Getting to know our grasses

Grasses are the most familiar plants, but few people recognise just how much they are both diverse and interesting. There are close to 700 species of grasses described from Kenya, and about 1,000 species in East Africa. Worldwide there are over 12,000 species and all grasses are part of a single plant family, the Poaceae. Humans, livestock and wildlife all benefit from grasses, most significantly from the food they provide. 

Waxbills, and other birds in the Estrilidae family, including including firefinches, pytilias and cordon-bleus, along with seedeaters feed mostly on grass seeds. While the seeds of grasses are typically rather tiny, they are an extremely rich source of food that is available in abundance when conditions are right. Other birds like guineafowl, francolins, and even the giant, majestic Ostrich will consume grass seeds when they are seasonally available. 

While I was working on the guide ‘Grasses of East Africa’, I spent a lot of time watching birds and other creatures interacting with grasses. One such occasion was on a visit to the Cynometra-Manilkara habitat of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest on Kenya’s north coast. It was one of those wonderful moments, following good rains, where carpets of grass had covered the sandy red soil. As the rains had been especially good, these grasses had flowered and set seeds. 

From a distance, with some friends, I watched as a flock of Crested Guineafowl moved slowly through the grass. This was slightly puzzling, as typically these flighty fowl flee on being spotted! Creeping closer, we were able to see that they were completely focused on picking off the ripening grass seeds. With incredible dexterity, they moved along pulling off individual seeds with a deft peck-and-tug motion. They were so focused on their task that we were able to get really close and watch them at work. Even the appearance of a Sokoke bushy-tailed mongoose, that dashed across the road, only elicited a brief squawk of alarm before they returned to their feast. 

Grasses also serve many different birds as an important source of material for building their nests. The weavers are the true artists at using grasses to create incredible works of art and shelter. I have had the pleasure of watching a number of different weaverbirds build their nests both out in the bush and around my house. 

The Vitelline Masked Weaver makes its nest almost entirely out of the leaves and stems of grasses, including tall Guinea Grass (Panicum maximum). Despite their nest-building being a noisy chaotic affair, with males competing, stealing and sabotaging each other, they harvest and carefully weave grass together to form a neat, compact oval-shaped nest. Another species, the White-Browed Sparrow- Weavers use dry grasses to 

build, dense, untidy nests. They are fond of nesting near people and their loud, scratchy calls are a part of life in many parts of Kenya. 

Copies of the ‘Grasses of East Africa’ are available from the Nature Kenya bookshop at the National Museums of Kenya at Ksh. 2,000

Insects too, live, feed and flourish within grasses, which in turn provide sustenance for a host of birds, reptiles, mammals and even other arthropods. Without the grasses, none of these creatures would be able to survive. 

As everyone who has lived and travelled in East Africa can attest, just a couple days of rain can turn an entire landscape green. Where there was dust and despair previously, life bounces and erupts with abundance. This first flush of growth and life is mostly thanks to grasses, which are one of the most resilient groups of plants on our planet. They have the ability to grow quickly and produce new shoots, allowing for new growth after just a little rain. 

For the past 30 years I’ve had the pleasure of studying and exploring this amazing group of plants. Grasses are not easily identified and, perhaps for this reason, they have been largely overlooked by even seasoned naturalists and ecologists. My hope in writing a general guide on grasses is to inspire people to pay them more attention, learn their natural history, and better understand their intricate connections with other species. 

This article by Dino Martins was first published in the Kenya Birding magazine, issue 16.

 

The people of Yala Swamp need your help to defend their precious wetland

Nature Kenya has learned that the National Land Commission (NLC) plans to push ahead with the controversial allocation of 6,763.74 ha of Yala Swamp to Lake Agro Ltd despite sustained objections from communities and other stakeholders.

The intended move by NLC grossly violates the rights and betrays the trust of indigenous Yala communities - the rightful custodians of the communal land, compromises the communities' livelihoods and threatens the wetland's unique biodiversity.

In their Yala Swamp Determination paper 74, NLC says that the Siaya County Government applied to allocate the parcels of land to Lake Agro Ltd with a contested Part Development Plan and Survey Plans. The commission acknowledges that public participation concerns were raised during the planning process.

As part of its determination on the matter, NLC instructs the Siaya County Government to submit to it, within two weeks, detailed evidence of multi-stakeholder, inclusive and meaningful public participation in the planning process. It is well known to NLC that the surveys done by the Siaya County Government on the parcels allocated to Lake Agro Ltd were dubiously conducted, with little input from the communities. As such, any request for evidence of the same by NLC equates to insincerity, trivialisation of the issue, and betrayal of trust bestowed on them by the communities.

A land-use plan for Yala Swamp is in place. The Yala Delta Land Use Plan (LUP) was developed collaboratively by Yala Swamp stakeholders and the Siaya and Busia counties governments. Both governors from the two counties endorsed the plan. The Busia County Assembly went further and adopted the LUP as a policy. Yala communities recognize the LUP as a negotiated framework that guides the sustainable use of resources within the wetland and surrounding areas. Yala communities wonder why the allocation in the PDP varies significantly with the LUP recommendations.

During the public hearings conducted by NLC, 21 entities, including community, civic and governmental organizations, presented strong objections to the proposed allocation. Their grounds for objections were rooted in human rights violations, threats to community livelihoods, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity, as captured in NLC's paper. But, the NLC, has ignored all the objections. Who is NLC representing? The people or the developer?

Kenyans expect NLC to make a decision that respects the constitutional ownership rights of the communities in Yala, recognizes the ecological value of Yala Swamp, and promotes the preservation of the wetland for prosperity. Anything short of these minimal expectations is unacceptable and must be rejected.

What you can do to support the people of Yala Swamp

We urge you all to stand with the Yala Swamp communities in objecting the planned allocation of the wetland to a private developer. You can support by:

  1. Signing our petition here: https://bit.ly/3beRngg or;
  2. Submitting objection letters to the Chairman of the National Land Commission (info@landcommission.go.ke), Cabinet Secretary Lands (P.O. Box 30450 – 00100 Nairobi or info@ardhi.go.ke), Cabinet Secretary Environment (P.O. Box 30126 – 00100 Nairobi or cs@environment.go.ke) and copy to the Siaya County Government (P.O. Box 803 – 40600 Siaya or clerk@siayaassembly.go.ke or info@siaya.go.ke).

Rare plant in Kilifi is under threat from limestone mining

Coastal Kenya holds many secrets. Among them is the rocky outcrop of Cha Simba in Kilifi County, which shelters some of the world’s most iconic and rarest plants.

Hidden below the trees that cling to the rock outcrops is one of Africa’s most famous plants, the African violet, generally known as Saintpaulia. The plants at Cha Simba are now specifically classified as Streptocarpus ionanthus subspecies rupicola. This subspecies is found in the wild only in Kenya, nowhere else in the world.

“African violets are popular house plants. But only three populations of this subspecies are known in the wild, only in Kilifi, and all of them are in danger of extinction,” notes Dr Cornelius Kyalo, a botanist who has studied the genetics and ecology of the African violet at Cha Simba.

Thirty other plant species clinging to Cha Simba rocky outcrop are classified as threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

And now extinction is a real prospect! A mining company, Mashujaa Q&M PLC, is planning to mine the Cha Simba rock outcrop for limestone. The company and its Environmental and Social Impact Assessment submitted to National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) are apparently unaware of the unique natural heritage threatened by their project.

Every extinction is tragic. An African violet and the other Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable plants do not need to be sacrificed for a little cement.

“It is critical that Kenya is seen to meet its obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity,” says Paul Matiku, Director of Nature Kenya. “Under this convention, it is Kenya’s obligation to protect all globally threatened species that occur in Kenya. The proposed limestone mining will wipe out this subspecies.”

Nature Kenya is appealing to the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage, the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, the National Environment Management Authority and the County Government of Kilifi to stop this move to extinction!

Nature Kenya is also urging the government to place Cha Simba rock outcrop under official protection and requesting mining companies to avoid Coastal limestone outcrops with unique plant species.

Promoting climate-smart agriculture in Yala Swamp

Agriculture is the source of livelihood for thousands of communities in Kenya, and food for us all. Unfortunately, climate change effects such as reduced or unpredictable rainfall and prolonged drought spells have had devastating effects on crop production. Many rural communities bear the brunt of these negative impacts, often being left vulnerable with little or no food.

To help communities better cope with current and future climate variability, Nature Kenya is promoting the adoptionof climate-smart agriculture in Yala Swamp. Under the AfriEvolve Project, local communities are being facilitated to acquire necessary skills and inputs to be more resilient to climate change effects on farming.

Through the project, supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and NABU (BirdLife partner in Germany), 150 farmers have been identified and supported to sustainably grow high-value climate-resilient vegetables and cereals under rain-fed agriculture. The vegetable and cereal types grown are fast maturing, require little rainfall and produce better yields than current crops. These farmers have received seeds and on-site technical support.

The project is also supporting agroforestry. Four community-based tree nursery groups were supported with equipment and seeds to produce tree seedlings for shade, fodder, firewood and fruit. Over 100,000 tree seedlings have been produced. Out of this, 51,000 tree seedlings are ready for planting to restore degraded riparian areas along River Yala and to establish woodlots. Twelve other community tree nurseries have been identified for agroforestry support. Kenya Forest Service (KFS) provides technical support for tree seedlings production.

Fish and poultry farming and beekeeping are the other nature-based enterprises promoted by Nature Kenya in Yala under this project. Three community-run fish ponds have been stocked with 3,000 tilapia fingerlings, with 30 fish farmers being trained on the basics of climate-smart fish production, formulation of quality feeds, packaging, storage and marketing technologies.

A poultry unit has been established and stocked with 200 improved indigenous chicken chicks, feeds and related equipment. Establishment of a second unit is underway. Communities have also been supplied with 100 modern beehives, honey harvesting gear and a processing unit.

The project lays emphasis on the transfer of knowledge and skills. Groups of crop farmers, fish farmers, poultry farmers and beekeepers have undergone training as ‘trainer of trainers’ (ToTs). Some of the things they have learned include bookeeping, value addition, packaging and marketing.

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

Conserving the Hinde’s Babbler in Mumoni and Mutitu

Local communities living near important natural habitats play a crucial role in conserving the unique wildlife found in these areas. Many wild animals in Kenya, including birds, live outside protected areas, in the community or privately owned land. By monitoring the state of birds and their habitats, these communities contribute immensely to tending to nature.

Birds are good indicators of the health of our environment. They are widespread, easy to spot and are considered important in cultures of various communities.

Hinde’s Babbler is a rare bird found only in Kenya. This bird is threatened and occurs in fragmented populations within a 1,900km2 range in Meru, Embu, Nyeri, Muranga, Kiambu, Nairobi, Machakos and Kitui counties. Hinde’s Babblers live in groups, occupying a specific territory in thickets and woodlands in semi-arid areas and moist, fertile land cleared for farming but with fragments of shrub thickets. In eastern Kitui, Hinde’s Babblers live in Mumoni and Mutitu Hills Forest Reserves and surrounding valleys dominated by Lantana camara and indigenous thickets.

Communities in these two sites are undertaking several initiatives to conserve the Hinde’s Babbler and its habitat. Working closely with Nature Kenya and the National Museums of Kenya, members of the Mumoni and Mutitu Site Support Groups (SSGs) have mapped areas where the birds live. Constant monitoring of these areas is ongoing to observe any changes or disturbunces. In addition, the two SSGs are conducting public awareness sessions within their localities. These sessions seek to sensitize local communities on the importance of conserving the Hinde’s Babbler’s natural habitat.

Knowledge of the bird amongst the local communities is steadily increasing in Mumoni and Mutitu. This is exemplified by the communities’ willingness to maintain and restore suitable habitats for the birds. The SSGs are also actively engaged in forest restoration activities.