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.

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. 

National Site Support Group Workshop Update

Nature Kenya works with 30 Site Support Groups (SSGs) to implement biodiversity conservation actions in 27 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) stretching from the coastal, eastern, and central to the Rift Valley and western regions of the country. Every year, Nature Kenya organizes a National SSG Workshop where representatives from these community groups meet to share their experiences and learn lessons and best practices for biodiversity conservation.

In 2023, the National SSG Workshop took place in December in Nairobi. Under the theme Local Actions Safeguarding Nature and Livelihoods, the workshop focused on how SSGs are undertaking conservation actions within their localities while improving the livelihoods of communities. Sixty representatives (18 women and 42 men) from 28 SSGs attended the workshop. The 4-day engagement saw the SSGs share their experiences in forest and landscape restoration, site monitoring, locally-led advocacy, participation in policy and legislation formulation and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes, promotion of green value chain and climate-smart production, leadership and governance, resource mobilization, communication and marketing.

The 28 SSGs represented at the workshop made presentations about their 2023 achievements and challenges. The SSGs also used the workshop to set conservation targets for their sites for the year 2024.

Communities embrace Participatory Forest Management (PFM) in Tana River Delta

 By Milka Musyoka 

In the heart of the Tana River Delta lie lush expanses of terrestrial and mangrove forests. These forests are treasure troves of biodiversity and are a source of sustenance for the local communities. Over the years, these vital landscapes have undergone massive degradation, resulting in habitat and biodiversity loss. In response to the forest degradation threat, communities in Mpozi, Chara, Kilelengwani and Kipini in the Delta are embracing participatory forest management (PFM). The PFM entails the legal transfer of forest resources (use rights) from the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to community forest associations (CFAs). This transfer is enabled by, and dependent upon a negotiated and documented Forest Management Agreement (FMA).

The PFM process is not just a bureaucratic procedure but a collaborative effort that places the destiny of the forests in the hands of those who call it home. Community members actively involved in this transformative process have witnessed firsthand the positive impact it has on their well-being.

“The journey began with a series of community consultations and workshops where the diverse voices of the forest-adjacent residents were heard. This inclusive approach ensured that the PFM process truly reflects the aspirations and concerns of our community,” says Said Nyara, the chairperson of Mpozi CFA.

Through lively discussions and shared insights, the communities collectively identified the unique ecological features of their forests, acknowledged the resources they offer, and resolved to address the challenges they face, adds Nyara.

Nature Kenya, in collaboration with Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI), organised training workshops for the communities to equip them with the requisite knowledge and skills for effective forest management.

“These training sessions have empowered us with the necessary skills to manage and conserve our forests. From gaining insights into sustainable harvesting practices to developing the ability to identify signs of ecosystem distress, my community is steadily growing more proficient in its role as guardians of Ozi forest,” says Nyara.

In October 2023, Mpozi, Chara, Kilelengawani and Kipini CFAs signed forest management agreements with KFS. The signing event took place in Chara and marked a transformative move toward locally-led initiatives for sustainable forest conservation and management. This shift is crucial for mitigating climate change impacts on local communities. It also holds the potential to improve living standards through the sustainable use of forest resources such as firewood. The PFM process extends beyond environmental concerns, signalling a devolved approach that empowers local communities to plan, seek financing and implement sustainable development livelihood options.

“Signing these agreements is a strong affirmation of our dedication to conserving forests in recognition of the fact that their health is inseparable from the well-being of our communities,” says Nyara.

The four CFAs have also developed PFM plans to guide their engagements. As an ongoing process, the PFM plans are envisaged to adapt and respond to the changing community and forest needs. Through continued collaboration, monitoring, and adaptation, the process will contribute to the resilience and vitality of the forest.

Nature Kenya supported the development of the PFM plans by helping to mediate potential internal conflicts that could have hindered their implementation. The collaborative effort between the communities, county and national government agencies, and conservation organizations is a testament to the positive outcomes that can emerge when stakeholders unite for a common cause. The journey towards sustainable forest management in the Tana River Delta is a beacon of hope, demonstrating the potential for harmony between human development and environmental preservation.