Deep in the heart of Mau Forest Complex lies Napuiyapi swamp, one of the ecosystems that supports renowned lakes and rivers.
Napuiyapi, in the local Ogiek dialect, refers to a place that holds a lot of water and is often considered unstable because it can ‘swallow’ if tampered with.
“It is a place that holds water and is like a mattress. Years back, the place was dreaded and no one dared get in there, not even the livestock. It is the heart of Mau that distributes water to rivers and lakes,” said James Chemaina, 78, a resident.
Over the years, however, Napuiyapi swamp that originally covered 2,932 square kilometres is slowly shrinking as a result of increased grazing and clearing activities. This spells doom to Lake Victoria and Mara River.
“Mau’s heart is growing colder by day; it has been tampered with. Cattle walk and graze all over it, people have felled the indigenous trees that protected it and replaced it with exotic ones, including blue gums that suck life out of it,” said Chemaina.
According to Chemaina, Napuiyapi will finally ‘swallow’ local rivers if measures are not put in place to restore it.
“Very soon, there will be no water in the rivers being fed by this swamp," said Chemaina, who once served with the Kenya Forest Service as a forest guard.
Chemaina says unlike yesteryear where conservation was adhered to, people have encroached on water catchment areas and are constructing residential houses and cultivation along river banks.
“The law then was very strict. There was no washing in the river or charcoal burning or even cultivating by the river banks. Grazing was strictly licensed and carrying capacity was never exceeded. The fine was huge, it even attracted caning at times,” Mr Chemaina said.
All swamps, for instance, were a no-go zone. If a cow strayed in, it never came back because it could sink or if it managed to come back, the owner was fined heavily, and even blocked from gazing his livestock in the forest.
“Sadly, cattle are always grazing at every swamp in the forest. Moles even live in there, a clear indication of the kind of degradation that the place is currently facing,” he said.
According to the Kenya Forest Service, protection of the water catchment areas has faced challenges, including the communities grazing in the areas.
According to Manager of Kiptunga Forest Station Robert Ngoto, approximately 10,600 cattle graze within Kiptunga forest, a number which is regarded as very high.
Mr Ngoto revealed that the Kenya Forest Association has been sensitising residents in the last two years on the need to conserve the water catchment areas within the Mau ecosystem. However, no action has been taken on those grazing within the swamps.
“Unlike other forests, Kiptunga has some communities living within. We have the Kipsigis, the Maasai and the indigenous Ogiek. These communities depend on livestock and it has been hard to control the large herds of cattle,” Mr Ngoto said.
And while the manager admitted that the KFS is mandated to protect the ecosystem, he said the much that has been done lies majorly on the social fencing, which involves forming a committee to raise awareness on the same.
“We have been trying putting in efforts to save the swampsalso through partnerships. We have formed a committee which is being funded by WWF, involving all the stakeholders doing the social sensitisation,” Ngoto said.
He added that influx of other communities pretending to be the Ogiek has made the matters worse.
“The indigenous Ogiek community used to conserve the forests but the current infux of other communities in their name is worsening the matters,” Mr Ngoto said.
According to WWF Operations Manager Kennedy Bwire, fencing the swamps as suggested by the locals is not an option since it is part of the larger Mau ecosystem.
“We rule out fencing because the swamps lie within the larger Mau ecosystem. Fencing the ecosystem will lock out wildlife dependent on the ecosystem,” said Mr Bwire.
Latest report by the National Environmental Complaints Committee cites overgrazing, climate change and invasive plant species as the causes of depletion of wetlands in Kenya.
According to the survey, climate change is a major contributor to depletion of wetlands and has resulted in the emergence of invasive species, loss of coastal wetlands and reduction in water quality, the report said.