Extreme sport keen on conservation of forests

Karuru Falls in Aberdares.
It’s unbelievable what unity of purpose and determination can achieve in three decades. From 1989 to 2018 the Rhino Charge has raised Sh1.5 billion towards the conservation of Kenya’s water towers.

It is one of the few sport events run with a national conservation purpose to safeguard the integrity and ecological functions of mountain forests, also known as water towers as they are the source of all main rivers in the country.

Implemented by the Rhino Ark Kenya Charitable Trust, the conservation work supported by the Rhino Charge has positively affected three of Kenya’s five main water towers: Mt Kenya, Aberdares and the Mau Forests Complex.

Today, over 80,000 households benefit from the protective functions of the 640km of electric fences built to date. These fences are instrumental as a management tool in addressing key challenges affecting these mountain forests: regular crop damage and occasionally human fatalities caused by marauding wildlife, especially elephant; and threats arising from human activities, including poaching, bush-meat hunting, snaring, illegal logging, charcoal burning and encroachment.

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Big cars for a big cause

The Rhino Charge goes back to the early days of Rhino Ark in 1988, and the need to raise funds to support construction of the electrified fence – at that time being built around the spur of the Aberdare National Park – to protect the highly endangered black rhino from poachers, and the farmers in the area from the ravages of wildlife.

The result was the conception of an unique one-day off-road competition, held in a remote part of the country, which grew rapidly into the toughest off-road event on the African continent and, possibly, the world.

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It has since become an indispensable fundraiser for expanding Rhino Ark projects. Such is its popularity in Kenya that, every year, record sums of money are raised, now comfortably more than Sh100 million (US$1 million) for each Charge – and rising to Sh183 million (US$1.8 million) in 2018.

To ensure the funds raised by the competitors go to conservation, the Rhino Charge is organised and run mostly by volunteers who provide their professional skills and time to prepare and run the event every year. The event also benefits from in-kind support provided by many event sponsors and raffle donors.

The Rhino Charge underpins the vital conservation work undertaken by Rhino Ark and its partners, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Engage communities

Most of Kenya’s forests are in mountain areas – in Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, the Mau Forests Complex, the Cherangani Hills, and Mount Elgon. They are known as the ‘water towers’ of Kenya, forming the upper catchment of all but one of the main rivers of Kenya.

The water towers are vital national assets in terms of climate regulation, water storage, recharge of groundwater, river flow regulation, flood migration, control of soil erosion, and conservation of biological diversity. They are Kenya’s single most important source of water for direct human consumption and for industrial and farming activities.

Rhino Ark activities have expanded rapidly since the early days. What was originally a 38km fence along the park salient of the Aberdares became – over 21 years – the world’s longest conservation fence, nearly 400km in length, protecting over 2,000 sq km of prime forest and water catchment.

Based on the experience in the Aberdare, Rhino Ark embarked in 2012 on fencing of Mt Kenya, in partnership with the Kenya Forest Service, Kenya Wildlife Service, Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project and Mount Kenya Trust. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, Mount Kenya’s forests are rich in biodiversity, not only in terms of ecosystems but in terms of species.

It also plays a critical role in water catchment for the entire country – including the Ewaso Nyiro and the Tana River, Kenya’s largest. The fence, once completed will be even longer than the Aberdare fence, at 450km in length. To date, 190km have been completed.

In 2013, with financial support from Mpesa Foundation, Rhino Ark initiated a major conservation project in Mount Eburu in the Mau escarpment, with a comprehensive electrified fence around the entire protected forest of nearly 9,000 hectares. This natural forest, rich in biodiversity, is home to over 40 species of mammals, including the critically endangered Mountain Bongo. In November 2014, the 43.3 perimeter electric fence was completed.

Rhino Ark expanded further its conservation work in the Mau Forests Complex in 2014 around South Western Mau, the largest forest in that Complex. Through a new partnership with the Dutch-based Sustainable Trade Initiative, Finlays, Unilever, Kenya Tea Development Agency, KFS and KWS, Rhino Ark is implementing an integrated conservation programme to safeguard that forest and engage the adjacent communities in conservation. Within its national mission of protecting the water towers and other threatened wildlife habitats, Rhino Ark made the commitment in 2018 to support the conservation and fencing of Kakamega Forest, the only tropical rain forest in Kenya.

To date, Sh230 million have been committed towards this project with Sh100 million from the Kakamega County Government, Sh30 million from the Vihiga County Government and Sh100 million from Rhino Ark. The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment study for the fencing of Kakamega will start in June with the objective to start the fencing work later this year. Homegrown solutions to environmental challenges have never been more promising.

- The writer is Executive Director, Rhino Ark Charitable Trust

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