Rift Valley rivers in danger as loggers descend on forest

Albert Chemitei from Lembus Council of Elders shows the extent of destruction by loggers and cartels at Narasha forest. Lembus Forest, a catchment area for at least six rivers, is under threat from illegal loggers. (PHOTO: JOSEPH KIPSANG/ STANDARD)

Lembus Forest, a catchment area for at least six rivers, is under threat from illegal loggers.

The loggers have left behind ugly empty patches as they indiscriminately harvest endangered red cedar trees.

The rivers draining into Lake Baringo are now on the verge of drying up, their water levels substantially reduced as protected cartels armed with axes cut trees day and night.

The rivers under threat include Lelkel, Moiben, Arama, Sokeri, Tuikoin, Chemususu, Ravine and Narasura.
In 1988, retired President Moi ordered the eviction of hundreds of families from the expansive forest.

They had invaded the forest and caused untold damage to the river beds at Maji Mazuri, Narasha, Chemususu and Chemorkong forest blocks.

Despite being a source of many rivers, Lembus Forest hosts Sh5.6 billion Chemususu Dam, a Vision 2030 flagship project, expected to supply million cubic litres of water to various towns and villages in Baringo and Nakuru.

Increased logging

When The Standard visited the forest, wanton destruction was evident everywhere, with evidence of fresh tree harvests while some axed off pieces of wood lay uncollected on the forest floor.

Structures including churches and schools were brought down during the 1988 eviction that also saw massive replanting of trees.

Elders from the Lembus council and residents whom we met as we investigated the damage accused some unscrupulous forest guards of selling trees to harvesters for as low as Sh700 per tree.

The trees which according to community elders range from 70-100 years-old and between 20-40m tall, remain the logger’s prime target.

On the ground, the trees are hurriedly cut into substantial logs and split, producing more than 200 poles a tree.

A fencing pole is sold for Sh300 locally and more than Sh500 in timber yards in Nakuru town.

The surge in illegal logging is also devastating Eburu forests in Naivasha despite efforts by authorities to curb forest losses.

It is one of the 22 gazetted forest blocks that comprise the vast 420,000 hectares Mau Forest Complex.

The forest is of paramount importance since it is the source of several water bodies and forms part of the catchment for lakes Naivasha and Elementaita and is home to several endangered wild animals such as the East African mountain bongo antelope.

  Just like many of the country’s forests, Eburu has been debased over the past few years mostly as a result of increased logging and charcoal burning by settlers around the forest.

“It is unfortunate that people expected to safeguard our heritage have given illegal loggers a clean bill of health. Nearly half of the forest has been cleared and the remaining portion is in great danger of being destroyed,” said Albert Chemitei, chairman in charge of environment in the elders council in reference to Narasha.

The 65-year-old Chemitei said there has been no planting of cedar in the forests since he was born.

The most damaged sections of Lembus Forest, apart from Narasha, are Embobor, Chemoson, Maji Mazuri and Esageri, between the border of Nakuru and Baringo.

To shield the loggers and give them ample time to conduct their business, children and women venturing into the forest to collect dry twigs are harassed by guards.

“We are being arrested for using the forest paths as short cuts to block the residents from witnessing the extent of the destruction in the middle of the forest,” said Simon Labat, a resident.

They said the loggers usually arrive in the evening and carry out their activities at night with forest guards looking the other way.
But Koibatek ecosystem conservator Bernard Orinda said law enforcement officers had already set up several patrol bases in the forest to monitor activities inside the natural resource.

Wild animals

“We have impounded several poles but the main challenge is arresting those behind the destruction,” said Orinda who was recently posted to the region.

It’s not only in Baringo where illegal loggers enjoy a field day. Nyakweri Forest which forms part of the Maasai Mara National Reserve is facing similar threats.

More than 12 rivers emanating from it are drying up because of uncontrolled logging and charcoal burning. The water levels at Mogor River, which feeds the Sondu River and the main source of water for residents of Kilgoris, Kisii, Migori, Nyamira, are fast receding because of human activities in Nyakweri Forest.

 The poaching of elephants and other wild animals for meat in the forest has also been on the rise since destruction of the ecosystem started more than Seven years ago.

Recently, a group of conservationists raised the red flag that human activities in the expansive forest have destroyed more than 300 acres of indigenous trees.

“The situation should be arrested now and not tomorrow. In the next 10 years, the forest will be completely depleted and catastrophic consequences to the people and animals that depend on it,” Peter ole Tompoi, the chairman of Nyakweri-Kimindet Forest Conservation Trust, said.

Flying over the forest, one can see the scale of the destruction that threatens this critical habitat.

Inside the forest, huge patches of land are being cleared to make charcoal.

According to Mr Tompoi, Nyakweri is the biggest supplier of charcoal to Kericho, Narok, Migori, Kisumu, Nyamira, Nakuru and Kisii counties.

The forest also supplies hard timber to Mombasa and Nairobi .

“Smoke is billowing all over and people roaming with axes. Elephants no longer have time or place to mate and reproduce or even give birth,” he said.

Illegal charcoal production is taking place in the protected forest where immigrants use power saws to cut trees. Rogue forest guards collect bribes daily from traditional charcoal earth kilns owners openly.

Here, massive felling of trees not only leads to loss of vegetation for the wildlife but also to drying up of streams. The forest measures approximately 300 square kilometres and is one of the few indigenous forests in the country.

Narok County loses huge chunks of its forest each year through illegal charcoal burning and illegal logging and this charcoal is transported to various parts of the country and beyond.

Along various roads from Mau complex, hundreds of donkeys, mostly driven by women, transport charcoal towards Narok town where the brokers are waiting to buy it at for as low as Sh200 per bag. The middlemen later sell the charcoal in Mombasa or elsewhere for as much as Sh1,500 per bag.

Earlier this year, the Government through the Ministry of Environment proposed excision of 17,000 hectares from Mau complex to settle internally displaced persons, but this was strongly opposed by conservationist and Maasai people.

Kenya Forest Service officers have intensified operation to save the indigenous forest with at least 20 illegal loggers arrested and over 1500 bags of charcoal worth sh900, 000 destroyed in a swoop.