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Kenya's Mau forest under threat

Historic forest is economic lifeline to country but is being rapidly eroded.

A Kenya Wildlife Service ranger patrols a section of the Mau Forest burned by encroaching farmers in Kenya's southern Rift Valley. (Tugela Ridley/GlobalPost)

NAROK, Kenya — For nine days Peter Nyaga watched as the Naituipak section of Mau Forest  burned. The park ranger was helpless against the raging bush fire that destroyed acre after acre of wooded hillside.

Encroaching farmers deliberately lit that fire. Elsewhere the 988,000 acre Mau Forest is eaten up by land grabbers, some of whom are invading farmers, others the recipients of ‘land for votes’.

Unlicensed timber felling and illegal charcoal production is also taking its toll. It is estimated that a staggering 222,000 acres has already been destroyed.

“If this does not stop the forest will be decimated,” warned Tuqa Jirmo, Kenya Wildlife Service chief warden for the Mau Forest, based near Narok in the southern Rift Valley. The problem is that this dwindling montane forest keeps Kenya alive acting as a huge water tower feeding a dozen rivers and five lakes.

The rivers power Kenya’s hydroelectric stations fuelling economic growth; many of the country’s most famous tourist destinations rely on the rivers for their survival; and the moisture trapped in the forest provides ideal conditions for growing tea, one of Kenya’s key export earners.

“Deforestation affects the drivers of our economy: tourism, agriculture and hydropower,” explained Jackson Bambo at the Kenya Forest Working Group in Nairobi. “If the Mau disappeared our lakes would silt up, it would kill our tourism industry and power costs for
the common man would increase hugely.”

In some areas of the Mau, the thick forest has been replaced by grasslands dotted with tree stumps or neat fields of wheat and maize. Every day trucks loaded with hardwoods worth tens of thousands of dollars drive out of the forest and makeshift earth-covered kilns turn decades-old trees into $15 sacks of charcoal.

At this time of year thousands of tourists from around the world visit the famous Masai Mara National Reserve to watch the antelope ‘migration’ as millions of wildebeest make their annual charge northwards in search of grazing pastures.

This year there are fears that the destruction of the Mau Forest might mean the end of the natural spectacle as the Mara River that runs from the Mau Forest feeds the Masai Mara (as well as Tanzania’s renowned Serengeti National Park).