Pressure on Taita Hills forest fragments mounts as drought persists

The prevailing drought continues to pile pressure on ecologically sensitive habitats across Kenya. In Taita Hills, scarcity of fodder is driving residents into the fragile forest fragments in search of feed for their cattle. This latest trend, according to local community conservation volunteers, poses a threat to bird nesting sites in Chawia and Ngangao forests. The most sought alternative fodder plants are the Dracaena and wild bananas that naturally occur in the highland forest fragments.

“Our monitoring data indicate that seventy per cent of the Cabanis’s Greenbul’s nests in Chawia forest are on Dracaena plants. We fear that if the uncontrolled harvesting of these plants persists, the Cabanis’s Greenbul’s breeding will be affected,’’ says John Maganga, a member of the monitoring team from the Dawida Biodiversity Conservation (DaBiCo) Community-based Organization. DaBiCo is the Site Support Group (SSG) for the Taita Hills forests Key Biodiversity Area (KBA).

The Cabanis’s Greenbul is a dull-coloured mid-sized greenbul with a long bill and tail. It is found in the Taita Hills forest fragments, occurring in thick undergrowth and mid-story sections of the forests, usually in small groups.

In August and September, the SSG carried out common bird and detailed monitoring within the KBA. It is during these monitoring activities that SSG members noticed the illegal harvesting of forest plants for fodder amid the biting drought. Chawia and Ngangao forests recorded the highest cases of the practice.

To dissuade community members from engaging in destructive forest activities, the SSG plans to hold public sensitization meetings in the affected areas. The SSG also intends to increase forest surveillance at the sites.

Another notable observation made during the monitoring exercises include the unusual increase in the sighting of some birds. “The sighting frequency of species such as the Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Grey-headed Bush-shrike was abnormally high in the forest fragments compared to previous monitoring,” says Nathaniel Mkombola, another member of the SSG monitoring team.

DaBiCo conducts common bird monitoring twice annually, in February (when there are migrant birds) and August. Information about changes in bird population levels across various habitats, within and outside the KBA, is obtained during this monitoring. Detailed monitoring, on the other hand, focuses on establishing the abundance of the target species – Taita Apalis and Taita Thrush – and changes in their habitat.

Fifteen volunteers from DaBiCo participated in the August-September monitoring exercises, which also engaged pupils from Iyale Primary School. A total of 28 species were recorded within the forest landscapes. These included the threatened Taita Apalis and Taita Thrush, only found in Taita Hills forest remnants, and the magnificent Crowned Eagle. In the forest-adjacent agricultural areas, 49 bird species were recorded, including the Crowned Eagle and Usambara Double-collared Sunbird.

The Taita Hills comprise two main mountain massifs, Mbololo and Dawida, rising from the dryland below. The forests that remain on the hilltops are extensively fragmented. Taita Hills forests are part of the Eastern Arc mountains, one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots, and are one of Kenya’s KBAs. Over the years, Taita Hills forests have been undergoing massive degradation. More than ninety per cent of the indigenous forests have been cleared for agriculture and forest plantations, putting at risk the survival of the Taita endemics – birds, amphibians and insects found only in the Taita Hills.

Nature Kenya in partnership with DOF – the BirdLife Partner in Denmark – through funding from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) through CISU (Civil Society in Development), has been running the ‘People Partner with Nature’ program in the Taita Hills. The program seeks to support communities living adjacent to the Taita Hills forests to engage in income-generating activities, such as butterfly farming, beekeeping, eco-tourism, and climate-smart agriculture, among others, that reduce pressure on the environment. This program is also running in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Dakatcha Woodland in Kilifi county. The long-term objective of the program is to reduce the destruction of forested KBAs and contribute to the realization of the best participatory forest management practices for the benefit of all.