Community's quest to save forest that is home to endangered bird

Dakatcha Woodland Group members in Magarini, Kilifi County. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Mary Badiva cautiously scanned through minutes of a past meeting, as she prepared to lead a group of community members through a meeting at Kasikini village in Magarini, Kilifi County. 

Mary is the secretary of the group which is majorly drawn from the little-known indigenous Waatha community, a marginalised hunter-gatherer community on the Kenyan Coast. 

The day’s agenda of the meeting is an update on the state of the 3,000-hectare Kasikini community conservancy, land donated by the Waatha community for conservation.

The conservancy, which is currently being watched by over 40 community scouts, is part of Dakatcha Woodland, an extensive tract of somewhat intact coastal woodland, north of the Sabaki River.

“We are deliberating on the state of the forest today. We want to know the challenges that were recorded in the past few weeks and how they would be addressed by the community,” Mary says.

Dakatcha Woodland in Magarini, Kilifi County. [Caroline Chebet, Standard] 

Although Dakatcha Woodland has been identified as a key biodiversity area and important bird area, it currently has no formal protection. 

The area majorly consists of the Brachystegia forests and impenetrable thickets of Cynometra that cover vast areas in countries to the south extending to Tanzania’s Miombo Woodland.

But the disappearance of Brachystegia forests, also known as Miombo in Swahili, is what led to the setting aside of community conservancy. The disappearance and lack of formal protection also led to the purchase of parcels of land within Dakatcha that currently serve as nature reserves.

“Originally, we were a hunter-gatherer community. We survived because of the Dakatcha Woodland where we used to collect food and hunt.

Years later, hunting was outlawed and we are now farmers but we still need these forests. We need them for our own identity, it is a home of iconic species and we also need the forests for the rains,” Abaduba Guyo, 88, says.

Besides being a key identity for the Waatha community which has set aside 3,000 acres as part of indigenous community conserved areas, the future of one of the world’s rarest birds – Clarke’s Weaver is dependent on Dakatcha. 

Clarke's weaver's breeding site  within Kamale Nature Reserve  in Dakatcha Woodland in Magarini, Kilifi County. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

In 2013, researchers discovered that Clarke’s Weaver’s only known nesting site was in the miombo woodland of Dakatcha. The bird is classified as endangered according to the International Union for Conservation and Nature with about 2,000 of them estimated to be remaining.

The woodland is also home to the endangered Golden-rumped elephant shrews, Sokoke Scops owl, and Sokoke pipit.

However, being a vast land with no formal protection, Dakatcha Woodland has been fast disappearing over the years from illegal charcoal production, and uncontrolled pineapple farming among other threats.

“Initially, the forests here were so thick but then they are people’s farms. People started selling but we came together as a community and decided to keep part of it as a forest.

Already we are facing seasons of intense droughts and we need forests so that we can be able to grow our own food comfortably. We need to keep these animals and birds that only survive here and nowhere else,” Mary says.

To combat the vast disappearance of the once-impenetrable Dakatcha Woodland, local conservationists living within the woodland formed the Dakatcha Woodland Group, a site support group in partnership with Nature Kenya, a conservation organisation.

The aim was to encourage communities to form community conserved areas to secure critical breeding sites as in the case of Waatha in Kasikini.

“We realised that the once-famous Dakatcha woodland was disappearing and would remain just as a story,” Patrick Changawa, the Secretary of Dakatcha Woodland group said.

Changawa said while the woodland once spread across Tanzania, the forest cover has drastically reduced over time with upcoming developments and increasing population.

“Unlike now, the forests were more intact but it has continued to be fragmented. A lot has changed too and it is upon the community to reverse the situation.”

“As part of our work, we create awareness among our communities on the importance of these forests. We also take part in monitoring these birds to tell the health of this environment,” he said.

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