Kakamega tropical rain forest is the only Guinea Congolian type of rain forest remaining in Kenya today and human encroachment threatens the forest to the verge of extinction and a threat to the climate.
The Southern part of Kakamega forest, Isecheno Forest station managed by the Kenya Forest Service is a tourism attraction point. There is a well- known mama mutere tree, a historic tree and the most photographed tree in Kakamega forest, there are also strangler fig trees. There are hiking trails in the forest that allow for forest walking, camping, hiking, primate watching, bird and butterfly watching, game watching and a village walks.
Since time immemorial, the forest has been regarded as a medicinal hub for different kinds of ailments like flu, muscles, allergy, delivery complications, and first aid like incase of snake bite.
Some specific tree species were used for cleansing and other traditional purposes. Mama Mutere (Mukhunya) –Measopsis eminii tree has earned a lot of revenue through tourism. The tree is said to be the mother species of Mutere trees in entire Africa. Red sting wood (Mwilitsa) prunas Africana, tree is cure to prostate cancer – a common disease in men. Other species which are medicinal include Mulundu - Antiaris toxicaria, Musira -Harungana madagascariencis, Museno ficu spp among others. The Elgon teak (Mutukuyu) Olea Capensis is said to have been kissed by Queen Elizabeth in medicinal species in the forest.
Old men culturally used the forest for cleansing purposes for instance in the case of incest, murder, adultery among others. The practice is however dying slowly due to modernization.
The forest is a home to over 510 species of butterflies, and 488 species of birds as compared to other forests in Kenya and the entire world. Many birds migrate from Europe and spent about a half a year in this forest and then fly back to their countries of origin. The destruction of Maragoli hills, neighboring Kakamega forest led to the loss of a unique bird species –biggest fruit bird which was only found in Kakamega conservancy.
Snakes of West Africa origin which are important in attracting tourists are found here. The snakes are said to be harmless. All the animals are mutual beneficiaries, and insects have not been under looked. The forest used to have many species of insects but it has reduced tremendously due to unfriendly human activities. The insects are useful in decomposition of fallen trees and this facilitates production of organic matter necessary for soil fertility. The decomposition relies on availability of humid temperatures which are necessitated by the availability of water.
All the trees and animals rely on water for their survival in this forest. The forest has two big rivers passing through and their survival is pegged on about fifty springs originating from the forest. River Yala and river Isiukhu both originate from Nandi escarpment and share the springs equally. River Yala drains into Lake Victoria while river Isiukhu connects to river Nzoia before finding its way to Lake Victoria.
However, this would not last if the forest is encroached.
The Forest has many local inhabitants who rely on it to supply important resources, such as firewood, building poles and traditional medicines. Cattle grazing occur in some of the glades. These activities impact negatively to the forest cover leading to Climate Change.
According to Mr Farouk Muchanje a businessman and a resident, this is unlikely to remain the same due to the climate change effects that is fast affecting the forest. He says that there is heavy harvesting of trees at the forest and culprits are very strategic in that they carry out this illegal exercise in the middle of the forest and one may not know what is happening by just travelling on the outskirts.
Farouk, who once raised a concern on the same in 2015, says instead of the activities halting/declining, they have increased at an alarming rate. “On our fact finding mission on the tree harvesting exercise, we met groups of wood merchants who cut the trees and ferry the logs to the surrounding homesteads in which they are split into timber of different sizes.”
The targeted trees are Pynus for soft wood he says, adding that indigenous trees too are harvested but since a permit for this lot isn’t issued, wood processed from this kind is first loaded onto a trailer at the far end, and then the Pynus wood loaded thereafter to avoid detection during transportation.
He says that they use trailers to ferry away the wood and a tone of wood fetches Kshs 21,000 as per the price of the forest and a trailer loads 20 tones. This means that a trailer carries away Kshs. 420,000 per trip. Once the timber reaches Mombasa, it goes for Kshs. 53,000 for a tone, translating into Kshs. 1,060,000 per trailer.
The harvesters boldly say that they will be moved to another section to continue with the harvesting for nearly six month immediately they finish their business at the spot they are working on and once through, they will be given another section for this exercise generates a lot of money.
Paul Mwani, a resident of Shinyalu who lives a few meters from the Forest says the situation is worsening on a daily basis and he fears for the well-being of the community.” This exercise has really ruined our forest for the harvesters are targeting the indigenous trees that shouldn’t be touched as per the permit given for the exercise. Another issue is that the community was never sensitized by the government about the on-going exercise and they are really wondering on what is happening.”
Roseline Indasi a mother of three and a resident of shinyalu says the forest benefits her a lot in that the Community Association together with the Kenya forest allocates them land in the forest where they farm and plant maize and vegetable as they take care of the planted trees for their home use.
Violet Muyanga a resident too says the forest helps her family for they farm and get food from the farms allocated to them at a fee of Kshs 1200. She adds that they too collect firewood from the forest at Ksh 100.
George Aimo the forestation manager kakamega Forest confirms that indeed the exercise of tree harvesting is underway in Kakamega forest and that it is an exercise licenced and permitted by the Government. Aimo says the plantation is mainly for commercial purposes and the trees have matured ready for harvest. “This process is long overdue for the pynus plantation in Kakamega forest is 58years old and according to the plantation management plan a document with guidelines followed when carrying out forest activities, the trees should be harvested at the age of 25-30 years.”
Aimo refutes claims in the public domain that the forest is being destroyed citing this as mere politics. “Kakamega Forest has coverage of 14,800 hectares out of which 11,000 hectares is covered with purely indigineous tree species while 1,600 hectares covered with exotic tree species eg Pynus, Cyprus and Eucalyptus: an area that can be exploited for commercial purpose.”
The forest manager says a work plan is strictly followed within the 1,600 hectares and indigenous tree species found in this section are cleared for the do clear fell where everything in the plantation has to be removed. This he says are left for the community to use as firewood.
Before the said harvesting exercise he says, an advertisement was placed in the media and people applied through the Kenya Forest Service head office where vetting was done and those who met the threshold awarded the tenders. “The Kenya Forest Service advertised tenders for this exercise and people applied before being given a go ahead. Most of those who were given the tender are locals and all reside from Kakamega County.”
The forester assures the community saying that the forest is intact and there is an improvement. “Comparing with the past 5 years, there is big improvement in this forest for court cases have reduced due to participatory management where community scouts work hand in hand with the forest rangers adding that corruption incidences too have reduced.”
Mwileshi Community Associations’ chairman Mambiri Lutiali, also a retired medical staff agrees with the forester by stating that kakamega tropical rain forest is the only resource in Kakamega County and the bigger percentage of trees in the forest are indigenous, but exotic trees too are planted mainly for commercial use. He totally refutes claims that the forest is being destroyed saying that the ongoing exercise on tree harvesting is legal for it’s licensed and permitted by the authority. “The exercise is long overdue for the exotic trees when planted, a maximum age of harvesting is 25-30 years old and in this case, the exotic trees in Kakamega forest have over matured for they are 58 years now.”
On tender allocation, Mambiri says, tenders were advertised and those who qualified were given a chance and all are from Kakamega County adding that the exercise was done at the Kenya Forest Service headquarters where the board vetted the applicants and chose the most qualified applicants.
Mambiri cites that the main objective of Mwileshi Community Association, is to guard and protect the forest and no indigenous tree is torched during harvesting. “During harvesting, everything in the plantation is cleared for clear fell is done as per the plantation establishment and improvement scheme and in the case the indigenous tree species are in this plantation, they are not spared.”
The chairman clearly states that Kakamega Forest is intact and people working for the forest are very active and effective a statement echoed by the forestation manager who says that harvesting does not go beyond the plantation.
Since the forest has deficiency of trees, the community should be thinking of boosting the numbers and not destroying the few for it takes years for a tree to grow and without urgent attention, the forest will be no more. This means that the rivers that flow out of the forest will have a field day as they ravage and interfere with communities that farm downstream due to massive flooding.
In general, western Kenya relies on rain fed agriculture and Kakamega forest plays an important role in ensuring constant rainfall. Its protection and conservation is not optional and efforts should be combined from all stakeholders both local and international to ensure water availability, thus food security.