community engagement in the conservation and management of biodiversity. The SSGs are actively involved in site patrolling, policing and monitoring, habitat management and restoration, and environmental awareness and advocacy. These groups employ simple, inexpensive tools and methods to collect vital data through citizen science initiatives. This level of engagement underscores the value of voluntary public participation in conservation.

In 2013, a monitoring team comprising of members of the Dakatcha Woodland Conservation Group (the Dakatcha Woodland KBA site support group) discovered the nesting site of the endangered Clarke’s weaver, a bird found only in Kilifi County, Kenya. This discovery was a major milestone for conservation of this threatened bird, warranting international attention. No known account of the species’ breeding grounds had been reported prior to this discovery.

Late in 2017, some members of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest KBA site support group) went public to decry unabated illegal logging activities in the forest. Their exposé triggered a chain of events which culminated into a national logging moratorium. Through their voices, these community members drew national attention to a serious threat facing one of Kenya’s iconic coastal forest.

Last year, a local community member stumbled upon a dead hyena somewhere in the Maasai Mara. Suspecting the wild animal to have been poisoned, he immediately alerted relevant authorities. Through his swift action, hundreds of secondary wildlife poisoning deaths, including those of critically endangered vulture species, were averted. Several other wildlife poisoning incidents in the area have been reported by community members and promptly addressed, leading to fewer deaths.

These are just a few examples of the important role played by local communities in the conservation of key sites and biodiversity in Kenya.

A healthy environment means a better life for people. As such, conservation and human development need to be mutually reinforcing. Linking community livelihoods with conservation is another way of incentivizing people to take action. Establishment of nature-based enterprises such as beekeeping, butterfly farming, ecotourism, among others, has provided opportunities for local communities to sustainably harness available natural resources. The Kipepeo butterfly project in Gede near Malindi, for instance, is enabling hundreds of local community members to earn livelihoods while conserving the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest.

There is no doubt that community-based approaches have the potential to spur conservation action at key sites. The recently released Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services by the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) acknowledges this point. The report recognizes contributions by local communities in limiting deforestation. These local governance regimes, IPBES notes, have been proven to be effective in mitigating habitat loss, at times even more effective than formally established protected areas.

Local community engagement in the protection of nature needs to be encouraged. Communities need to be empowered to effectively take conservation action. Conservation policies also need to take into account the needs of local communities by providing some form of benefit mechanism for the locals. At a time of increasing pressure on the world’s biodiversity, community-based conservation approaches deserve full support.

A future for Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland – Yala Swamp

Yala Swamp is one of Kenya’s important ecosystems. The wetland lies on the north-eastern shore of Lake Victoria, cutting across Siaya and Busia counties. The swamp is Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland, and an internationally recognized Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). Yala Swamp is home to the nationally threatened Sitatunga antelope and other large mammals, numerous wetland birds (including the vulnerable Papyrus Yellow Warbler), and is a refuge for cichlid fish endemic to Lake Victoria that have become extinct in the main lake. In addition, the swamp provides numerous essential ecosystem services and vital resources such as water, food, medicine and wood for over 250,000 people who live around it. The wetland, however, faces many threats, including increasing human population, over-exploitation of its natural resources by the competing local communities, habitat degradation and biodiversity loss.

During the years 2014-2018, Nature Kenya successfully implemented a project titled “Balancing development and conservation in Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland”. The Darwin Initiative, MacArthur Foundation and USAID-PREPARED jointly funded this project. The main outcome of this project was that key steps were taken to safeguard the future of Yala Swamp, putting into consideration development and conservation needs. Nature Kenya worked in collaboration with the Siaya and Busia county governments, local communities and the national government to develop a Land Use Plan (LUP) for Yala Swamp, informed by a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), and borrowing lessons learnt from the award-winning Tana Delta land use planning process.

The Yala Swamp LUP seeks to balance the various interests in the wetland. It involves addressing the needs of communities, their settlements and livelihoods, equity and fairness in land resource allocation (for both investors and communities), while protecting the wetland’s unique biodiversity through embracing strong conservation ethics. This approach is supported by evidence that conservation of significant areas of the swamp is critically important for the sustenance of ecosystem services that support the economy, biodiversity and livelihoods. The endorsement of the Yala Swamp LUP by the Siaya County Governor H.E. Cornel Rasanga and his Busia counterpart H.E. Sospeter Ojaamong’ in July 2019 marked a milestone in development towards the implementation of the wetland’s land use planning process. Both the Siaya and Busia county assemblies have also expressed commitment towards the adoption of the Yala Swamp LUP.

With funding from the Darwin Initiative, Nature Kenya is still working to secure a sustainable future for Yala Swamp. Towards this, a three-year project is currently underway. The project, which started in April 2019, will support the adoption of the Yala Swamp LUP as a county government policy, formalize the creation of Community Conservation Areas (CCAs) through gazettement, and develop a management plan to be implemented by a multi-stakeholder committee.

Community livelihoods are also set to be enhanced through empowering households to establish nature-based enterprises (making of papyrus and palm leaf products, fish farming, bee-keeping, chicken rearing, vegetable gardening and eco-tourism), setting up producers’ cooperatives and opening a ‘market hub’ in Siaya town.  Management of Community Conservation Areas will be sustainably financed, in part through contributions from the cooperatives. Project lessons and experiences will be widely shared through meetings, conferences and awareness events. The project will directly benefit over 635 households and indirectly benefit 250,000 people and ensure continued provision of vital ecosystem services. The project will also advance the listing of Yala Swamp as a Ramsar (wetland of international importance) site in addition to furthering the objectives of international biodiversity conventions ratified by Kenya such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and a number of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The project’s implementation partners at the community level include the Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group (YESSG) who are community conservation champions and local beneficiaries. Their role involves supporting CCA management through proceeds derived from livelihood enterprises. Other partners are the Yala Planning Advisory Committee (YPAC), whose role is to promote integration of the LUP/SEA into county plans and budgets, and represent communities on the multi-stakeholder CCA Management Committee; and Lower Nyandera and Muweri Water Resource Use Associations (WRUAs), whose role is to champion implementation of the water-sharing regime recommended by the SEA/LUP. Other local partners include Beach Management Units (BMUs) and Community Forest Associations (CFAs).