Traversing the Coastal mangrove forests to save endangered trees

Groups walk through Chara mangrove forest in Tana Delta. Kenya has nine mangrove species out of the 80 scattered across the world. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Cruising through the tidal inlets and rivers that open to the sea within Kenya’s North Coast is a mishmash of mangrove trees dotting the sealine.

Little egrets form silhouettes riding on the backs of hippos in their mud pools, while crabs crawl on mudflats underneath the web of mangrove forests. The sights and sounds within the little known riverine vegetation are magical.

While there are about 80 different species of mangrove trees scattered across the world, Kenya has nine species.

The highest concentration is in the North Coast around the Lamu Archipelago, Tana River Delta and in the smaller wetlands in the creeks and mouths of seasonal rivers at the South Coast.

Kipini area, where River Tana opens up to the Indian Ocean, has the highest density of all the nine mangrove species.

“As the River Tana meanders towards the ocean, there is a high concentration of mangroves especially in the last villages of Chara, Kilelengwani, Ozi, and Kipini,” says George Odera, the Tana Delta Project manager with Nature Kenya.

“They are located at the tail end where salty and fresh water mixes. These are perfect spots for boating activities and host hundreds of crocodiles and hippos.”

Chara and Kipini have some of the remaining largest fragments of coastal mangrove forests. Here, the temperatures are relatively high.

The charming floating mangroves of Chara are interestingly partitioned into sections, which according to Chara Community Forest Association (CFA) members, helps in restoration of degraded areas.

“Almost every day, we walk these muddy thickets, sometimes guarding the forests and many times planting the mangroves within the degraded areas. Mangroves are our lifeline because they support tourism activities and also help prevent erosion of coast lines,” Khaija Komora of CFA says.

Within the mudflats, one can see an endless intricate web of lines that creates the mystic sights. The webs are trails left behind by moving snails.

Volunteer conservationists often walk for kilometres either scouting for illegal activities within the remaining fragments, or planting more mangroves within the degraded areas under an ambitious restoration project taking place in the Tana Delta.

Mangroves are critical to the coastal ecosystems as they act as breeding zones for many coastal and marine species.

They are also key in supporting fisheries while acting as a buffer for the coastal communities against extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

They also reduce soil erosion at the coastline. The trees thrive in intertidal zones with low-oxygen soil, a reason why their roots are developed to be exposed to air as the marshy swamps restrict the intake of oxygen.

While some mangroves have root systems that arch high over the water, other species have stilt roots that branch and loop off the trunk and lower branches.

Still, others have wavy plank roots that extend away from the trunk.

Mangrove forests are home to and feeding grounds for hundreds of water birds including Dimorphic Egrets, Lesser Crested and Roseate Terns.

The forests are also important feeding and development area for juvenile green and hawksbill sea turtles.

In areas like Mida Creek, a tidal inlet in Malindi that has the highest concentration of mangroves and one of the designated ornithological reserves in Africa, mangrove channels form feeding and breeding grounds for rare fish species like the Parrot fish, Rabbit fish, Jacks, Snappers, Groupers, Emperors and Barracuda.

Migratory birds also utilize Mida Creek as a stopover point, and it is essential to their survival. The mud flats, also known as sand flats are feeding and resting grounds for large populations of aquatic birds.

Despite the benefits of mangroves, they have been illegally logged for years to meet the demand for building and fencing poles.

The illegal felling and poaching of mangroves nearly led to the extinction of some rare species of mangroves such as the Dungun or Looking-Glass Tree.

“In 2013, we realised that there was a lot of logging on mangroves. Some mangrove species which are only found in Kipini were also disappearing and it had the effects on coastal erosion. As a result, some hotels have been swept away,” Riziki Bwanake, a member of Kipini CFA says.

Bwanake, alongside 88 other members of her group, have been aggressively restoring the degraded parts within the mangrove plantations and currently have over 100,000 seedlings.

The volunteer conservationists have been putting up tree nurseries and undertaking ambitious restoration initiatives as part of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Environment Facility project dubbed ‘The Restoration Initiative’.

The project is being implemented by Nature Kenya.

“The reason why mangroves remain the target is they are considered the best building material,” Odera says. “They are also used in making canoes. However, the demand is outstripping the supply and that is why we are banking on such restoration initiatives to bring back the mangrove forests.”

Under the project, communities team up with county governments to restore degraded parts within the Tana Delta, particularly riverine forests like Chara, Ozi, Kilelengwani and Kipini.

The conservationists say the area around the Delta Dunes acts as a nursery where they harvest mangrove propagules, the seeds that germinate while still on trees.      

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