Kenya's Mau forest under threat

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In some areas of the Mau, the thick forest has been replaced by grasslands dotted with tree stumps or neat fields of wheat and maize.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).

The destruction of the Mau Forest means there is no control of the flow of water causing dry rivers and flooding disturbing the natural cycle on which the wilderbeest, and the other wild animals, rely. “Without the Mau there will be no Masai Mara,” said Jirmo.

A visit to Lake Nakuru National Park — famous for the pink flamingos that throng the lake — reveals how bad things are getting. The waters have receded because the four rivers that feed the lake run from the Mau Forest and all four are dry.

The local authority has taken to pumping recycled water from the nearby Nakuru town while fresh water is pumped into the park to feed the rhinos, buffalo and gazelle.

Flamingo numbers are down as the birds increasingly looking elsewhere to gather and feed. The birds are doubly threatened by the Mau destruction as another river runs from the forest to their breeding ground in Lake Natron on the border with Tanzania.

Falling water levels in the rivers have reduced Kenya’s power generation capacity and tea harvests are fluctuating wildly as the Mau’s function as a moisture reservoir and buffer against rain and temperature changes is degraded.

If all this sounds bad, it is. But there could be worse news to come.

“No studies have yet been done on the full impact of Mau deforestation,” said Christian Lambrechts of the United Nations Environment Program. “We just don’t know what the impact will be, yet we are dealing with core economic sectors for Kenya: energy, tea and tourism.”

Kenya’s government, which under previous regimes did so much to exacerbate the forest’s destruction by handing out land for votes in the run up to multiparty elections, is belatedly paying attention.

A government task force has reported its findings and there is talk of evictions, resettlement and compensation, of boosting the number of rangers patrolling the Mau Forest and even of fencing the entire area.

All this will help but Kenya is running out of time and the shaky coalition government formed in the wake of murderously disputed elections in late 2007 is frequently paralyzed into inaction by its own divisions.

Back in the Mau Forest, four months after the fire, green shoots cover the sooty soil and pale bracken grows over the charred stumps and blackened trunks. “The forest is recovering,” said ranger Nyaga, “but it is not the same.” The trees that burned were cedars and yellowwood: they will take years, not months, to grow back.

“It is a Kenya lifeline,” Jirmo summed up. “We have no option: the Mau Forest must be conserved.”

More GlobalPost dispatches from Kenya:

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New wave of elephant poaching in Kenya

Recession worsens Kenyan famine