Wetlands and biodiversity

February 2 is World Wetlands Day. This day commemorates the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention) in Ramsar, Iran, 49 years ago. It’s also a day set aside to raise public awareness on wetland values to promote their conservation and wise use.

Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems on earth. Wetlands provide water for daily use, soils for agriculture, fish for food, pasture for cattle and materials for construction. Millions of people across the world, including Kenya, directly depend on them for their livelihoods! These unique ecosystems also provide essential services such as flood control, water filtration, protecting soil from erosion and carbon sequestration (removing carbon from the atmosphere and depositing it in a reservoir – in this case, in plants).

We dedicate this issue to highlighting some of the measures being undertaken by Nature Kenya to conserve two of the country’s most important wetlands – the Tana River Delta and Yala Swamp.

The Tana River Delta

The Tana River Delta is an unprotected wetland on the Kenyan coast. The Delta, a designated Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), covers 130,000 ha and is Kenya’s largest wetland. The Tana River Delta is also a designated Ramsar site – a recognized wetland of global importance. The Delta's abundant biodiversity is a reflection of its rich and diverse habitats which comprise of a vast patchwork of palm savannah, seasonally flooded grassland, forest fragments, acacia woodlands, lakes, marine wetlands and the river itself. The Tana River Delta is, therefore, one of the most important wetlands in Africa.

The Tana River Delta is also known for being a highly fragile and dynamic wetland system, flooding in times of good rain and drying off again. Over the years, Nature Kenya has been working with the people of the Delta, seeking to maintain a balance as any small change in the hydrological system could potentially upset the delicate natural balance, disrupting the ecosystem.

Nature Kenya is currently involved in the implementation of the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan (LUP). The LUP’s implementation process seeks to ensure that biodiversity needs are considered in the planning of development activities within the Delta. In the past, during planning processes, the intangible ecosystem services offered by the Delta were often overlooked.

The Tana Delta LUP was developed between 2011 and 2016 in a process that brought together local communities, over 18 government ministries and departments, the county governments of Tana River and Lamu, and international planning experts who offered technical assistance. The process aimed at striking a balance between human development needs and the conservation of biodiversity. A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) informed the development of the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan, unlike all other planning processes previously conducted in the country.

Through a Darwin Initiative funded project, local communities, county governments of Tana River and Lamu and national government agencies with the support of Nature Kenya have identified 95,000 ha out of the 130,000 ha in the Delta for the establishment of Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs). As part of the implementation of the Land Use Plan, Nature Kenya is supporting the designation of ICCAs to conserve important cultural values and biodiversity and also promote ecotourism. The ICCAs will ensure that biodiversity conservation is recognized as a key use for land equal to other uses such as farming, pastoralism and fishing. Nature Kenya has also targeted the restoration of at least 10,000 ha of land to enable and foster the increased survival of biodiversity.

Currently, Nature Kenya is engaging and supporting local communities to promote sustainable crop, livestock and fish farming, ecotourism, beekeeping and other nature-based enterprises. This will complement and support the conservation of wildlife and other forms of biodiversity. All stakeholders, including the National and County government ministries and departments, community-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, local communities and private investors, are being encouraged to take action towards a sustainably managed Tana Delta. The Tana Delta Conservation Network – the Tana River Delta KBA site support group – is the taking lead in coordinating conservation activities within the community areas.

To further ensure that biodiversity conservation has support at the village level and that local communities own the process, Nature Kenya has formed Village Natural Resource and Land Use committees in all Delta villages to facilitate governance, conservation and development actions.

Yala Swamp

Yala swamp lies on the north-eastern shore of Lake Victoria. The swamp is Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland (the Tana Delta is both freshwater and marine), a Key Biodiversity Area and a proposed Ramsar site. Thousands of communities depend on the wetland for fishing and farming as core backbone livelihood activities.

The wetland, however, faces a myriad threats. Over-exploitation of its natural resources is one major threat. Others are encroachment, habitat degradation and biodiversity loss. Through a multi-stakeholder approach, Nature Kenya worked with local communities and the Siaya and Busia county governments to develop a Land Use Plan to balance the various interests within the wetland. This plan has been endorsed by H.E. Cornel Rasanga, Governor Siaya County, H.E. Sospeter Ojaamong’, Governor Busia County and H.E. The Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga, Prime Minister, Republic of Kenya (2008-2013) and African Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development.

Nature Kenya, through funding from the Darwin Initiative, is now keen on supporting the adoption and implementation of the Land Use Plan to ensure development overall is sustainable and compatible with biodiversity protection. As part of the implementation of the Land Use Plan, Nature Kenya is supporting the designation of ICCAs to conserve important cultural values and biodiversity and also promote ecotourism. Initial sensitization meetings with the national and county administration are on-going, spearheaded by the Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group (the Yala Swamp KBA site support group). Awareness creation meetings on ICCAs will culminate into the formation of village-level Natural Resource and Land Use Committees. The Land Use committees will be supported to deliver ICCA conservation actions on the ground. The Land Use committees will also be an integral part of the ICCA governance structure.

Promoting climate resilience in Taita

Communities across Kenya are not only feeling the presence of climate variability and change but also its impacts. Climate change has resulted in prolonged drought, and high incidence of pests and diseases, affecting livestock and crop production negatively. This year the ‘long rains’ were late and short while the ‘short rains’ were long and heavy. Through the ‘People Partner with Nature’ program, Nature Kenya has been supporting initiatives aimed at helping communities in Taita and Kilifi counties adapt to climate change through participatory forest and natural resource management.


In Taita Hills, community members are employing various adaptation strategies to counter the effects of climate change. Climate-smart agriculture is one such approach. It refers to agricultural practices geared at sustainably increasing productivity, building resilience to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate-smart agriculture includes the integration of tree planting with crop and livestock production as a package. Six self-help groups affiliated to Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Group (DaBiCo), the Taita Hills forests’ site support group, have embraced this approach.  The groups are Ndiwenyi Community Unit, Ngangao Farmers Group, Mwavunyu Chakiloli, Iyale Angamiza, Wuchichi Self Help Group and Mghange Dawida Mazingira.


The groups have established kitchen gardens on which they grow high-value crops. These include vegetables like cabbages, tomatoes, capsicum, courgette, black nightshade – locally known as managu – and onions. Vegetables are preferred because they are fast-growing and yield good returns. One benefit of the kitchen garden model is that it utilizes space efficiently, maximizing productivity.

The communities use hybrid seeds, organic manure and drip irrigation technologies to further enhance crop production. Planting of fruit and fodder trees is another practice being promoted under the climate-smart agriculture approach. The trees planted on farms also provide building materials and fuel wood. Other practices include application of soil and water conservation techniques and use of crop residue as livestock feed.  These practices improve soil moisture and organic matter retention and mitigate the risk of erosion.

The Taita Hills comprise two main mountain massifs, Mbololo and Dawida, rising from the dryland below. The forests that remain on the hilltops are extensively fragmented. Taita Hills forests are part of the Eastern Arc mountains, one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots, and are ranked as one of Kenya’s Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). Two Critically Endangered birds are only found in these forest remnants: Taita Thrush and Taita Apalis. Severe fragmentation, isolation and decline in quality and extent of indigenous forest cover in Taita Hills pose major threats which affect the breeding success and survival of the two bird species. Helping the community to conserve the forests is therefore vitally important.

The ‘People Partner with Nature’ program is supporting communities living adjacent to the Taita Hills forests to engage in income-generating activities, such as butterfly farming, beekeeping, eco-tourism, climate-smart agriculture, among others, that reduce pressure on the environment. The program is being implemented in partnership with DOF (BirdLife in Denmark) with financial support from DANIDA/CISU. The overall objective of the program is to ‘reduce the destruction of forested KBAs and contribute to the realization of best participatory forest management practices for the benefit of all.’ This program is also running in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Dakatcha Woodland in Kilifi county.

Lake Ol’ Bolossat now protected!

An aerial view of Lake Ol Bolossat. PHOTO: A. WAMITI
An aerial view of Lake Ol Bolossat. PHOTO: A. WAMITI

Lake Ol’ Bolossat, an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, is now formally a protected area. This follows the recent gazettement of the lake as a Wetland Protected Area. The immediate former Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Prof. Judi Wakhungu, made the announcement during this year’s World Wetlands Day on the shores of the lake in Nyandarua County.

The Wildlife Conservation and Management (Protected Wetlands) Regulations of 2015 give the Cabinet Secretary powers to declare a wetland, through a notice in the Kenya Gazette, an important habitat or ecosystem for wildlife conservation upon the recommendation of the Kenya Wildlife Service in consultation with the National Land Commission. The gazette notice will make it clear whether Lake Ol’ Bolossat will be managed as a fully or partially protected wetland or will be subject to conservation by the local community.
Following the declaration, National Lands Commission chairman Mohammed Swazuri, who was also in attendance, said all title deeds for the land stood dissolved. Swazuri noted that according to Sections 10, 11 and 12 of Lands Act 2012, the issuance of a gazette notice means the title deed of the land in question and any others prior to the notice ceases.

Lake Ol’ Bolossat is the only lake in central Kenya. The lake forms the headwaters for the Ewaso Nyiro River, which supports the livelihoods of communities, livestock and wildlife in the dry Laikipia, Samburu, Isiolo and Garissa Counties. Despite its small size (43.3km2) the freshwater lake is known for its rich biodiversity that include hippos and over 300 bird species (both residents and migrants). The lake lies within the central tourism circuit, and supplies Nyahururu town with water. The Ewaso Nyiro River supports the thriving wildlife tourism in Buffalo Springs, Shaba National Reserve, and Lorian swamp in Wajir, where the river goes underground, to re-emerge in Somalia where it joins the Jubba River.

Over the years, Lake Ol’ Bolossat has been experiencing massive shrinking as a result of human activity. In the last one decade, the lake’s  water surface area has gone from about 10,000 hectares to 3,000 hectares, escalating human-wildlife conflict as wild animals, particularly hippos, lose their habitat. As an unprotected wetland, the lake has been battling numerous challenges and threats including water abstraction, overgrazing, human encroachment, deforestation of catchment areas and siltation.

It is hoped that the gazettement will provide the crucial legal framework to guide the conservation of the lake. Nature Kenya has been actively engaged in advocacy and awareness creation activities to help the lake attain legal protection and conservation.