The wetlands of Kenya

The early morning’s sun rays gleam against the shiny mangrove leaves along the shores of Sabaki River Mouth, where the Athi-Galana- Sabaki River pours into the Indian Ocean. For nature lovers, Sabaki River Mouth is a haven of biodiversity. But for private developers who have lately been eyeing this ecologically sensitive area, it is a vast wasteland. 

On February 2, we mark World Wetlands Day, a day to appreciate the importance of wetlands and advocate for their conservation. Many wetlands in Kenya, including the Sabaki River Mouth, face increasing pressure from human activity. The majority of wetlands lack formal protection, except for the few that fall in protected areas. With the current lack of institutional management and formal protection, these wetlands are at the mercy of developers and potential loss of these delicate ecosystems and the invaluable ecological services they provide. 

Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems on earth. They filter water, store carbon, regulate floods and control soil erosion. They provide water, food, pasture and raw materials for people and their livestock. From the Yala Swamp in western Kenya to Lake Ol’ Bolossat in Central Kenya and the seasonal wetlands of Dakatcha Woodlands in Kilifi, these habitats host many bird, fish, mammal, plant, reptile, amphibian, crustacean and insect species – some of them found nowhere else. 

Encroachment, land use change, pollution and habitat destruction top the list of threats wetlands in Kenya face. The fact that many of these wetlands lie on private land further complicates their conservation. A lack of awareness of their importance has seen the conversion of wetlands on private land to farmlands and real estate developments. Those on community land have not been spared from destruction. Wetlands, especially seasonal wetlands, are not usually recognized in land allocation, and are not set aside for community use or conservation. 

Yala Swamp is Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland. The swamp directly supports many communities with water, fish, firewood and raw materials. Yala Swamp also plays a critical ecological role in filtering water flowing into Lake Victoria. Currently, Yala Swamp is facing imminent destruction following a decision by the National Land Commission (NLC) to allocate 6,763.74 ha of the wetland to Lake Agro Kenya Limited for commercial farming. Local communities and conservation stakeholders have voiced outrage over the controversial allocation by NLC. 

The recently documented fish deaths in Lake Victoria were attributed to pollution. Communities around the lake depend on fishing for livelihoods. Chemical and fertilizer load from farmlands and reduced acreage of papyrus to filters these chemicals, has enhanced the spread of the invasive water hyacinth, negatively impacting fishing. 

In Lake Nakuru, unsustainable agricultural practices, deforestation and uncontrolled abstraction of water in the catchment, and pollution and encroachment by human settlements from the city, threaten the wetland’s fragile ecosystem – once known as the greatest ornithological spectacle on Earth. 

All is not gloom, though. Nature Kenya is working with local communities, county governments and other stakeholders to conserve wetlands in the country. At the Tana River Delta, a land use plan was collaboratively developed to guide the management of land and natural resources for

various uses, including conservation. Nature Kenya is promoting the Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas (ICCAs) approach at the Delta. The ICCAs are biodiversity-rich conservancies based on traditional, cultural, and multiple land use under the management of local communities. 

A land use plan for Yala Delta (which includes the Swamp) has also been developed. The land use plan seeks to put the use, development, management and conservation of Yala Swamp on a sustainable footing.

Nature Kenya works with local conservation groups that serve as Site Support Groups (SSGs) for Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), which include wetlands. The community groups are engaged in site restoration, monitoring, advocacy, environmental education and awareness creation, and promotion of sustainable livelihood activities. The SSGs are active in Yala Swamp, Tana River Delta, Lake Bogoria, Lake Naivasha, Lake Ol’ Bolossat, Mida Creek, Lake Elmenteita, Sabaki River Mouth and Dunga Swamp.

Government recognition of water, biodiversity and tourism as valid land uses would go a long way in saving these critical resources.


Key Biodiversity Area in Focus: Sabaki River Mouth

The Athi-Galana-Sabaki River is the second longest and one of the two perennial rivers draining into the Indian Ocean in Kenya. The Sabaki River Mouth (SRM) – where the Athi-Galana-Sabaki River pours into the Indian Ocean north of Malindi town in Kilifi County – is an estuary with sandbanks, mudflats, dunes, freshwater pools, marshes and mangroves, presenting a unique ecosystem and habitat for diverse flora and fauna. 

Sabaki River Mouth is among the 67 designated Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) in Kenya. An important habitat for resident and migratory shorebirds, the estuary is home to over 240 bird species. The estuary’s turbid coastal waters are an important nursery ground for crustaceans and fish, while its sandy shores on both sides are breeding grounds for turtles. Different species of mangroves dominate its peripheral mudflats. Crocodiles, hippos and antelopes also live in the area. 

The estuary provides vital ecosystem services beneficial to people, like filtering pollutants and acting as a storm buffer. It is a source of livelihood for the local communities. Fishing and ecotourism are among the livelihood activities the communities are engaged in. 

Despite its invaluable ecological and economic importance, Sabaki River Mouth faces many hazards, including sand harvesting, fishing with illegal gear, illegal mangrove pole harvesting, discharge of solid waste and effluent, encroachment and land grabbing. These threats impact water quality, biodiversity and vegetation, disrupting the estuary’s ecosystem. 

A number of conservation actions are underway to safeguard the Sabaki River Mouth. They include the devopment of the River Sabaki Estuary Management Plan 2022-2032 led by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in collaboration the Kilifi County Government, Nature Kenya, and other stakeholders. The Sabaki River Conservation and Development Organization (SARICODO) – site support group (SSG) for Sabaki River Mouth – conducts annual waterbird counts in partnership with A Rocha Kenya and the National Museums of Kenya. SARICODO is also engaged in mangrove restoration and environmental awareness creation. Volunteers from the group regularly patrol the estuary for illegal activities.

Waterbird Counts

The 2023 January Waterbird counts had an exciting start in Nairobi and some Rift Valley lakes. It’s an annual monitoring activity to collect information on the number of waterbirds in wetlands, indicating the health of the wetlands. The counts are coordinated by the National Museums of Kenya, Kenya Wildlife Service and Nature Kenya, with support from Wetlands International and others, and conducted by groups of volunteers. 

Armed with binoculars, telescopes and data sheets, the volunteers were up to the task at the break of dawn or soon after, and carried on past midday. The bird counters endured a mix of landscapes ranging from rugged and dusty terrains to wet and muddy ones, bitter cold nights and scorching daytime sun. 

Wetlands are home to other wild animals besides birds. In some sites, counters had to improvise safer offshore routes to avoid disturbing sunbathing hippos and crocodiles, keenly noting the number of birds keeping these giants company. These unusual encounters added an aura of adventure to the counts. 

Sites covered in January included Manguo Ponds (almost dry), Dandora Sewage Works (Nairobi Oxygenation Ponds, Ruai), Nairobi National Park and Langata wetlands, Lake Ol’Bolossat, Lake Bogoria, Lake Baringo, and Lakes Naivasha, Sonachi and Oloidien. A Southern Ground Hornbill welcomed us at Hippo Camp in Naivasha, ushering in a successful count. 

Lakes Nakuru, Elmenteita, and perhaps Magadi; Thika Sewage works; Coastal sites; and a few sites north of Nairobi will be counted in February. We thank our members, volunteers and partners for their participation.

Gearing up for 2023

 In 2022, Nature Kenya rolled out its Strategic Plan for the next decade. The 2022 – 2032 Strategic Plan refocuses Nature Kenya’s conservation efforts under five pillars: Save Species & Sites, Foster Sustainability, Build Support, Act on Science and Consolidate Structures. The implementation of the new strategic plan will continue in 2023. 

Work on saving species and conserving their habitats at various sites continues countrywide. Vulture conservation activities in the Maasai Mara, Mosiro, Amboseli and Kwenia landscapes are ongoing. Nature Kenya will engage 64 community volunteers to monitor vulture populations, look out for wildlife poisoning incidents and create awareness at these sites. Our site support groups (SSGs) at 26 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) will continue to play a critical role in biodiversity monitoring and habitat restoration. 

The annual waterbird counts will take place in January-February 2023 at the Great Rift Valley lakes and other wetlands within the country, including Nairobi and its environs. 

On March 31, we will hold our Lungs for Kenya charity golf tournament at the Karen Country Club. This year’s tournament seeks to raise funds to catalyze the restoration of degraded forest landscapes in Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares. We encourage members to support this tournament by sponsoring, donating auction or raffle items or registering to play. 

Engagement with partners to scale-up conservation actions continue. We will maintain existing partnerships with corporates and pursue new ones to further our work to restore degraded landscapes and empower local communities. 

In 2023, Nature Kenya will continue to address drivers of biodiversity loss through policy reform, advocacy, promoting mainstreaming of biodiversity in economic decision-making processes and promoting nature-based solutions and models. Top on the agenda is blocking the controversial allocation of Yala Swamp for sugarcane growing by the National Land Commission (NLC). Working with like-minded organizations, we will use all channels available to push for the sustainable use of Yala Swamp resources to benefit local communities and biodiversity. 

Our advocacy team will keep tabs on calls for comments for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports, more so for development projects near ecologically sensitive areas. We kindly request members to submit comments whenever asked to do so. 

Our weekly bird walks in Nairobi and Malindi will continue in 2023. Other membership engagement activities, such as monthly talks and Ask Our Nature Expert Q&A sessions, are also lined up for the year. Two Global Big Days will be held on May 13 and October 14. On these days, bird watchers worldwide will go out to enjoy birds and submit their observations through the eBird mobile app. We urge members to mark these days on their calendars and plan to participate in these engaging citizen-science events. 

The road ahead is tough, and we look forward to your continued support to achieve the desired conservation impacts. Together, we can make our world better for us and future generations. 

Happy 2023!