Conserving the Kaya forests of Dakatcha Woodland

To many, the Kaya forests represent the rich traditional Mijikenda culture. The word Kaya, in most Mijikenda languages, means home. Kaya forests are blocks of pristine forest scattered across the Kenyan coast. They once contained hidden fortified villages where Mijikenda communities took refuge from their enemies when they first moved to the region. A specific Mijikenda sub-group occupied each of the Kaya forests that bore cultural and historical significance.

Dakatcha Woodland – the northernmost Miombo (Brachystegia) forest and the breeding site for the Kilifi (Clarke’s) Weaver – hosts five Kaya forests: Singwaya (Kauma), Dagamra (Chonyi), Bura (Kambe), Bate and Mayowe (Kambe).

“These Kaya forests had shrines that were considered sacred. One had to fulfil certain traditional rites before being allowed to enter the forests,” says Shadrack Mwarabu, a Kaya elder and chairperson of Kaya Singwaya.

Every year, before the onset of the rainy season, Kaya elders would go to the shrines to pray for rainfall and a good crop, adds Mwarabu. Some of the cultural beliefs and practices encouraged the conservation of Kaya forests. For example, the strict rules for accessing the forests significantly minimized disturbances. Trespassing into the Kaya forests was believed to attract the wrath of ancestral spirits. This fear served as a deterrent to would-be poachers, illegal herders and firewood collectors. Damaging any part of the sacred forests would also draw reprimand from Kaya elders.

Over the years, a lot has changed. The once-respected traditional practices associated with the Kayas are declining, exposing the forests to degradation. In Dakatcha, only a handful of elders, like Mwarabu, maintain a cultural connection with the Kaya forests.

“Many elders have abandoned their Kaya traditional roles after being falsely accused of practising sorcery and other harmful things. We risk losing our sacred forests and rich Mijikenda cultural heritage,” says Mwarabu.

Currently, a new Kaya committee exists in Dakatcha. The committee acts as a consultative forum and has overseen the establishment of non-cultural local conservation groups for the five Kaya forests in Dakatcha. These community-led groups are championing the conservation of sacred forests and their unique biodiversity. Working closely with Nature Kenya, the groups are conducting environmental education and awareness, linking communities to conservation partners and promoting the adoption of sustainable nature-based enteprises like beekeeping and climate-smart agriculture to boost community livelihoods.

To enhance the sustainable use of Kaya forests, the conservation groups have established apiaries in some forest sections. Plans are also underway to re-establish some of the Kaya cultural practices and to seek formal protection of the sites as national monuments.

The Kaya forests in Dakatcha host several coastal birds and mammals. They include Fischer’s Turaco, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, the Golden-rumped Sengi and others.

KBA in Focus: Ruma National Park

Ruma National Park lies in Lambwe River Valley between the Kanyamwa Escarpment and the Gwasi Hills, 10 km east of Lake Victoria in Homa Bay County. The park, 120 square kilometers in area, is a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). It is characterized by a mosaic of landscapes, ranging from riverine woodland and rolling savannah to magnificent escarpments and towering cliffs offering stunning views of Lake Victoria and the surrounding landscape.

Ruma’s pristine nature makes it a suitable home for many animal species. It is the last remaining sanctuary for the nationally endangered Roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus). The park is a popular bird-watching destination with more than 400 bird species. It is the only protected area in Kenya where Blue Swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea), a globally vulnerable and scarce intra-African migrant, is regularly recorded.

Despite its ecological significance, Ruma National Park faces several threats. These include habitat loss and degradation due to the clearance of forests and grasslands adjacent to the park for agriculture, settlements, and infrastructural development. Other include human-wildlife conflict, forest fires, and poaching, which is a major concern, particularly for large mammals such as the Roan antelope. Climate change also affects the KBA in various ways, including unpredictable rainfall and other weather patterns. Ruma National Park is reportedly a breeding ground for tsetse flies, increasing the prevalence of the Trypanosoma parasites that cause sleeping sickness in cattle and humans.

Efforts are being made to address these threats to ensure the long-term survival of Ruma National Park, currently under the management of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). In 2020 KWS launched the Roan Antelope Species Recovery Plan to address the steady decline in the species’ population. An electric fence has been installed around the park to prevent wildlife from straying outside, protect its vegetation from degradation caused by domestic animals and help prevent human-wildlife conflicts. Other initiatives to conserve the KBA include the involvement of local communities in conservation and ecotourism activities, habitat restoration, and education and awareness campaigns. Ruma Site Support Group (SSG) is the local community organization undertaking conservation initiatives at the park. Comprising of individuals living adjacent to the park, the SSG plays a critical role in ensuring its well-being.

The SSG conducts biodiversity monitoring, environmental education and awareness creation, and habitat restoration, among other conservation activities. Ruma SSG is also promoting the uptake of nature-based community livelihood options such as beekeeping and the establishment of fruit tree nurseries. To help boost community resilience to climate change, the Ruma SSG is championing for climate-smart agriculture and agroforestry. The SSG’s broad membership base has enabled them to advocate for the restoration of heavily degraded neighbouring habitats like Gwasi Hills and Lambwe forest, which are important water catchment areas.

The 2023 “Lungs for Kenya” charity golf tournament

The 13th edition of the Nature Kenya annual charity golf tournament took place on Friday, March 31, at the Karen Country Club. The event, under the Lungs for Kenya banner, brought together golfers and businesses to raise KSh. 2 million for the restoration of Mount Kenya and Aberdare forests. Over 130 golfers participated in the one-day tournament. Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) was the tournament’s lead sponsor.

Other sponsors included Kenya Breweries Limited, Family Bank, Williamson Tea, Nairobi Hospital, Knight Frank, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Platinum Credit Limited, Prime Bank, Syngenta, I&M Bank, Bata Shoes, and AIC Kijabe Hospital. Several other business entities and individuals supported the fund raiser with auction and raffles items. They included Emrok Tea Factory, Coca-Cola Beverages Africa, Karen Country Club, Safarilink, Serena Hotels, Air Kenya, Angama Mara, Skyward Express, Hemmingways Collection, Matbronze Wildlife Art, Elewana Collection, Parapet Cleaning Services, Davis and Shirtliff, Cookswell, Andrew Kamiti, Karen Lawrence, Andy and Salma Watt and Alex Duncanson. 

We say a big ‘thank you’ to all our sponsors.