Wetlands and human wellbeing

By John Mwacharo

In Kenya, a country blessed with many natural wonders, wetlands play a crucial role in supporting biodiversity, sustaining livelihoods, and providing vital ecosystem services like filtering and storing water, controlling floods and erosion, sequestering carbon and supporting fisheries, among others. World Wetlands Day, celebrated on February 2nd each year, provides an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of wetlands for our planet’s health – and ours.

Wetlands are places where land and water meet and support characteristic biodiversity. They are important economically, ecologically and socially, yet Kenya’s wetlands face numerous threats. These include unsustainable exploitation of wetland resources, encroachment and conversion, habitat destruction and climate change. Most of our wetlands are not under any form of state protection. Others are seasonal, like the wetlands in Dakatcha Woodland (see page …), and lie on private land.

The conversion and degradation of wetlands endangers biodiversity, disrupts essential ecosystem services, and poses risks to the livelihoods of local communities. Over the years, Nature Kenya has worked closely with various stakeholders to conserve some of the country’s wetlands.

Tana River Delta

The Tana River Delta is Kenya’s largest delta. It is a designated Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), a Ramsar site as a wetland of international importance, a Global Biodiversity Hotspot and a proposed World Heritage Site. The Delta supports immense biodiversity of global significance. Over 250,000 people practising crop farming, livestock rearing and fishing depend on it for their livelihoods due to its varied, extensive and productive habitats. Tana River Delta, however, faces many threats, including over-exploitation of natural resources, poor land use practices, unregulated human settlement and unsustainable large-scale agricultural development.

Over the years, Nature Kenya has worked with local communities and other partners to conserve the Delta. In 2011, Nature Kenya led a collaborative effort by various stakeholders in the development of a Tana River Delta Land Use Plan (LUP) that was guided by a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). The process was concluded in 2015. The Land Use Plan has since been approved and adopted as a policy by the Lamu County government and is currently under implementation. Nature Kenya is also promoting the Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas (ICCAs) approach. Community Conservation Areas are biodiversity-rich sites partially or largely managed by local communities.

Yala Swamp

Yala Swamp is the largest inland freshwater wetland complex in the country, sheltering a great variety of birds, fish and mammals, including some threatened ones, and thus a KBA. Yala Swamp provides useful environmental services like filtering out harmful pollutants from water flowing into Lake Victoria. The swamp is also a source of livelihood for many communities.

Nature Kenya is working to reduce pressure on the swamp for natural resources by supporting community nature-based enterprises like climate-smart agriculture, fish farming, beekeeping and papyrus weaving. Nature Kenya is also working with like-minded organizations in advocating against the controversial allocation of half of Yala Swamp for sugarcane growing by the National Land Commission (NLC); and to push for the sustainable use of the swamp’s resources to benefit local communities and biodiversity.

Sabaki River Mouth

The Sabaki River Mouth, where the Athi-Galana-Sabaki River meets the Indian Ocean, is a vital link between freshwater and marine ecosystems. It provides a critical habitat for migratory birds and supports a diverse range of marine life. The mangroves along the river mouth act as a nursery for juvenile fish, ensuring the sustainability of fisheries in the region. Despite its invaluable ecological and economic importance, Sabaki River Mouth KBA faces many threats, including sand harvesting, fishing with illegal gear, illegal mangrove pole harvesting, discharge of solid waste and effluent, encroachment and land grabbing.

Nature Kenya and other stakeholders are undertaking several conservation actions to safeguard the estuary. These include supporting the development of the River Sabaki Estuary Management Plan 2022-2032, led by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in collaboration with the Kilifi County Government and other stakeholders.

Nationwide, Nature Kenya is working with 11 site support groups (SSGs) in 11 KBAs to promote wetland conservation through site restoration, monitoring, advocacy, awareness creation and environmental education activities.

Clarke’s (Kilifi) Weavers nesting again in seasonal wetlands

By Fleur Ng’weno

In July we brought you the good news that Clarke’s Weaver had been seen again after six months and a long drought. Flocks of males, females and juveniles were seen in Dakatcha Woodland in Magarini sub-county, Kilifi County (as this bird is found only in Kilifi County, we are beginning to call it Kilifi Weaver).

The good news this year is that Kilifi/Clarke’s Weavers were breeding again in the seasonal wetlands of Dakatcha Woodland. It rained heavily in November and December, filling the seasonal wetlands, and sedges and water lilies grew rapidly. The weavers nested in Nature Kenya’s Kamale Nature Reserve and a smaller wetland to the west, and small flocks were seen in the big Bore (Munyenzeni) wetland near Marafa.

Despite the successful breeding and regular monitoring, however, we still do not know the size of the Clarke’s/Kilifi Weaver population. These Endangered birds are only known to nest in seasonal wetlands – sites that fill with water and water plants during the rainy season. Because these wetlands become dry in the dry season, they are often overlooked and subject to demarcation for other uses. Yet seasonal wetlands play a critical role in the ecosystem – in this case, supporting a species threatened with extinction.

Clarke’s/Kilifi Weavers are different from most other weavers in that they feed mostly on insects and small wild fruits. Parent birds could be seen bringing fat green caterpillars to feed their young. Their breeding cycle is also very rapid: the eggs hatch quickly, the young grow fast and soon fledge and fly – enabling them to make use of temporary, seasonal wetlands.

During January, Julio Mwambire and Maxwel Issa of Dakatcha Woodland Conservation Group took many birders to see the endangered birds at their nesting sites.

KBA in Focus: Lake Bogoria

By Joshua Sese

Lying in the rugged and faulted terrain of the Rift Valley floor in Baringo County, is Lake Bogoria National Reserve, a narrow alkaline lake with a series of spectacular bubbling hot springs and boiling geysers. The lake is a designated Important Bird Area (IBA), being a vital feeding site for the near-threatened Lesser Flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor) and an important Kenyan site for the Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) and Cape Teal (Anas capensis), and therefore a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) It is a Ramsar wetland of international importance designated in 2000 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site hosts several of Kenya’s Somali-Maasai Biome bird species in the bushlands and woodlands around the lake.

Since 2019, Lake Bogoria has been hosting the highest number of Lesser Flamingoes recorded in the annual water bird counts. This is partly due to the rising water levels in all the Rift Valley lakes, turning many of them into freshwater lakes; Lake Bogoria has remained relatively alkaline. The Lesser Flamingo population in Kenya has been fluctuatingdramatically in the last few years.

The reserve offers stunning landscapes with panoramic views of the lake, the surrounding hills, geothermal features, and wildlife such as Greater Kudu. It is a great destination for ornithologists, nature enthusiasts, and local and international tourists interested in birdwatching, photography, and enjoying the natural beauty of the Rift Valley. Rapid population growth in areas adjacent to the lake has led to increased pressure on the lake, however. Encroachment, abstraction of water from the catchment, invasive species such as Prosopis spp, pollution, soil erosion, and climate change are among the leading threats to the existence of biodiversity in the lake and its environs.

Conservation of the outstanding value of this precious site needs a multi-sectoral approach involving the local community, county and national governments and civil society, among others. A local Site Support Group (SSG), Friends of Nature Bogoria, is at the forefront in spearheading the conservation agenda for the lake and its biodiversity. Friends of Nature Bogoria was formed in 1996 and was officially registered in 2003. It has been actively participating in the waterfowl census since 2002 and undertakes research on the Greater Kudu. Other activities include awareness creation through school outreach programs, beekeeping and professional tour guiding.

Promoting conservation in Mount Kenya Forest through nature-based enterprises

By Martin Kiama

Mount Kenya – a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) is in the limelight for several reasons, from being the second-highest volcanic mountain in Africa to being a World Heritage Site, a major catchment feeding the Tana and Ewaso Ngiro basins and a tourist destination attracting about 20,000 local and international visitors annually.

The mountain’s unique montane forest offers a range of essential ecosystem services valued at US$220 annually. These include the provision of water, energy, food, medicines, timber and habitat for biodiversity. Mount Kenya Forest helps to conserve soil fertility, regulate the climate and store carbon dioxide. The forest also provides livelihoods to adjacent communities.

One of the many community groups reaping ecosystem benefits from Mount Kenya Forest is the Mt. Kenya Biodiversity Conservation Group (Mt. KEBIO). Mt. KEBIO, the Site Support Group (SSG) for the Mount Kenya Forest KBA, is engaged in eco-tourism and other nature-based enterprises. The group organises hikes to the forest and bird-watching excursions. Thirteen of its members are professional tour guides trained in mountain climbing, map navigation, first aid and rescue, and ornithology, among other skills. Local and international tourists make up Mt. KEBIO’s ecotourism clients. Neighbouring hospitality facilities like the Mountain Rock Hotel also contract the group for tour guiding and birding services.

In 2023, Mt. KEBIO held 12 monthly bird walks in different forest and wetlands habitats within Mount Kenya. The group participated in the May and October Global Big Days, conducted two Abbott’s Starling monitoring surveys at Castle Forest and two biodiversity assessments.

Mt. KEBIO also operates three tree nurseries, namely Tumaini, Mazingira and Gathiuru, that currently have 11,400 indigenous and exotic tree seedlings. Last year, the SSG distributed 7,400 tree seedlings to schools, churches and community members. The SSG collaborated with other conservation groups to support restoration of Nanyuki River through the planting of indigenous trees and construction of gabions to control degradation of the river banks. So far, 1200 trees have been planted and six gabions constructed through an initiative dubbed `A Tree for My River`.

To ensure the sustainability of the ecosystem benefits, the group conducts awareness creation activities to promote environmental conservation knowledge in Mount Kenya, reaching 240 pupils from local primary schools. The group also hosted several conservation clubs from institutions, including Thika Technical Training Institute and Red Cross members from Laikipia County. 

KBA in Focus: Nairobi National Park

By Brian Otiego  

Amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, about 7 km from the centre of Kenya’s capital city, lies a unique gem, the Nairobi National Park Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). Tucked within  the city’s southern border, Nairobi National Park is separated from the busy Nairobi metropolis by an electric fence on the northern, western and eastern borders. The southern border of the park is open, marked by the Mbagathi River and serving as a gateway for wildlife dispersal to the Athi Kapiti plains that connect the park to the Amboseli ecosystem. The park is one of the world’s most unique wildlife reserves due to its vicinity to a major urban centre. Local and international visitors have the opportunity to witness Africa’s iconic wildlife against the backdrop of Nairobi’s skyline.

The KBA stands right on the line between two great ecosystems: the forested hills that rise toward the Aberdare range, and the grasslands that stretch all the way to Kilimanjaro. The park’s distinctive landscape, encompassing upland forest, open grasslands, rocky outcrops, acacia (now Vachellia) woodlands, dams and other wetland habitats host a remarkable array of biodiversity.

The park is a haven for a diverse range of wildlife species, featuring iconic large mammals such as lions, giraffes, zebras, buffaloes and rhinoceros. Rare plants bloom on rocky outcrops. Also found in this park are the charismatic but critically endangered obligate scavenging birds of prey: White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) that breed inside the park, and Rüppell’s and Lappet-faced vultures that visit to feed. Other resident raptor species are Martial, Tawny, Long-crested and Crowned eagles, Bateleur, and Secretarybird, among some 500 other bird species.

Nairobi National Park faces several conservation challenges, primarily stemming from its proximity to the capital. Nairobi City is at the epicentre of rapid infrastructural development. Human-wildlife conflict, land use changes and associated fragmentation, pollution from liquid and solid wastes and degradation and loss of wildlife corridors and dispersal areas are key, escalating issues. Encroachment by the expanding city infrastructure have led to increased pressure on the park’s boundaries, posing threats to its biodiversity.

Navigating the challenges of conservation and urbanization requires a multifaceted approach that brings together Kenya Wildlife Service in collaboration with civil society organizations in conservation, researchers, community members and key decision-makers to sustain the delicate balance between urban development and wildlife preservation.

One of the noteworthy elements of such engagement is a vulture study project funded by The Rufford Foundation Small Grant. The study aims to establish the breeding population of vulture species within Nairobi National Park and its dispersal habitats and to raise community awareness on the plight of vulture conservation. Through such efforts, community engagement, and sustainable tourism practices, Nairobi National Park KBA stands as a beacon of success in the realm of urban conservation, offering a blueprint for other metropolitan areas facing similar challenges.