A giant elgon teak tree inside Kakamega forest. Photo: Kevin Lunzalu

Kakamega forest, a natural gem under threat

Kenya’s only tropical rainforest scrambles for solutions as it faces growing intrusion challenges.
Kenya’s only tropical rainforest scrambles for solutions as it faces growing intrusion challenges.

Walking through the busy Kakamega town, one easily notices a line up of hardware shops across almost all streets. The stores mostly sell timber to the construction sites in one of the fastest-expanding cities in Kenya.

Alfred Godia, one of the timber traders in the town expects the timber business to grow even further in the coming days. “We are now supplying large volumes [of timber] and we hope to maintain it,” the smiling seller reveals. 

Mr Godia explains that they sometimes enter into agreements to cut up to 4000 trees per farm. The former school teacher seems to have found his home in the timber business and is happily enjoying his retirement. 

Despite currently getting timber from private farms, he admits that the future supply of the commodity is not guaranteed. According to the trader, most local farmers are now growing sugarcane in farms that were predominantly covered with trees. 

Kakamega forest: a local gem

The Kakamega forest borders the town and it is the largest remnant of the antediluvian Guineo-Congolian Forest. Gazetted in 1933, the natural area is an ecological hub of global importance

Kakamega also breathes life to millions of people in local communities living around its borders and downstream. Its global significance earned Kakamega the UNESCO World Heritage Site title in 2010. 

The Kenya forest service estimates that about 20% of the flora and fauna species found in Kakamega are endemic to this ecosystem. The Important Bird Area (IBA) is home to the endangered African grey parrots, the Kaimosi blind snake, De Brazza’s monkey, Black and White Colobus monkeys, Red-tailed monkeys, Gaboon viper. Kakamega is also rich in tree species variability. 

The Kakamega Forest Ecosystem Management Plan 2012-2022 indicates that despite its ecological significance, the 230 square kilometers forest has continuously been exposed to environmental crimes, including illegal logging and wildlife trade.

The State of the World’s Forests report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) State of the World Forests Report 2020 estimates that 10 million hectares of forests were lost between 2015 and 2020 worldwide. FAO earmarked agriculture as the leading contributor to deforestation and related loss of biodiversity. 

View of unfenced Kakamega forest. Photo: Kevin Lunzalu

Kakamega forest is facing the same threat. Since 2015, the Kakamega Governor, Wycliffe Oparanya, has expressed concerns that the forest is facing critical challenges due to encroachment. Oparanya has supported interventions to fence off the area in order to protect it. According to national newspaper TheStandard, the Governor expressed his concern for the forest’s encroachment during the 2019 Rhino Charge event.

“The Forest provides a lifeline to many rivers in the country. However, it faces immense challenges as a result of encroachment,” says Oparanya. 

The Kakamega Governor also believes the forest’s tourism potential is yet to be fully exploited. A report by the County Government indicates that Governor Oparanya once visited the Democratic Republic of Congo to assess the viability of importing gorillas and chimpanzees to the forest. The project aimed to improve tourism and increase species diversity. The initiative never materialised, chiefly due to fears of human-wildlife conflicts and poaching since the forest is not fenced.

Loopholes in management of the forest

Alfred’s statement depicts a situation where demand for timber could soon outgrow supply. Such shortage would push local merchants to consider alternatives. In those circumstances, illegal loggers could exploit any vulnerabilities in the management of the vast Kakamega forest. 

Solomon Wakitaa is a community guide at the Kakamega forest and one of the Kakamega Forest Community Conservation Association (KAFCCOA)’s officials. He states that there is an “immediate need” to fence off this natural gem and save it from intrusion.

“People are already encroaching the forest. Some parts are very far from the Kenya Wildlife Service station. So, people graze, collect medicines and firewood, and carry out other activities in the Kakamega forest,” remarks Solomon. 

Interventions in place

Not all is lost, however. The county government and other stakeholders have developed various interventions by the county government and other stakeholders in order to secure the future of this important forest.

According to Solomon, timber sawing on indigenous tree varieties is low due to the ban on cutting down some species, such as the Elgon teak. “It is illegal to cut down an Elgon teak tree even within your homestead,” explains Solomon. 

“The carbon offset project has provided locals with energy-saving stoves that reduce the need for constant intrusion to the forest for firewood,” said Solomon. The project uses funds from carbon credit to empower locals and promote sustainable livelihoods and healthier ecosystems.

However, the threat of intrusion seems to work both ways as locals are constantly disturbed by wildlife.

“Since the forest borders communities, animals such as monkeys roam free and enter people’s farms and homesteads. Trespassing often results in human-wildlife conflicts. The animals eat people’s maize, bananas, and sometimes kill their chicken,” affirms Solomon.

Communities are also empowered to depend less on the forest. Kakamega forest was one of the first protected areas in Kenya to introduce community guide programmes.Through these projects, locals like Solomon earn a living from offering their professional services.

Community engagement

According to Solomon, KAFCCOA also organizes talks in schools and community forums on the importance of conserving forests. They also grow indigenous species on public lands and advise locals on tree planting.

County governments of Kakamega and Vihiga have partnered with Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, Kenya Wildlife Service, and Kenya Forest Service to raise over two million USD towards fencing off the forest. The project was expected to start in April 2020 and will see the construction of a 117-kilometer fence around the natural forest. 

Kakamega town. Photo: Kevin Lunzalu

Steve Wamalwa, a public motorcycle rider in the area warms up to the idea of fencing off the forest. “Apart from protecting the forest from illegal exploitation, fencing it off will also make it safer for us. Sometimes goons hide in this forest and can injure or rob road users,” says Steve.  

Aquila Lwanga, an Environmental Officer at the Kakamega county agrees that population increase poses a threat to the sustainability of the forest. “Encroachment and illegal logging may be happening despite efforts by different stakeholders to conserve the forest,” she says. 

Lwanga notes that reafforestation and awareness creation have been conducted to mitigate the challenge so far. “Fencing will limit human interference and maintain the integrity of the forest. On the flip side, the fence may interfere with the natural behavior of some of the fauna, such as movement and mating patterns of monkeys,” she adds. 

However, Aquila Lwanga anticipates that this project will face resistance from some local communities because they depend greatly on forest resources. She underlines the importance of community participation throughout the entire process.

“If a majority of the community members and affected parties support the project, they will own the process. This will increase its success rate and realization of the common goal of conserving Kakamega forest,” says Aquila.