Promoting sustainable livelihoods to conserve the Tana River Delta

The lush, green fields make it difficult to imagine the calamities that Idsowe village within the vast Tana River Delta experiences whenever floods or drought strike.

The Tana River Delta is a land of alternating flood and drought. In the old days, people moved when disaster struck. This is no longer feasible. So today, farmers and pastoralists are adopting ambitious climate-smart agriculture projects geared towards improving livelihoods, resilience to climate change, and conserving the 130,000-hectare Tana River Delta.

Tana River Delta is one of the most important wetland ecosystems in East Africa. The Delta spreads out to cover parts of Tana River and Lamu counties, comprising of flood plains, riverine forests, mangrove systems, savannas, grasslands, lakes and pristine beaches, that form a network of natural and productive areas like Idsowe.

With over 350 species of birds, including globally important large flocks or “congregations”, Tana River Delta is a Key Biodiversity Area and a Ramsar site (wetland of international importance). Tana River Delta is also home to two globally endangered monkeys: the Tana River Red Colobus and the Tana River Crested Mangabey.

When undisturbed, the Delta acts like a sponge, absorbing floods, storing water, something that makes it lush and green even during the dry season. Today, with climate change increasing the severity of droughts and floods, and people unable to move elsewhere, Tana Delta is experiencing challenges. This is the reason why ambitious initiatives like chilli farming, bee-keeping, fish ponds and mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture in production systems are taking root under the REBUILD project.

The project seeks to contribute towards increased resilience of communities in arid and semi-arid land (ASAL) areas of Kenya to drought and other effects of climate change. This is done through enhancing food and nutrition security of vulnerable households, especially for women and children, generating sustainable livelihoods and protecting productive assets in Tana River County. Funded by the European Union (EU), the REBUILD project is implemented by CISP in collaboration with Nature Kenya, the National Drought Management Authority, GROOTS and Procasur.

“Part of solving the problems the Delta residents are facing is mainstreaming climate-smart agriculture. Farmers can choose crops that withstand the changing climate to boost their production. Livestock farmers can choose the right breeds to boost productivity while minimizing the negative impact on the environment,” says Nature Kenya Executive Director Dr Paul Matiku.

“For the first time, our group comprising of 133 members tried out chilli farming after Nature Kenya provided us with the seeds,” says Milcah Amaro, the chairperson of Harakisa group. “Thirty-five active members planted chilli in quarter-acre plots on their farms in July 2019. By December that year, the crop was ready for the market. In a good month, one can make between Ksh 12,000 to 15,000,”.

Despite frequent floods that have been ravaging the delta and flooding farms, Harakisa Group members continue to prepare parcels of land away from the previous fields for chilli farming.

“Previously, we used to farm crops like maize, but the production kept dwindling. Coupled with frequent floods and droughts, it became difficult to cope until chilli farming came along. This has since reduced dependency on forest products, especially trees, where some people had resorted to cutting trees and burning charcoal to earn a living,” says Dorcas Helbon, a chilli farmer.

Ismael Komoro from Handaraku says the introduction of the Galla goat breed is a step towards improving productivity for goat farmers. Nature Kenya has distributed 180 male Galla goats.

“Unlike the breed we have, Galla goats are big, meaning a farmer can get more profit by keeping a few goats of this breed,” Komoro says. Having fewer but more productive goats also means less pressure on the Delta, hence less degradation.

Residents on the lower side of the Tana Delta, in Ozi and Mpeketoni villages, are conserving mangroves and dryland forests as they engage in rice and fish farming. The fish farming project is supporting fourteen fish ponds in Ozi.

“Fish farming in Ozi will solve challenges of overfishing within the mangroves, which are fish breeding zones,” says George Odera, Nature Kenya’s Tana Delta project manager. “A lot of fishing has been going on in the mangrove areas as most local fishers cannot access the deep sea due to lack of proper gear. Fish farming in ponds will give a lifeline to these communities while also conserving the critical mangrove forests and breeding zones.”

“Nature Kenya previously supported us with fingerlings to restock our six ponds. The Department of Fisheries stepped in to train us on how to make feeds. Fishing is now manageable for the 50 farmers under this group. In July we harvested 2,400 kilograms of fish which we sold for Ksh. 200 a kilo, translating to Ksh. 480,000,” says Abdallah Hassan Mohammed, the secretary of Moto Fish farmers in Ozi.

For farmers in the Delta, getting certified seeds has been one of their biggest challenges. Nature Kenya has stepped in to distribute certified seeds and incorporated extension officers who visit farmers to enhance mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture in production systems.

Rice farming within Ozi and Mpeketoni villages received a boost after 247 farmers received 4,720 kilogrammes of rice seed. Farmers expect to boost their production while conserving the critical mangrove and dryland forests.

“Although we are yet to harvest, we can see the difference of the certified seeds distributed by Nature Kenya from the ones we normally plant. They are also fast-maturing,” says Godhana Chalalu Dhadho, a rice seed beneficiary.

Mary Mwende, a beneficiary of climate-smart agriculture training, says the introduction of certified maize seeds in Hurara in Tana Delta has boosted productivity within the area.

“Initially, we thought it was cheaper getting seeds from the old harvest, a situation which resulted in poor production. The latest harvest from the distribution of certified seeds yielded double of what we used to harvest. From the initial three bags we used to harvest from an acre, we currently harvest between 8 to 10 bags,” Mwende says.

Farmer field schools have also been set up, with one being at Minjila near Garsen to enhance mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture. Farmers can walk in and learn best farming practices to adapt to the changing climate.

Nature Kenya is also implementing another project in Tana River Delta: The Restoration Initiative (TRI) Tana Delta. This project, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), aims at restoring degraded forest landscapes in Tana River and Lamu counties.

Invasive Prosopis trapping flamingos at Lake Bogoria

Pink spots across the blue-green water; the low grunting sound of thousands of feeding flamingos in the distance –Lake Bogoria’s alkaline water creates a haven for almost a quarter of the world’s Lesser Flamingos after their breeding season in Tanzania’s Lake Natron.

This year, however, as one nears the shore the scene changes – dozens of flamingo carcasses dangle from the branches of dense Prosopis juliflora thickets that blanket the lake’s shores. Some flamingo seem to have lost the fight after struggling to disentangle from the sharp thorns of the low trees.

“It is worrying,” says James Kimaru, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) senior warden at Lake Bogoria National Reserve. “Tens of flamingos are dying from being trapped by Prosopis bushes while attempting to either land or take off,”

Prosopis juliflora, a kind of mesquite, is an aggressive invader that replaces native vegetation, especially in dry areas where there is seasonal flooding.. It is ranked among top 100 invasive species globally, ravaging other arid and semi-arid areas of Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, West Africa, Australia, and other countries.

The plant was introduced in Kenya in the 1970s to rehabilitate the Arid and Semi-Arid Areas (ASALs), due to its resilience, fast growth rate and edible pods. Here it became known as ‘Mathenge’.

Prosopis does not normally grow on the shores of strongly alkaline or saline lakes, and flamingos can use the muddy shores dusted with white soda ash for takeoff and landing. In the past decade of heavy rain and catchment degradation, however, many alkaline lakes have flooded and become fresher. Prosopis became established in the shallow, relatively fresh water along the edges of the lakes.

“Flamingos prefers shallow water near the shores, which unfortunately has been taken over by Prosopis. This becomes a challenge whenever the birds are landing or taking off,” Richard Kipng’eno, Birding and Membership officer at Nature Kenya says.

Lake Bogoria has expanded by 7 square kilometre from its original size. The rising water levels have submerged administration offices and the gate of the \national reserve.

Prosopis has also created navigational challenges in some parts of Lake Baringo,” Kipng’eno adds. “During the recent waterbird counts at Lake Baringo, we experienced some difficulties in manoeuvring boats through the Prosopis thickets.”

Large concentrations of Prosopis are to be found in Tana River, Turkana and Baringo counties. The invasive Prosopis has also colonised parts of Taita Taveta, Malindi, Samburu, Isiolo, Mandera, Marsabit, Wajir, Kajiado and Migori counties.

The plant has also been documented to have invaded some of Kenya’s important wetlands including River Tana Delta in Tana River County, Lorian Swamp (Isiolo/Garissa Counties) Lengurruahanga swamp (Kajiado) among others.

Prosopis charcoal is highly rated, but it is very difficult to cut the hard wood of the spreading, thorny trees.

Lesser Flamingos turning up in unexpected places, including sewage treatment plants

Water levels continue to rise in the Rift Valley lakes. As a result, the alkalinity of some of the lakes is dropping. Changes in the lakes’ chemistry are causing a shift in the ecology of alkaline lakes, whose pH levels have decreased. The adjacent terrestrial habitats have also been affected, with large portions submerged in water. This impacts the carrying capacity for larger mammals in small, fenced protected areas like Lake Nakuru National Park.

Birds are key indicator species of changes in the environment. During the January waterbird census, large flocks of flamingos were observed at the oxygenation ponds in Nakuru, and a smaller flock at the Dandora sewage treatment plant in Ruai, Nairobi. This suggests that flamingos are seeking alternative habitats because of reduced food supply in the alkaline lakes.

At the Nakuru Sewage Treatment plant sitting adjacent to Lake Nakuru, more Lesser Flamingos were observed than on Lake Nakuru itself. Out of the total 6,000 Lesser Flamingos counted on both the ponds and the lake, 4,000 birds were recorded at the sewage treatment ponds. The Dandora treatment ponds recorded 40 Lesser Flamingos.

Waste stabilization ponds are well-suited for the tropics thanks to the high intensity of the sunlight and high temperatures which are important in the wastewater treatment processes. If other counties work towards achieving efficient wastewater treatment processes, especially for the urban centres, there could be alternative feeding habitat for Lesser Flamingos in times of crisis.

During January, Lesser Flamingos have also been reported on Lake Ol’Bolossat – a freshwater lake in Nyandarua County – in Amboseli National Park, on Athi Dam in Nairobi National Park, and on Lake Simbi Nyaima, Nyangweso Irrigation scheme and Ondago swamp in Homa Bay county.

The Waterbird census should be conducted consistently at traditional counting sites and observers should report opportunistic feeding areas for Lesser Flamingos in the country.

Predator-Proof Bomas – A new dimension in human-wildlife conflict resolution

As the sun sets in the Maasai Mara, Narok County, neighbouring herders usher their livestock to the bomas (livestock enclosures) for the night. For Joshua Salaash the experience is different today – Joshua is leading his herd of cattle into a newly constructed eco-friendly and secure predator-proof boma.

In March 2020, Joshua lost six sheep to a lion attack at night. Before the construction of the new boma, the return of livestock each evening marked the beginning of a long restless night of listening for any commotion and shooing away predators.

“The possibility of losing livestock to a lion or a hyena was very high back then. My old boma was not strong to prevent attacks. It had many loopholes that made it easy for predators to breach and prey on my livestock. With this new shed boma, I can sleep more comfortably,” says the 37-year-old.

Maasai Mara is a human-wildlife conflict-prone area because of the proximity of human settlement to wildlife conservancies. Humans, livestock, and wildlife share the same space. Most conservancies are vast and not fenced, leaving wild animals free to roam, occasionally straying into villages and attacking livestock. Most herders in the Mara ecosystem say they have had their livestock preyed on by wildlife several times.

Wildlife attacks on livestock result in retaliatory assaults most of the time. Affected herders hit back by poisoning carcasses of sheep, goats, or cattle with pesticides. The poison is aimed at the predator, but it kills non-target species such as vultures in the process. In Kenya, these poisoning incidents are responsible for 60 percent of vulture mortality.

Conservation organizations working in the Mara ecosystem have devised new tactics to reduce human-wildlife conflicts in the area. Construction of the predator-proof bomas is one such intervention. Nature Kenya has partnered with the Mara Predators Conservation Programme to construct five predator-proof bomas in the Maasai Mara ecosystem.

The selection of five predator-proof bomas beneficiaries was conducted in June 2020. Officers from Nature Kenya and the Mara Predators Conservation Programme met with representatives from conservancies, the local administration, and local communities. The five beneficiaries were chosen based on the history of wildlife attacks, proximity to human-wildlife conflict hotspots, and assurance of permanent residence in their respective areas.

“Human-wildlife conflict issues are sensitive because they touch on the livelihoods of the affected herders. We had to carefully select beneficiaries to best bring out the advantages of this new initiative to the communities as part of solving human-wildlife conflict,” says Simon Shati, a Vulture Liaison Officer working for Nature Kenya.

The predator-proof bomas are constructed using recycled plastic poles that are surrounded by triple-twist chain link and barbed wire. A steel gate is installed to control livestock entry and exit. The boma is impenetrable for large carnivores as it is sealed all round. The recycled plastic and corner metal poles are sunk two feet deep into the ground. Their pits are filled with mortar to make them stable.

“The poles are high, standing at about two metres tall, which is high for a predator to scale up,” says Simon.

One boma can comfortably hold a herd of 700. Simon says that in addition to being made from a material that can withstand harsh weather and pests like termites, the herders do not need to cut down any trees.

Already the effectiveness of the bomas has been tested unintentionally by recent attacks. In the small village of Oloolchuura, sandwiched between two conservancies and the Maasai Mara Reserve, Siloma Ole Reiya considers himself a lucky man. On one corner of his shed boma the wire mesh is slightly deformed outwards following a commotion by cows. The deformity is proof of the events of the night of July 7, 2020 when a pride of lions unsuccessfully attempted to break into the predator-proof boma.

“I would be counting it as my fourth loss of animals this year were it not for this new shed. The layers of chain-link and barbed wire made it impossible for the lions to come close to the herd. Thankfully I was also able to scare the pride away in good time,” says Siloma.

A few kilometers away in Ingila village, Letutuk Tira’s homestead is not easy to miss; it is surrounded Naboisho and Olare Motorogi conservancies and the Mara Reserve. For Letutuk, predator attacks are a common phenomenon. Letutuk is another beneficiary, and his account of a July 14, 2020 attack reads like a scene from a movie:

“The big cat pounced on my motorbike, damaging the headlight, before attempting to enter the locked shed. I fled from the scene and I must say I am fortunate to be alive and for my animals to be safe,” says Letutuk.

The improved bomas are one among many projects aimed at reducing the cases of predation of livestock by wildlife. Nature Kenya has since 2018 been working with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Ambassadors, the Maasai Mara Important Bird Area (IBA) site support group (SSG), to create awareness about wildlife poisoning and its consequences. The group conducts market and village outreaches, using traditional dances and other forms of performing arts to spread conservation messages. Nature Kenya has recruited “vulture volunteers” who are members of local communities engaged in vulture conservation activities. All these efforts are geared towards helping communities to take up better human-wildlife conflict prevention mechanisms.

There are prospects of expanding this project to other areas within the Mara Ecosystem, and to Kajiado County in the coming months.

Cut one, plant two

One of the results of deforestation is global warming. Trees and plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the air. When we cut trees, a lot of the carbon dioxide released finds its way into the atmosphere. The carbon combines with other gases and absorbs sunlight. Normally, the radiation is supposed to escape into space but these gases, which last up to centuries, trap the heat in the atmosphere and causes the planet to get hotter. This is known as the greenhouse effect.

At St. Andrews Preparatory School, Turi, we are always encouraged to do something that would benefit the community, so I decided to plant some trees to help reduce the amount of deforestation and its impacts on our atmosphere. At school, we have a program called ‘Love in Action’. As part of this program, we eat simple lunches and wear our home clothes. We also contribute Ksh.100 from our tuck money to give to the people in need at the school’s charity, the Turi Children’s Project.

We also try and reduce, if not eliminate, food wastage. With less wastage, there would be less need for more land for agriculture. This would reduce deforestation. More land would also be available for the planting of trees.

People also cut down trees for fuelwood for cooking and to make homes warm. Trees also provide timber used for furniture and building. This means that we need to use trees sustainably, by planting as much as or more than we cut down. That’s why I decided to be part of the solution and plant trees, not of the problem by cutting them down.

Because of their many uses, we cannot stop cutting down trees completely. For that matter, for every tree we cut down, we should plant one or two in return. That way, we will continue to use trees sustainably for timber and fuelwood. That way, we will have a win-win situation.

Patricia Owiyo is a budding 11-year-old naturalist who is on a mission to conserve Kenya’s foresst. Patricia is a pupil at St Andrew’s Preparatory School Turi, Nakuru. The disruption of the school calendar by the Covid-19 pandemic made her come up with an initiative to grow trees in degraded forests. Patricia funds her tree-growing activities from savings made from sales of her handicrafts. Last month Patricia donated 400 tree seedlings to the Kijabe Environmental Volunteers (KENVO) for planting in Kereita forest, Kikuyu escarpment. Through friends, Patricia was also linked to Nature Kenya for support and guidance in her dream journey to grow at least 1,000 trees by 2021.