Remembering ‘Mzee’ David Charo Ngala

The late Mzee David Charo Ngala’s love affair with Arabuko-Sokoke Forest started in 1970 when he landed a casual job at the Gede Forest Station. A year later, Ngala was recruited by the then Forest Department (FD) as a nursery attendant. From then on, Ngala moved to different positions within the FD in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, from nursery attendant to stores attendant and finally to driver. As a driver, he had the opportunity to venture into the forest and its various stations.

Ngala’s knowledge of Arabuko-Sokoke grew with time, cementing his fondness for the forest. In 1983, he started guiding researchers into the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, as he was, at that time, the only person knowledgeable about it. These research expeditions exposed him to the scientific aspects of the forest. Ngala’s interest in the birds, insects, reptiles, mammals and trees of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest kindled his appreciation of its biodiversity value. A key species he specialized in was the Sokoke Scops Owl. 

Ngala guided many researchers in their studies of the Sokoke Scops Owl, including Munir Virani, who later became a raptor specialist. Other researchers he worked with were Leon Bennun, John Fanshawe, Paul Matiku (currently Executive Director of Nature Kenya) and Colin Jackson. The number of researchers and bird watchers visiting the forest grew following each round of research work and publications, attracting younger community members mentored by Ngala to join in and assist. They included Willy Kombe in 1992 and Jonathan Baya, Emmanuel Thoya and Bakari George in 1994. Others joined later including Albert Baya and Jonathan Mwachongo. These individuals developed into research assistants and bird guides of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. These young guides would later undergo professional training and establish and register the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Guides Association in 1996.

In 1995, Arabuko-Sokoke Forest faced the threat of excision by the government around Roka and Mpendala areas. Ngala responded to the threat by mobilizing communities to oppose the move. This action led to the formation of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (ASFADA). Community opposition to annexing the forest bore fruit, with ASFADA prevailing as a forest conservation lobby group. 

ASFADA was instrumental in piloting Participatory Forest Management (PFM) from 1997 to 2002 in Dida, west of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Ngala’s birthplace. The PFM pilot process culminated in the drafting of the Forests Act (2005), which formed the legal foundation for community participation in the management of forests in Kenya. Ngala contributed immensely to this process that led to the current forest conservation and management system.

Ngala worked for the government in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest for 37 years, retiring in 2007. His love and commitment to the forest transcended beyond his formal employment. With support from friends, Ngala continued working as a guide, research assistant and a community mobilizer in Arabuko-Sokoke. 

On several occasions, Ngala would camp at different locations in the forest, armed with a pair of binoculars, GPS, notebook and data sheets to gather information on happenings around the forest. Year in, year out, he would walk hundreds of kilometres in the forest each year to remove snares, record cut stems and observe tens of biodiversity parameters. 

Ngala once said to me: “When I die in the forest, don’t look for me.”  This statement best summarises his resolve to remain in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest his entire life. At that time it sounded awkward to me, but that was the real Ngala. He gave 52 years of his 70 years of life to the forest. 

Though his age had advanced, he never showed signs of slowing down. Until his untimely demise through a motorcycle accident on 7th June 2022, Ngala was able to do three 1km transects in a day which is herculean task to younger people. His illustrious life, exploits and commitment to the conservation of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest will remain unparalleled for a long time. 

Fare thee well, Mzee Ngala.  

Stingless but defensive

As their name reveals, stingless bees do not sting. But not being able to sting does not make them defenceless. The defence strategies of stingless bees consist of several components that ensure an effective defence of the queen, her brood and the stores.

First: the nest. Stingless bees choose very protected places to build a nest. These could be crevices in rocks, hollowed tree trunks or underground cavities that cannot be found and opened easily. Nests can be accessed only through a single narrow entrance tube that is easy to protect. This leads to the second component: guards.

Hypotrigona guards defending the entrance tube of their nest. Photo by Kathrin Krausa

As seen in the picture, guarding bees line up in the nest entrance tube and discriminate between friend and foe. The entrance is open for nestmates that frequently pass with collected pollen and nectar. A non-nestmate, however, is not welcomed and the bees might attack or retreat. In case of an attack, guards fly out of the nest, hover in front of the entrance and bite the intruder. Along with the bite they set free an alarm pheromone that recruits further bees to join in the defence. Guards might also carry sticky resin on their hind legs which can either be applied directly to the intruder to immobilize it or be used to quickly close the nest entrance. In the latter case, the bees simply retreat in the nest and wait until the danger is over.

Despite the various defence strategies, most species are very calm and super harmless to humans. That is why it is so great to work with them! You would never swell or experience the pain honeybee venom causes

2022 World Environment Day summary

On June 5th, we, and the world, marked World Environment Day. This year the event called for transformative changes to policies and choices to enable cleaner, greener, and sustainable living in harmony with nature under the #OnlyOneEarth campaign. Humans need to decide to live sustainably, in harmony with nature, by shifting to greener lifestyles and by making suitable policies and individual choices. “Only One Earth” was the motto of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. Fifty years on, the motto is more pertinent than ever – planet Earth is our only home, and humanity must safeguard its finite resources.

 The national celebrations took place in Nyeri county at the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology. Nature Kenya supported and took part in the event. Elsewhere, 16 site support groups (SSGs) affiliated with Nature Kenya, and other partners, held activities to mark the day. The SSGs were from Dakatcha Woodland, Taita hills, Kinangop grasslands, Yala and Dunga swamps, Tana River Delta, Maasai Mara, Mida Creek, Sabaki River estuary, Kikuyu escarpment, Mukurwe-ini valleys, Kakamega forest, Arabuko-Sokoke forest, Mount Kenya, North Nandi forest, Mumoni and Mutitu hilltops Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).  

 Activities held by the SSGs during the day included clean-ups, tree planting, bird watching and environmental education and awareness creation, with 2,479 individuals, including school children, participating. Eight SSGs planted over 10,000 trees to mark the day. 

Supporting local communities to reverse forest loss and deterioration

Forests cover nearly one-third of our planet’s land surface and host more than three-quarters of the terrestrial biodiversity. Unfortunately, their decline around the world over the years has been alarming. The Taita hills, for example, have lost approximately 98 per cent of their original montane cloud forests over the last 200 years due to land use changes. Twelve forest fragments restricted to the highest peaks and steepest slopes currently remain, with their sizes ranging from one to 220 hectares.

The Taita hills cover an area of 35,000 ha in southern Kenya, 50 kilometers south-east of the world-famous Tsavo West National Park. Their forests hold a unique array of plants and animals, some found nowhere else on Earth. These forests form part of the Eastern Afromontane Biodiversity Hotspot. They are designated as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) and an Endemic Bird Area.

Working closely with local communities in the area, Nature Kenya is implementing a project that seeks to conserve and expand existing forests fragments in Taita hills. This project, supported by the Darwin Initiative, also aims at safeguarding the unique biodiversity of Taita and improve water security for people.

Forest landscape restoration is one of the activities the project is undertaking. Sixty hectares of degraded forestland are targeted for restoration using two approaches.

One approach involves directly planting wild tree seeds in degraded areas. In the second method, indigenous tree seedlings propagated in community nurseries are planted instead. Community members collect wild tree seeds for both.

Local people drawn from the Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Community-based Organization (DABICO) and five community forest associations (CFAs) are engaged in the restoration initiative. DABICO is the site support group for the Taita hills forests KBA. The CFAs are from Ngangao, Susu-Ndiwenyi-Fururu, Iyale-Wesu-Mbili, Chawia and Vuria forests.   Nature Kenya has facilitated training on wild tree seed collection and tree nursery establishment for the community members.

To date, 25 hectares of degraded forest areas have been restored with 34,000 indigenous tree seedlings from nine community tree nurseries. Areas restored include the Chawia, Iyale, Ngangao and Msidunyi forest segments.

“We are raising tree nurseries to restore degraded forest areas in Taita hills. We are also raising community awareness on the importance of forest restoration. It is good to see our communities embracing forest restoration,” says John Maghanga, a member of DABICO.

Community members closely monitor the rehabilitated sites to ensure survival of the planted trees.

Nature Kenya is also promoting on-farm tree planting to increase tree cover and boost community livelihoods in Taita under this project. More than 800 households within the project area have received 8,000 avocado and macadamia seedlings for on-farm planting.