My first-time hiking was through a 1.5-kilometer, manicured trail near the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, California. The crisp air and the 77-degree Fahrenheit temperature was perfect for shorts and a tank. I never even broke a sweat.
The second time I hiked it was through 36-kilometers of Central African tropical rainforest. Termite ants fought for the opportunity to suture their mandibles into my skin and become martyrs for their queen. Eighty-seven degree weather, 94 percent humidity, and “wide-mouth” water bottles kept me drenched.
Why did I get five vaccinations, wait in seven-hour passport lines, and need a prescription for a pill whose major side effect is “violent dreams?” It was all to conduct a “Frugivore Feeding and Abundance” survey of the recently reopened Bouamir Research Station in Cameroon.
Frugivores are a group of animals whose diets are comprised of mostly fruit. Chimpanzees, elephants, and gorillas are all frugivores. Trees don’t produce fruits because they love the attention of animals, nor do they produce fruits because they have an innate desire to be useful. Fruits are the by-product of thousands of years of natural selection attempting to efficiently disperse seeds.
When a black-casqued hornbill consumes a palm fruit and its seeds, the seeds of the palm fruit aren’t doomed. They have just moved on to the next steps of the seed dispersal cycle. The black-casqued hornbill will continue living, and eventually its droppings will serve as a vehicle for dispersal for these seeds. Although some seeds are dispersed by abiotic factors—like the wind—animals are so important to the dispersal of seeds that recent studies estimate 80 percent of all African woody plants have fruits and seeds that are adapted to being dispersed by frugivores. Without frugivores dispersing these seeds, new trees wouldn’t germinate, and forests wouldn’t regenerate.
Relatively little is known about the life history of key frugivores: range, movement, and population size are currently debated or unknown for many species. Researchers in the late 90s realized this and estimated and recorded frugivore population sizes at Bouamir from 1995-1998 to create a benchmark for their abundances. Unfortunately, there’s no contemporary abundance data. Increased hunting, climate change, and logging have had unidentified consequences on frugivores, and our study planned to elucidate these consequences.
My team’s research planned to assess and quantify the changes in frugivore population size over the past 20 years at the Bouamir Research Station. By surveying the population sizes of frugivores at the station today, we can infer current densities and compare them to recorded frugivore densities of the past. Temporal analysis of abundances is important because it allows conservation strategies to focus on species that are the most in decline, and not just popular flagship species.
Long-term monitoring studies often involve immense resources with little immediate payoff. Fortunately, just like trees have been “nudged” to invest in their future with fruit, humans have been investing in their own future by monitoring biodiversity. My team had a fun-filled, adventurous time traversing new biomes for these data points, and hopefully, they will help in the battle against corporations and politicians who yearn to continue conducting “business as usual” with the environment.
In February 2017, a motley crew of college students from UCLA and Cameroon left modern-day conveniences behind and plunged into the rainforest. Their objective: to reopen a remote field station that had been shuttered for two decades and take the pulse of local wildlife.
Through their efforts and UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute, the Bouamir research station is again open for business — welcoming researchers from around the globe who want to learn about the diverse life in the Dja Reserve, a rainforest sanctuary in south-central Cameroon.
As the students traveled from the capital city of Yaoundé to their destination, local Baka and Bantu villagers greeted them with dancing and celebrations. The fun quickly gave way to hard work as they confronted the realities of doing field research in a jungle. The station itself is 18 miles from the nearest village, so getting there required a daylong hike. Then, starting at dawn each day, the students conducted field work at a primitive site that no one would confuse with the Ritz-Carlton: The latrine was a simple hole in the ground. To bathe, they went to a creek with buckets.
For someone used to measuring hikes in terms of Pokémon Go rewards, it was challenging, UCLA student Emily Chen admitted.
“The first few days, my mentality was just trying to make it through,” Chen said. “Then I embraced it.”
The students conducted wildlife surveys, researched butterflies and compared local birds they studied to other populations in Africa. The work was part of a Field Biology Quarter class offered by UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and taught by professors Greg Grether and Tom Smith. Their efforts paid off in surprising good news: Despite a growing market for bush meat and other threats to biodiversity, most species in the reserve appeared to be thriving.
During the 1990s, biologists, using the Bouamir station as their research headquarters, published nearly 50 papers on the region’s rich biodiversity that includes forest elephants, hornbills, endangered western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees and pangolin. Smith, director of the Congo Basin Institute and a professor with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES), was one of those early researchers. “We lived right in the middle of [the reserve] for eight years,” Smith said. “It was fabulous.”
Unfortunately, the nongovernmental organization that provided logistical support for the researchers went belly-up, and the site, which was not under the purview of UCLA at that time, was abandoned. It was a big loss for the scientific community as well as a potential threat to local wildlife — the constant presence of scientists was a powerful deterrent against would-be poachers.
But, Smith said, “It just got too difficult to maintain.” When he launched the Congo Basin Institute seven years ago as a regional base for scientific research and education through his Center for Tropical Research, part of the IoES, he said, “We decided that one of the things we wanted to do … was reestablish this station.”
Professor Tom Smith conducts research at Bouamir station in the 1990s. Photo Courtesy of the Congo Basin Institute.
The reopening of Bouamir falls in line with the institute’s broader goals. The basin of the Congo River in west central Africa has long suffered from brain drain, leaving it without the human resources it needs to confront major problems, such as food insecurity, infectious disease outbreaks and the effects of climate change. The institute aims to change that, and the first step, Smith said, is to retain scientists by giving them proper facilities and support to do their work.
In addition to the new field station, the institute has modernized its research facilities in Yaoundé with laboratories for remote genetics, a geographic information system, remote sensing, as well as analytics labs for water, soil, plant tissue, entomology and pathology.
The institute also helps visiting scholars navigate a complex web of local and national governments. Institute biologist Kevin Njabo, who grew up in Cameroon, has become an expert at bridging the gap between scientists and local officials. “We have a huge language barrier,” Njabo said. “And, at times, the bureaucracies in these areas can be very slow, so we start working with government way in advance.”
Since the institute opened a small center in Yaoundé, it has steadily grown. More than 2,000 scholars from 20 countries have now passed through. By partnering with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, the Congo Basin Institute seeks to grow further to develop a network of hubs that will protect biodiversity and improve residents’ lives.
As a Cameroonian, Njabo said, “We are very blessed and lucky to have this university coming in and wanting to stay. We put in everything we’ve got at every level to make sure this program is successful.”
Romeo Kamta Tchoffo, a Cameroonian graduate student who helped reopen the field station, said he relished doing field work with UCLA scientists. “In our country there is a lack of application,” Tchoffo said. “You are asked to read a book and understand how biology works, but you do not have the opportunity to be in contact and practice what you have learned.”
For UCLA students, the trip was a chance to become totally immersed in the environment they are studying — a lush rainforest with vine-covered trees inhabited by screeching hyrax — small, herbivorous mammals. Students take their morning baths in a creek as white-nosed guenons — forest monkeys — peered down at them from the forest canopy.
Smith wasn’t sure what he’d find in the Dja Reserve upon returning to the place he grew to love in the 1990s. With a rise in poaching, he feared entire species could be wiped out. He was immensely relieved to discover a stable, lively ecosystem with elephants, monkeys and birds. The reopening of Bouamir will ensure it stays that way. “This time, we need to hang on to the site and maintain it,” Smith said.
Through the Congo Basin Institute, Smith hopes to extend that kind of support across a region that’s home to 70 percent of the poorest inhabitants on Earth, numbering about 1 billion people, where diverse wildlife lives directly on the front lines of environmental threats. From there, he said, the entire continent can be transformed.
“My hope is that we will see an Africa that is feeding itself, using sustainable approaches on energy and preserving the natural environment,” Smith said. “There’s this mantra that you get from aid organizations: ‘The trouble with central Africa is that it’s bad governance, and it’s never going to get any better until they democratize.’
“The flipside of that is that they’re never going to do that if the best and brightest aren’t living there,” Smith said. “The more you can keep those people there, engaged and contributing, the more effective you’re going to be in the long run.”
Jessica Arriens contributed reporting for this story.
The first time Mumo heard about Mau her adrenaline pumped to levels that only allowed her to compose songs she would sing with any kid she came across in this foreign land. Mumo is one of the long serving Peace Ambassador with a robust love for trees. The agreeable and smooth tongued Mumo boisterously took advantage of any tree planting activity to fulfil the desires of her undying passion. There is no way she was going to miss out on Mau, Kenya’s famous forest.
It was Saturday the fourth day of June the day Mumo had long been waiting for. This is the day Mumo dressed in all black, a sweater tied around her waist, sun glasses on her forehead with a hat arrived in an unfamiliar place. It was later discovered that Mumo had boarded and alighted three public service vehicles finishing up with a motorcycle ride that was not that pleasant thanks to the hilly terrain and potholes on the only accessible road. She was also heard lamenting about the scorching sun which she did not expect given the reputation of forested areas.
She booked her spot on the floor among her peers where mattresses were laid and left to explore the area. That evening Mumo spend her time making acquaintances with the locals among them the village elder who also introduced himself as the lover of peace. Simon was his name. He warmly welcomed Mumo and some of her friends to his home where they learned the culture of the host community, the Ogieks.
The visitors were served honey and meat which she later on found out was the staple food of the community for ages. Community members coexisting with nature in Mau forest complex. Mumo was made aware of the segetiet (cultural spoon) that was used by the mother in-law to give honey to her daughter in-law as a symbol of acceptance into the family.
As the story telling was going on the authoritative and masterful Simon presented Mumo with moratina the local brew which she said was surprisingly sweet and tasted like fruit. However the local brew was meant for special occasions and was only taken by wazee in marking the day, therefore she was only allowed two cups.
The scorching sun was long gone by evening, replaced by a stinging cold told in desert tales. Mumo was welcomed to a harsh reality that the sweater tied on her waist could not handle without the reinforcement of Maasai shuka a friend threw on her. The scarf that was diligently tied on her head to make a modern, playful fashion statement had to be shared with the neck. It was hard to believe the sun that did not tolerate the idea of a string of sweat taking its time to travel across ones face, was overpowered by the cold that would extend into the night and get to its extreme at around 3am.
The bundling up of animals in the poles or during winter was therefore the only survival technique to go for in this situation because even the warmest of sleeping bags had no chance against the cold. Without Mumo’s realisation, the hooting of owls in the night was quickly and gladly overcome with the knocking of wood peckers and other daylight dominators.
The following day was a Sunday, fifth day of June. The cold rays of the rising sun brushed by Mumo’s skin as she walked through the thick forests in search of the unknown and to also commemorate the World Environment Day in a glamorous 10 Km Trees for Peace Walk followed by tree planting session. As she together with her peers gathered in an abyss of confusion to plan, boisterous students from universities, high schools and primary schools started trickling in.
After the walk was flagged off, Mumo started feasting on the tantalizing sceneries of valleys and landscapes that were dotted with the tranquil greenness of the shrubs.
Land as a resource, arable land for that matter, is considered a piece of diamond in a country deeply rooted in agriculture and therefore, land also becomes the cause of many conflicts in Kenya. As Peace Ambassadors, Mumo together with her peers were preaching conservation as a means of protecting forests from farming and other forms of human encroachment. Through such reforestation efforts of the Mau forest, surrounding communities would be forced to see one another as natural conservation allies.
In attendance, University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, Pwani University and the host university, Egerton University, just to mention but a few. Njoro girl was not left out in representing high schools, Tiritagoi primary school, Rift valley prestige school, Lord Egerton Primary School made sure to have the generation that is most likely to feel the pinch of the destruction was present in large numbers.
Young Environmental enthusiasists in the company of Forest gurus struggling to retain composure on coming across amazingly decorated trees like the podo, cedar and the dombeya. Many of these trees were embracing moss and ferns making them rather eerie yet ever so beautiful. One of the forest gurus was Mr. Ruto, a Kenya Forest Service ranger with over ten years experience. His dark patched face and red eyes were testament of the many hours he had spent trekking the cold forest and seeking warm solace from bonfires.
Apart from Mr. Ruto’s forest tales, hoping and jumping over streams became the norm for Mumo. This vindicated Mau’s status as a water tower; streams emerged out of nowhere thanks to the rate of underground seepage that occurs in places with proper tree cover.
The higher she got the air becomes moist and cooler making her spontaneously turn around to look at girls with natural hair while touching her own. She lived in the big industrialised city of Nairobi where fresh air only existed in fantasies, -not that bad because the occupants have not started wearing face masks yet- therefore she made plans of moving to the middle of the jungle just to survive like Katy Perry in Roar and have all the unthinkable fun with the shy Turacos and colourful sunbirds.
It startled Mumo what a difference of few minutes travel made, with epiphany she remembered all the articles she had read about the Mau, she remembered it being called the largest of its kind in the whole of East Africa, she remembered it being called the backbone of the country, she remembered it being the main supplier of water into the major cities including her not so beloved Nairobi where the population keeps growing.
Apart from water, Mau also holds the economy of Kenya in the palm if it’s green hands. It is the source of the Mara River, which in turn supports the wildlife that has made Kenya a tourism powerhouse. Such priceless benefits from Mau were the ones that inspired Mumo as she planted trees. Hopefully, these trees would one day be part of an even bigger, not dwindling Mau Forest Complex.
When the rugged brown containers landed in Italy, they were met by the eager officials of a leading wood furniture firm. The three men in broken suits felt like giving the containers huge bear hugs but instead settled for broad smiles. They had been tracking the cargo ship’s progress ever since it left Douala port in Cameroon. It took the mammoth ship three weeks to arrive in Genoa, Italy.
The containers contained sawn timber that would find its way into Italian warehouses in the coming weeks and consequently be used to craft world-class furniture.
Barely a year later in the same port, gleaming and exquisite high-end furniture was loaded into other strong containers. There were kitchen side-boards with golden-rimmed frames; a wide variety of outdoor sofas spotting beautifully woven warm-colored fabrics; dazzling arm chairs with back cushions that were as soft as feathers; chaise lounges (sofa beds) that invite you to take a rest... The furniture was diverse, beautiful and expensive, earning Italy millions of Euros in exports.
Two years ago, Italy exported €190 million worth of furniture to China. Last year in 2014, sales shot to €290 million. Overall, wood furniture exports were worth €13.1 billion in 2014, which marked a fifth consecutive year of growth. Meanwhile, Cameroon earned $4.2 billion from all its exports in 2012. In other words, the entire exports of this West African country in 2012 were only a third of what Italy earned from exports of wood furniture in 2014.
Underpinning some of the furniture that earned Italy billions was high quality hardwood imported from Cameroon. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Cameroon has a forest cover of 20 million hectares even though independent studies put this even higher at 22.5 million hectares, almost half of the entire country. That’s huge. This Central Africa’s forest cover is five times the size of Netherlands.
This is the forest producing some of the wood that earns Italy billions. Which begs the question – how can Cameroon also earn billions from the forest? A forest that is immensely rich in teak trees, ayous trees (Triplochiton scleroxylon), sapele trees (Entandrophragma cylindricum), azobé trees (Lophira alata), and dozens of many more decades-old gigantic trees. To appreciate the sheer size of these trees, stand next to one and face it.
When I first came face to face with a full grown African teak, I.. Wait, let me first tell you how I found myself facing this green giant.
Itching for an adventure, I had organized a trip to Kakamega Forest. Though beset by planning challenges that saw us change vehicles at the last minute, the friends who joined me on the trip were a happy gang and we had a jolly good time on the six hour drive from Nairobi to Kakamega. Because we arrived late at night, I didn’t see much of the forest until the following day in the wee hours of the morning.
As is my practice, I woke up a bit earlier than the sun and ventured tentatively into the forest.
‘Habari ya asubuhi bro!’ Good morning bro! I shouted at Gabriel, the leader of Kakamega Environmental Education Group that was in charge of the cottages that we were staying in. He was also an early bird and was just getting into the compound as I was walking out.
After a ten-minute leisurely stroll, I felt as if I had walked into the very lungs and kidneys of the forest. I was surrounded by massive whispering trees on every side. I peeped behind one of the giant trees, half expecting to see the face of God. That’s how pure the moment felt. My brown eyes moved slowly from the tree’s rough base, up its rugged trunk, further up its bare mid-section then settled on a green flurry of outstretched branches. Africa’s famous teak tree stared back it me in gentle serenity.
The life of a teak tree starts with bats. Not birds, but bats. They disperse the seeds of the trees. This winged mammals often dine of Teak fruits and because seeds in the fruits are indigestible, they are defecated into the waiting arms of the soil. Two or three decades later, the seeds could grow into fifty-metre teaks whose fruits invite more bats to dine away and trigger the teak journey all over again.
African teaks have been described by Bwak the Bantu poet as having, ‘bare beginnings that peak in spending green crowns.’ For the first twenty metres or so, the trees are completely bare, with branches showing at this twenty-metre mark. They evoke memories of coconut trees that are similarly bare until later stages of the trunk.
Standing short and expansive with its thorny branches is the gum acacia tree, also known as gum arabic. The tree is a short distance away from the banks of Senegal River in the southern part of Mauritania. This tree is part of Mauritania’s 0.2 percent forest cover, the lowest in Africa.
Indeed, Mauritania is a lonely place for forests. There are ten times as many red Indians in the US than trees in Mauritania. To put it differently, the percentage of black US presidents is more than the percentage of Mauritania’s forest cover. Now, that’s a pretty lonely place to be, because President Barack Obama is the only black US president ever.
Mauritania’s forests don’t earn it much even though deforestation costs the country $84 million every year in lost earnings.
Back in 1998, the desert country’s forest imports were valued at $733,000, which was one third of what the country spent to import forest products worth $2,442,000. The situation is even worse now because the forest cover is less than it was back then. In 1930, Mauritania came tried to come to the rescue of lonely trees by introducing prosopis juliflora also known as mequite. These efforts were stepped up more than half a century later when 22,951 hectares of the tree were established between 1990 and 1997. Unfortunately, these efforts were not built expanded. Instead, fires, overgrazing, drought and agricultural expansion continued clearing trees.
As the lonely trees continue to fall by the wayside, bringing in bringing in less and less revenue, fish and iron are earning the country handsome amounts.
Fisheries and iron ore extraction are the country’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi – they are the top earners. Forests are definitely not playing in the big league or even in the second tier like oil, which was discovered in the advent of the new millennium. While fish and iron are playing in Mauritania’s champions league in terms of revenue generation, forests are more like beach football – refreshing and fun but with minimal revenue.
Iron ore accounts for approximately 40 percent of Mauritania’s export earnings. Unfortunately again for trees, mining iron ore contributes to deforestation. The debate between keeping trees alive and kicking or felling some of them to extract iron, is one that trees can’t win.
Luckily, trees don’t have to make way for fishery to thrive. Mauritania’s proximity to powerful coastal upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich waters has greatly boosted its fishery sector. Such waters are fertile fishing ground. With the exception of Morocco, Mauritania leads Arab countries in export of small fish to Europe.
However, government-provided fishery subsidies to overseas vessels have often threatened to fish stock sustainability. In 2006, Mauritania entered a fisheries partnership agreement with the European Union. It was worth approximately €108 million annually for 6 years and has since expired. A recent fourth round of talks in Brussels failed to yield fruit concerning renewal of the agreement, leading to suspension of talks. Critics are opposed to the previous agreement which allowed 200 EU vessels to fish in Mauritania’s water.
Jamila is a young lady who lives with her parents and five siblings in the beach town of Jreida. Her father is one of Mauritania’s approximately ten thousand artisanal fishermen. The government wants people like him to get more jobs from any new partnership with EU.
In this regard, fishery provides well paying jobs as well as direct revenue for the government. The same cannot be said of forests. EU has a forest cover of 31 percent, a far cry from Mauritania’s 0.2 percent. In this equation, it is easy for trees to be relegated to near irrelevance, as they are seemingly unimportant to the country’s strategic interests.
That should however not be the case because an exponentially expanding forest cover would turn the tide of desertification, consequently opening up more land for agro-forestry which would in turn improve food security and open up diverse green economy opportunities. In addition, other invaluable ecosystem services would be revived, proving the adage that trees are a lot more valuable alive than dead.
The gum acacia tree together with other trees in Mauritania shouldn’t be lonely. After all, they are in the company of 1,100 plant species and 61 mammal species. However, the death knell of extinction has already sounded for big mammals like elephants. Before 1940, at least 400 elephants used to roam the wild. But today, the gentle giants are nowhere to be seen. Similarly, the long-horned, brown-white Sahara Oryx has become extinct in the world.
Gànnaar, as Mauritania is known in wolof, doesn’t have to remain a predominantly desert country forever. Even more important, human slaves who still toil in Mauritania should not have to put up with such inhuman existence.
In February this year, Gulnara Shahinian, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery stressed that, ‘the Government still has to turn its pledges into deeds, and to take more vigorous measures with a view to eliminating slavery and to fully implement the laws and policies.’
Mauritania must heed these words because the scourge of slavery runs much deeper than the entire Sahara desert.
In the meantime, the lonely trees need some company. It’s time for Mauritania to plant a billion trees.
President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, both history and your country are waiting for you to become the billion tree president.
Mabelé was tired. His 6,2 frame was soaked in so much sweat that the sleeveless black top he was wearing was completely wet. The huge log that he was sitting on was rugged and hard but it felt like a soft sofa beneath him. He kept yawning every few minutes both hungry and tired.
Even for someone who has lived next to Congo forest for all his life, the last few days had been crazy. Bush meat may make for delicious meals but it only came after lots of sweat and patience. Research shows that 4.5 million tonnes of the wild game are consumed annually by those living in and around Congo forest. Mabelé hunts this wild game, both for his wife’s kitchen and the local market in Kisangani.
Like 35 other million people in DRC, Mabelé depends on the forest for his livelihood. The forest gives him non-timber products that feed him and put money into his pockets.
Despite the daily struggles to feed his five children and their loving mother, he is among the lucky 77 million Congolese who have survived years of a brutal war that has killed about six million people.
Although this civil war is often referred to as Africa’s civil war because of the involvement of other African countries, it is arguably an unending third world war. This vast naturally rich country is a cacophony of competing global interests. Big companies from the west and China seem to fall over themselves as they run to dip their hands into Congo’s pot of seemingly inexhaustible natural resources, many of them tucked away in Congo forest.
Mabelé’s father and grandfather and great grandfather all earned their living from the forest. Like him, they hunted wild game, scaled those giant trees in search of herbs and fruits, chopped down smaller trees to build their houses and generally took a lifetime of refuge in the never-ending, ever-green forest. Some of his forefathers may even have been part of the team that the Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh explorer was talking about when he said that, ‘our officers are heartily sick of the forest but the loyal blacks, a band of 130 followed me once again into the wild, trackless forest, with its hundreds of inconveniences to assist their comrades of the rear column.’
What Stanley found as ‘hundreds of inconveniences’ were ‘hundreds of every day realities’ for the 130 Congolese explorers who were with him. These realities were wrapped in a forest so dense that sunlight rarely reached the ground. The forest’s towering canopy was like a dark, green umbrella that kept away the sun and ushered in the rain.
Almost half of DRC is covered with the forest that bears the country’s name. The forest stretches for 1,070,000 square kilometres. This massive size is bigger than the combined surface area of England, Germany, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Netherlands and Belgium. Imagine these seven European countries covered with nothing but a dense tropical forest and you will have pictured Congo forest in DRC.
This forest is home to more than 11,000 species of plants, 450 mammals, 1,150 birds, 300 reptiles, 200 amphibians, 1,117 species of birds and 400 species of fish. This makes DRC the 5th most biodiverse country on earth.
Forest elephants, forest giraffes also known as okapi, mountain gorillas, lowland gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas (grauer’s gorilla), bonobos, black colobus monkeys, black mangabey, golden-bellied Mangabey, liana trees that can grow as high as 900 metres, teak trees that can grow as high as 50 metres.
This is just a tiny section of the Congo forest’s vast mosaic of biodiversity that is worth infinitely more in its vibrant pristine state than when it is disrupted through money-minting activities like logging. According to research by Bioversity International, the market value of caterpillars harvested from Tali and Sapelii trees over their life spans is 34 and 13 times higher, respectively, than is the revenue that would be accrued from cutting the trees for their timber.
Although Mabelé didn’t participate in this research, his life’s experiences agree with its findings. He has never benefited from the wood that is dead wood that is harvested from Congo forest, but the living trees gift him with rain, herbs, food and a livelihood every single day of his life.
Imagine Seychelles. Smooth sandy beaches, exotic islands, tasty sea food, eternal ocean breeze… Do you get the picture? Now delete all those pictures and replace them with a forest covering the entire archipelago. The new picture in your mind is Nyeri County in Kenya, whose forest cover of 126,883 hectares is three times the size of Seychelles!
This is miles ahead of Kenya’s gazetted forest cover percentage. According to the Kenya Indigenous Forest Conservation Programme (KIFCON), the country’s forests span nearly two million hectares, which is a paltry 3.28 percent.
A report by the Kenya Water Towers Agency however clarifies that unfortunately, parts of the gazetted forests have been cleared for human settlements while some forests exist outside the gazetted zones. All the same, Kenya is still a long way from the desirable ten percent forest cover and should follow in the footsteps of Nyeri County.
Large portions of Mt Kenya Forest and Aberdare Forest Reserves, two of Kenya’s eighteen water towers are in Nyeri County. The Aberdares range traverses four other Counties and covers an area of 104,078 hectares.
Out of Kenya’s largest seven rivers, four flow from Aberdare. These rivers provide much of the hydroelectricity that powers Kenya. They also provide water most of the water for at last seven urban centers, including Nairobi.
On its part, Mt Kenya Forest supplies water to River Ewaso Nyiro and River Tana, Kenya’s longest river. Tana already has an installed hydropower capacity of 480 MW. Millions of Kenyans are therefore able to switch on their lights thanks to this river, whose water comes from the bosom of Mt Kenya.
Apart from electrifying the country, the forest ecosystem services of Mt Kenya and Aberdare and other water towers greatly nourish the Kenyan economy especially in agriculture and tourism.
However, not even Nyeri, Kenya’s most forested county is immune to the debilitating effects of climate change. A UNEP report entitled, ‘Kenya: Atlas of Our Changing Environment’ provided graphic details concerning Mt Kenya’s melting glaciers. Consequently, rivers like Naromoru are becoming seasonal. Even more dire are domino effects that will negatively impact the ecosystem services of the Mt Kenya Forest.
As one of the Counties that hosts Mt Kenya Forest and Aberdare range, Nyeri has a key role to play in protecting the forests that cover 38 percent of its total area.
Although it was raining in the same consistent manner of a heartbeat, Henry Stanley was sweaty. This vast, huge, massive, gigantic forest had become like a wet, damp prison. His legs felt like left-over porridge that was ready to be scrapped from the bottom of the bowl and thrown away.
Stanley spoke about his utter fatigue in a letter to a newspaper back in his native Scotland, ‘I thought I was very liberal in allowing myself two weeks march to cross the forest region lying between the Congo and the grassland but you may imagine our feelings when month after month, saw us marching, tearing, ploughing, cutting through that same continuous forest.’
Claudine, a twenty year old Gabonese lady was walking through the edge of this same, continuous forest that Stanley witnessed back in 1888.
What a day. A rainy April day. But inside the Gabon Section of Congo forest, such rainy visits are the norm. It’s no wonder Claudine continued walking leisurely through the forest as the rain plummeted her. The halo of Afro hair on her head was dripping with water.
Almost six feet, her strides were long yet graceful.
She was from the Fang, the largest ethnic group in the country. It can also be found in northern Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, southern Cameroon, and the western part of the Republic of Congo.
She stopped at the tree that she was looking for. For a decade, ever since she was ten, she had gone through this same ritual almost daily.
At eighty feet, the tree was thirteen times taller than Claudine. She felt both overwhelmed and protected by it, consumed by its presence, yet at the same time finding refuge in it. This tree was the Gabon ebony, named after her country because it could be found there in plenty. But it was also found in several other African countries from Senegal to Namibia, hence it is also referred to as African ebony.
Like forest elephants, giraffes and buffaloes, Claudine is interested in the trees leaves. But unlike the forest wildlife, her interest is not cuisine related but herbal. Her father is a herbalist, like her grandfather and great grandfather. He uses the leaves of the tree to prepare concoctions that stop bleeding and heal wounds.
Claudine’s father is a sixty-seven year old man whose herbal knowledge has been passed down for millennia. The Congo basin has been inhabited for more than fifty thousand years and in true African fashion, knowledge and traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. Claudine herself already knows the herbal qualities of many of the ten thousand plant species that are in the basin. The decade that she has been venturing into the forest to pluck leaves, stems, barks, fruits, seeds, pebbles and roots for her father has left her with sound knowledge of the forest’s herbal riches.
With an agility that would put Stefka Kostadinova, the Bulgarian world recorder holder high jump to shame, Claudine leaped into the air several times and harvested choice young leaves.
It is harvest of such forest non timber products that ensure the longevity and flourish of Congo forest. Unfortunately, contemporary harvest from the forest mostly focuses on timber. The African Ebony wood is in such high demand globally that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified it as an endangered species.
While Claudine and her father are mostly interested in its leaves only, logging companies are interested in its hard, black wood that will be used to make an assortment of expensive wood products like the black piano keys, violin fingerboards, gun drips, exotic sculptures and knife handles. These products fetch millions of dollars. But at what cost to the forest and local people who live near it like Claudine?
Bwak the Bantu poet has described ebony perfectly as, ‘growing in African soil and containing the African soul, with black wood that resembles a bright starless sky.’
This African soul of ebony should find heaven in increased utilization of ebony’s leaves as opposed to ebony wood. That will keep drawing Claudine to the forest and keep her father in the age-old business of healing wounds.
The thirty eight year old man had his arms outstretched as he danced after scoring his second goal in a 1990 world match against Colombia. Roger Milla’s two goals pushed Cameroon into the next round. Four years later at the age of 42, Roger Milla again did his famous dance at the corner flag after scoring against Russia.
Sadly, Cameroon’s football glory has never been as bright as it was during Roger Milla’s time. However, this West African country continues to dance to another green tune that reverberates in its vast forests that cover nearly half of the country. This makes it one of Africa’s most forested countries.
Leading this green forest dance are the legendary Baka people, Cameroon’s forest guardians. For the Baka, the forest is not just a place to be conserved and debated about during international conferences – it is home. Because they have been immersed in the thick canopies of the Congo basin forests for centuries, they live harmoniously with them.
Ombi is one of the approximately sixty thousand Baka people that live in the densely forested region of southeastern Cameroon. He is a wiry young man born and bred within and adjacent to the forest. His chocolate complexion blends perfectly with the forest’s dark green hues.
When Ombi sings, his voice is deep and booming, but when he talks, he is almost soft spoken. As he utters the unique consonants and vowels of his tribal language, he has a confident smile on his face. He may be illiterate but his intimate knowledge of the forest could easily earn him a PHD in forestry.
At that early hour before dawn when the sun is still asleep, Ombi walks stealthily from the enclosure of his village to the narrow footpath in the forest. He is on his way to a river that is just over four kilometres away.
Ombi’s steps are stealthy because he doesn’t want to awaken the chimpanzees. Some researchers claim that these chimps were the first carriers of the simian immunodeficiency virus, which metamorphosed into HIV after it was passed on to humans. But this is not the reason why Ombi fears the chimps. Rather it is their sheer size of one hundred kilos and occasional foul moods that he is afraid of. Although the gorillas are bigger, they are not as common as the chimps.
Although the river is still three kilometres away, Ombi can already hear its calming rustle. He hastens his steps, eager to splash those cool waters on his face. He regularly fishes in that river by immersing in the waters a non-toxic chemical that is produced from crushed plant material. After dissolving in water, it deprives fish of oxygen causing them to sprint to the surface into his waiting arms.
In front of him to the right, even before he sees it, he can smell the ayous tree, known in neighboring Nigeria as obeche. As a boy, he would stand a few feet from the tree and gaze up at it. It was so tall that he sometimes imagined it touching God’s beard. Once, he had hid behind it when a chimpanzee jumped in front of him as if it wanted to attack him. But as it turned out, it was a female chimp fleeing from a randy male chimp.
As soon as he turned the corner, he came face to face with not one, but several ayous trees, all towering over forty metres and standing still as if posing for photos. Ombi had no idea that wood from this tree was perfect for making guitars. Neither did he know that the tree, whose scientific name is Triplochiton scleroxylon was in the IUCN red list of threatened species. But he did know that traders from outside the forest loved to cut the tree a lot. This tree, together with the sapele and azobé trees produce most of the timber that Cameroon exports.
In the final stretch leading to the river, Ombi came across several clusters of the moibi tree. This particular tree had healed his injuries more times than he could remember! Its medicinal properties were well known to the Baka people whose herbal prowess was second to now. Ombi’s wife frequented this particular spot to harvest gimba and njansang spices for culinary uses at home and also for barter trade with women traders from nearby Bantu villages. Apart from providing food, medicine and shelter for the Baka people, the forest also gives them currency for trading. In this regard, it is their trusted bank.
More than half of the trees that Ombi has passed on his way to the river are about twenty times bigger than his five feet height. He knows most of them intimately because he had been seeing them for the roughly two decades that he had been in this world. He had scaled them many times in search of birds and honey. Once, he fell down and injured his right knee, but luckily the bark of the very tree that he was scaling was medicine for such bloody injuries.
When they are on the move in the forest, the Baka construct houses that are not posh like Nairobi’s Runda estate or grandiose like those found in Nigeria’s Banana Island. Rather, they are simple, functional and surrounded by Congo Rainforest, the world’s second largest forest.
The forest spreads out across Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo. Apart from the Baka, at least sixty million people depend on it for their livelihoods. Just like the Baka, 400 mammalian species, 280 reptile species, 900 butterfly species and 10,000 plant species call the forest home.
The forest houses of the Baka comprise sturdy sticks and broad leaves plucked from the hallowed forest and weaved expertly into temporary, yet dependable habitations that can keep away the crazy storms that like to embrace the forest from time to time. Baka women are the sole architects and contractors of the leafy houses.
The natural houses have no state of the art music systems blaring Angelique Kidjo’s timeless music or Eminem’s tantalizing raps, but they do have musical chirps from the white-crested tiger heron bird together with a litany of other melodious birds.
The Baka don’t buy food from Le Bon Point supermarket in Cameroon or La Gastronomie supermarket in Chad. Rather, they take it from the forest – from herbs that give them fresh, organic vegetables; from the termite mounds that gift them with fresh proteins through winged termites; from the rivers that bless them with fresh fish; from the herbs that spice up their food and from the animals that roam the forest.
The lifestyle of the Baka is active as they are either walking to the next destination racing after food, digging for more food, building those fresh houses, shimmying up those massive trees, dancing around ever present bonfires.. the list is endless. This lifestyle gives them natural cardiovascular exercises that state-of-the-art gyms charge fortunes to train fitness enthusiasts.
After briskly walking through the cool, wet forest for just over twenty minutes, Ombi finally makes it to the river and comes face to face with cold whistling waters. This river flows into Sanga River, which forms the part of the border between Cameroon and Central Africa Republic plus a portion of the border between Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sanga River then goes on to flow into the great Congo River, the world’s deepest river.
As Ombi splashes the small river’s water on his face, he is touching waters that will make it into Congo River in a few weeks time. Indeed, he is part of the vast Congo Forest Ecosystem that births and replenishes the Congo River and all other Congo forest basin ecosystems.
The Baka stand tall as the guardians of these ecosystems. It is time to empower them economically and amplify their voices.
A few meters from a dusty path that leads towards Kakamega Forest in western Kenya lies a medium sized house whose rusty iron sheet roof glints softly in the late afternoon rain.
A stone throw away from the craggy house stands an Elgon Teak tree, regal and replete in its natural splendor. Resting his head on the rugged bark of the tree is mzee Mumia, a seventy-seven year old man who has lived next to the forest for all his life. He is gazing expressionlessly at the African Grey Parrot that can be seen flying gently towards some nearby shrubs.
This famous African Parrot is close to becoming locally extinct. Only about ten of them are thought to be still in the forest. Incidentally, this forest is its last refuge in Kenya, meaning that Kenya is dangerously close to becoming a ‘parrot-less’ country. This would be a big shame because African Grey Parrots are a rare combination of brains and beauty. The beauty aspect of the parrots is always evident whenever one is spotted perched in the cool branches of the forest or flying in the equally cool atmosphere above those branches.
The 240 square kilometres Kakamega Forest is the eastern most relic of the great Guineo-Congolian forest, which stretches across central Africa. It is the only equatorial rainforest in Kenya and hosts the witty African Grey Parrot plus over three hundred bird species that nest in the over 380 tree species of the forest. The birds that nest in these trees are a diverse mix of central African lowland species and highland species.
Villagers in Kakamega are immensely proud of the African Grey Parrot. Mzee Mumia says that this parrot is like a member of his Luhya community, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya. Numbering about 5.3 million people or at least 15 per cent of Kenya's total population of 40 million, some Luhyas are remnants of the Wanga Kingdom, the most powerful centralised kingdom that ever existed in Kenya's history before the advent of British colonialism in the early 1900s.
Mzee Mumia is named after Mumia, the most famous king of this kingdom. He says that the African Grey Parrot is the megaphone of nature as it imitates the streams that meander through the trees and monkeys that jump from tree to tree.
'But nowadays, people have become so selfish that they want the parrot to imitate them in their homes instead of imitating nature!' the old man says sadly.
The other bird species in the forest include the Great Blue Turaco, Grey-throated Barbets, Double-toothed Barbet, Yellow-crested woodpecker, White-tailed Ant Thrush, Turner's Eremomela and Chapins' Flycatcher. Also flying and nesting in this wet forest are canaries, sunbirds, weavers, waxbills, sparrows, Bulbuls, Swallows and many more.
Some of the birds in the forest, like the Great Blue Turaco, are quite easy to spot. This bird personifies John Keats words, ‘a thing of beauty that is a joy forever.’ Its red bill leaves one convinced that it is the main inspiration behind lipstick. Also conspicuous are its blue and yellow feathers that appear beautifully misty whenever the regular raindrops gently interrupt its flight. With a length of 70 – 75 centimeters long, it is the largest Turaco.
Other bird species in the forest like the Turner’s Eremomela are quite difficult to spot. This is a very small warbler that is only 8 – 9 centimeters. The general scarcity of this tiny bird has already earned it a place on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It was pushed onto this list by increasing habitat loss that is fuelled by increased encroachment into the forest through farming and grazing.
Mzee Mumia’s five sons are all farmers who often graze their cows in the forest. Okoti, the oldest of the five, explains this grazing recourse to the forest, ‘the birds and monkeys cannot finish all this grass and shrubs in the forest!’
He however condemns the tree felling and charcoal burning that is also contributing greatly to the habitat loss of the birds. However, Kunyobo, his younger brother differs with his brother on this one, ‘we use wood from this forest to build our houses and use the charcoal to cook our food. Aren’t food and shelter basic needs without which we can’t live?’
The Turner’s Eremomela bird would agree with the young man’s observation. It would agree that it too needs the shelter and food that the trees provide. Due to habitat loss, it is becoming more and more difficult to hear the bird’s high-pitched voice chirping away in the forest.
Kakamega forest has 194 forest-dependent bird species. Such birds depend on the forest for their very survival. Luckily, this bird-rich forest still has many birds that are not endangered. The African Barbets can still be found in plenty in the forest, pecking away at the many fruits in the forest.
One of the larger members of the African Barbets is the Double-toothed barbet. It is a cheeky, cheery and serene bird. With its gleaming red underside, it seems to be forever celebrating Valentine’s day. Harder to spot but equally beautiful is the Yellow-billed Barbet. It seems to prefer the denser parts of the forest. When it does make an appearance, it doesn’t disappoint. Its yellow bill and partially yellow underside are a sight to behold – they match perfectly. Another yellow-named Barbet is the Yellow-spotted Barbet, a bird whose natural coat of yellow spots is duly complemented by its red forehead.
For generations, Kakamega Forest has provided refuge for birds like the African Barbets and for members of the local Luhya community who depend on the forest for both timber and non-timber products. Conscious of this vital role that the forest is playing, local conservation activists are now on the forefront of sustainably unveiling the treasures of the forest to both tourists and local people alike. Many of these local conservationists belong to the Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP), the official Site Support Group of the forest.
According to a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Kakamega Forest has two major encroached areas with settlements covering a total of approximately 573 hectares. Groups like KEEP are now sensitizing the community on the need to regard the forest as a sanctuary of nature that should be protected at all costs. To their credit, the local conservationists are helping the local people to realize that their own livelihoods are entwined with better protection of the forest birds and animals.
Apart from adults, more than 10,000 children have over the years received environmental education from KEEP. Ongachi, a twelve year old recipient of this environmental education had some witty thoughts about the birds and people of the forest, ‘every morning I wake up to the sound of birds, which means that without the birds, there would be no morning.’
One morning, Shailesh Patel, a professional bird watching guide from Nairobi woke up to the twin chirps of the White-tailed ant thrush and the Yellow-crested wood pecker. It was already light enough to spot the White-tailed ant thrush balancing on a nearby ant column. But the wood pecker was nowhere to be seen despite its crystal clear sounds.
But in his mind, Shailesh could already see the sharp bill and calm eyes of the woodpecker, not to mention the yellow crest that gave it its name. He had seen this crest heaving back and forth countless times, as the bird pecked away at the rough barks of trees. It was always as if the bird was swaying to some unseen natural orchestra.
The birds of Kakamega forest are at the epicenter of the forest’s music. The Barbets twirl to the tap tap tap of the woodpeckers. The alert eyes of the Harrier Hawk and Lanner Falcon dance excitedly as they scan the lush canopies for some unguarded nests. The Pink-backed Pelican, White Stork and Black-headed Heron seem to gyrate to the silent melody of the forest streams.
The Common Quail otherwise known as isindu in the Luhya language is a local delicacy. Tiny and pretty, it ‘fly-dances’ as it flees gracefully from local hunters. The gleeful cum woeful soprano of the Turner’s Eremomela fits in perfectly, like a dovetail joint, with the cheeky chirp of the lemon dove.
Litungu, a traditional seven-stringed instrument of the Luhya people has a distinct rich sound that seems to draw from the lush musical pitches of the ancients. The harmony inherent in the seven strings of this traditional lyre seems to be a vindication of the traditional harmony between the people and birds of Kakamega Forest.
Mzee Mumia, the old neighbor of the forest is still leaning on the Elgon Teak tree as he observes in his deep voice, ‘we have eaten the common quail for generations but its beautiful presence remains undiminished. We don’t even eat the Turner’s Eremomela yet its very existence in our forest is now threatened.’
The old man pauses fleetingly before concluding, ‘it’s all about harmony. Nature’s harmony must not be stilled.’ For this to happen, Kakamega forest ecosystem must be restored fully and left intact.
To paraphrase the words of Ongachi, the twelve year old boy, ‘the songs of the birds must keep preceding the light of dawn, or mornings will start illuminating a troubled forest, a troubled people and diminishing birds.’