Remembering ‘Mzee’ David Charo Ngala

The late Mzee David Charo Ngala's love affair with Arabuko-Sokoke Forest started in 1970 when he landed a casual job at the Gede Forest Station. A year later, Ngala was recruited by the then Forest Department (FD) as a nursery attendant. From then on, Ngala moved to different positions within the FD in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, from nursery attendant to stores attendant and finally to driver. As a driver, he had the opportunity to venture into the forest and its various stations.

Ngala's knowledge of Arabuko-Sokoke grew with time, cementing his fondness for the forest. In 1983, he started guiding researchers into the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, as he was, at that time, the only person knowledgeable about it. These research expeditions exposed him to the scientific aspects of the forest. Ngala's interest in the birds, insects, reptiles, mammals and trees of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest kindled his appreciation of its biodiversity value. A key species he specialized in was the Sokoke Scops Owl. 

Ngala guided many researchers in their studies of the Sokoke Scops Owl, including Munir Virani, who later became a raptor specialist. Other researchers he worked with were Leon Bennun, John Fanshawe, Paul Matiku (currently Executive Director of Nature Kenya) and Colin Jackson. The number of researchers and bird watchers visiting the forest grew following each round of research work and publications, attracting younger community members mentored by Ngala to join in and assist. They included Willy Kombe in 1992 and Jonathan Baya, Emmanuel Thoya and Bakari George in 1994. Others joined later including Albert Baya and Jonathan Mwachongo. These individuals developed into research assistants and bird guides of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. These young guides would later undergo professional training and establish and register the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Guides Association in 1996.

In 1995, Arabuko-Sokoke Forest faced the threat of excision by the government around Roka and Mpendala areas. Ngala responded to the threat by mobilizing communities to oppose the move. This action led to the formation of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (ASFADA). Community opposition to annexing the forest bore fruit, with ASFADA prevailing as a forest conservation lobby group. 

ASFADA was instrumental in piloting Participatory Forest Management (PFM) from 1997 to 2002 in Dida, west of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Ngala’s birthplace. The PFM pilot process culminated in the drafting of the Forests Act (2005), which formed the legal foundation for community participation in the management of forests in Kenya. Ngala contributed immensely to this process that led to the current forest conservation and management system.

Ngala worked for the government in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest for 37 years, retiring in 2007. His love and commitment to the forest transcended beyond his formal employment. With support from friends, Ngala continued working as a guide, research assistant and a community mobilizer in Arabuko-Sokoke. 

On several occasions, Ngala would camp at different locations in the forest, armed with a pair of binoculars, GPS, notebook and data sheets to gather information on happenings around the forest. Year in, year out, he would walk hundreds of kilometres in the forest each year to remove snares, record cut stems and observe tens of biodiversity parameters. 

Ngala once said to me: “When I die in the forest, don’t look for me.”  This statement best summarises his resolve to remain in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest his entire life. At that time it sounded awkward to me, but that was the real Ngala. He gave 52 years of his 70 years of life to the forest. 

Though his age had advanced, he never showed signs of slowing down. Until his untimely demise through a motorcycle accident on 7th June 2022, Ngala was able to do three 1km transects in a day which is herculean task to younger people. His illustrious life, exploits and commitment to the conservation of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest will remain unparalleled for a long time. 

Fare thee well, Mzee Ngala.  

Tribute by Francis Kagema

2022 World Environment Day summary

On June 5th, we, and the world, marked World Environment Day. This year the event called for transformative changes to policies and choices to enable cleaner, greener, and sustainable living in harmony with nature under the #OnlyOneEarth campaign. Humans need to decide to live sustainably, in harmony with nature, by shifting to greener lifestyles and by making suitable policies and individual choices. “Only One Earth” was the motto of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. Fifty years on, the motto is more pertinent than ever – planet Earth is our only home, and humanity must safeguard its finite resources.

 The national celebrations took place in Nyeri county at the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology. Nature Kenya supported and took part in the event. Elsewhere, 16 site support groups (SSGs) affiliated with Nature Kenya, and other partners, held activities to mark the day. The SSGs were from Dakatcha Woodland, Taita hills, Kinangop grasslands, Yala and Dunga swamps, Tana River Delta, Maasai Mara, Mida Creek, Sabaki River estuary, Kikuyu escarpment, Mukurwe-ini valleys, Kakamega forest, Arabuko-Sokoke forest, Mount Kenya, North Nandi forest, Mumoni and Mutitu hilltops Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).  

 Activities held by the SSGs during the day included clean-ups, tree planting, bird watching and environmental education and awareness creation, with 2,479 individuals, including school children, participating. Eight SSGs planted over 10,000 trees to mark the day. 

Supporting local communities to reverse forest loss and deterioration

Forests cover nearly one-third of our planet’s land surface and host more than three-quarters of the terrestrial biodiversity. Unfortunately, their decline around the world over the years has been alarming. The Taita hills, for example, have lost approximately 98 per cent of their original montane cloud forests over the last 200 years due to land use changes. Twelve forest fragments restricted to the highest peaks and steepest slopes currently remain, with their sizes ranging from one to 220 hectares.

The Taita hills cover an area of 35,000 ha in southern Kenya, 50 kilometers south-east of the world-famous Tsavo West National Park. Their forests hold a unique array of plants and animals, some found nowhere else on Earth. These forests form part of the Eastern Afromontane Biodiversity Hotspot. They are designated as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) and an Endemic Bird Area.

Working closely with local communities in the area, Nature Kenya is implementing a project that seeks to conserve and expand existing forests fragments in Taita hills. This project, supported by the Darwin Initiative, also aims at safeguarding the unique biodiversity of Taita and improve water security for people.

Forest landscape restoration is one of the activities the project is undertaking. Sixty hectares of degraded forestland are targeted for restoration using two approaches.

One approach involves directly planting wild tree seeds in degraded areas. In the second method, indigenous tree seedlings propagated in community nurseries are planted instead. Community members collect wild tree seeds for both.

Local people drawn from the Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Community-based Organization (DABICO) and five community forest associations (CFAs) are engaged in the restoration initiative. DABICO is the site support group for the Taita hills forests KBA. The CFAs are from Ngangao, Susu-Ndiwenyi-Fururu, Iyale-Wesu-Mbili, Chawia and Vuria forests.   Nature Kenya has facilitated training on wild tree seed collection and tree nursery establishment for the community members.

To date, 25 hectares of degraded forest areas have been restored with 34,000 indigenous tree seedlings from nine community tree nurseries. Areas restored include the Chawia, Iyale, Ngangao and Msidunyi forest segments.

“We are raising tree nurseries to restore degraded forest areas in Taita hills. We are also raising community awareness on the importance of forest restoration. It is good to see our communities embracing forest restoration,” says John Maghanga, a member of DABICO.

Community members closely monitor the rehabilitated sites to ensure survival of the planted trees.

Nature Kenya is also promoting on-farm tree planting to increase tree cover and boost community livelihoods in Taita under this project. More than 800 households within the project area have received 8,000 avocado and macadamia seedlings for on-farm planting.

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.

Tales from the Wild: In Pursuit of the Sokoke Scops Owl

It was on a Friday, the last day of our community-led Sokoke Scops Owl survey, and my colleagues and I drove smoothly up the wide and well-surfaced Malindi-Tsavo East road towards Jilore. Our mission was to find a forest track and lay transects for the survey.

“Only three more transects to go,” I encouraged my colleagues.

We came to a stop adjacent to the famous Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, parked and locked up the vehicle. An electric fence separated us from the forest, so we crawled under. Once inside, we walked parallel to the fence, looking for a track.

After trekking for a while, we came to a clear track running deep into the forest. I, playing the role of supervisor this night, alerted the local forester of our presence and we ventured further inward, even as dusk was rapidly falling. Nothing could have prepared us for what was coming.

The Endangered Sokoke Scops Owl is one of six unique species of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. This diminutive owl is a habitat specialist. It has only been recorded in Cynometra webberi/Brachylaena huillensis forests and woodlands on the East African coast, from Dakatcha Woodland on Kenya’s north coast to the Usambara Mountains in north-eastern Tanzania.

Like the other 16 owl species found in Kenya, Sokoke Scops Owls, are predominantly nocturnal, active from dusk to dawn. Their large forward-facing eyes give them superior vision at night. This, combined with their sharp hearing, enable them to spot prey in darkness. Unlike other owls that feed on arthropods, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds, the Sokoke Scops Owl’s diet consists mainly of insects. Beetles and weevils are favorites. Grasshoppers, crickets, wasps, bees, and ants have also been identified as part of their diet.

Available data indicates that the owl’s population has remained relatively stable for the past 20 years or so.

However, the most recent data (an Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (ASFADA) survey) showed a southerly shift in the distribution of the bird’s population. Changing forest conditions in previously “preferred” habitat around Jilore and Komani were listed as probable causes.

Collecting data on the Sokoke Scops Owl is quite a daunting task. The surveys take months (November through to December), and take place at night (between 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.). Working in a forest filled with over 300 elephants is not for the faint-hearted. But to the citizen scientists or community volunteers that undertake the surveys, it is worth the risk posed by elephants to determine the status of the Sokoke Scops Owl. The volunteers involved include notable veteran guides Willy Kombe and ‘Mzee’ David Ngala, both of whom have been involved in countless research projects in this forest since 1990.

Survey teams are provided with equipment that includes data sheets, high-powered flashlights, GPS receivers, and machetes – all part of the daily routine. Every team comprises of three individuals each having a specialised task. There is an observer or owl whistler, a keen listener able to distinguish the Sokoke Scops Owl call from other forest sounds, which might be crickets, frogs, nightjars, bush babies, and other owl species. Next in line is a clerk or data recorder, followed by the navigator-cum-security officer tasked with reading the GPS and clearing the way for the other two.

Operations start just before dusk every day. Teams are assigned a starting point to a transect running along existing roads or old tracks, each for one kilometre. A supervisor coordinates the nightly effort and ensures the teams get to the forest and are dropped off at the right spots. Knowledge of the forest’s geography is important as a missed turn can lead to one getting lost.

Once a team is dropped off, a mark is made by cutting a twig (bush experience comes in handy). Each group makes marks to indicate the direction they have taken. There have been a few instances where groups have not marked their movement, sending the coordinating supervisor on a “wild goose drive” in the night.

On this night the fear of encountering elephants lingered in everyone’s mind, but nobody talked about it as we kept busy with our tasks. We were heading for our fifth stop when a thumping sound suddenly startled us. In the darkness, we could make out a silhouette of a charging elephant. Our survival instincts immediately kicked in. We dived into a nearby bush and lay listening as the elephant crushed trees along its path. Once again, we found ourselves crawling, only that this time, it was to save ourselves. Lucky for us, two spontaneous decisions we made paid off – the first was to move away from the road as we couldn’t outrun the elephant. Secondly, we stuck together. We remained on the ground motionless for two hours, before we attempted to head back to the road. Disoriented, we found ourselves going back in the wrong direction. Our GPS receiver had gone off. Somehow, after a long struggle we managed to get back to the vehicle. How we managed to escape with just a few bruises and only lost a pair of spectacles is a miracle.

This article first appeared in Issue 14, Kenya Birding magazine