Inspired by their clan symbol, members come together to save monkey habitat

Members of the Kiptapkei clan plant indigenous fruit trees in Nandi County. [Edward Kosut, Standard]

It is broad daylight in the small town of Nandi Hills at the heart of Nandi County. Hundreds of vervet monkeys descend on the groceries that have been painstakingly displayed in market stalls. The angry traders are left counting their losses. 

By nature, vervets feed on wild fruits, leaves, young shoots, bulbs, roots, flowers, bark and grass seeds. Ordinarily, they would supplement their vegetarian diet with insects and sometimes baby birds and eggs and small rodents.   

But the vagaries of deforestation and its adverse effects on the ecosystem have made these foods scarce. As the human population surges, the forest has continuously been depleted by agricultural activities and most parts of Nandi County have been occupied by tea plantations. Hunger emboldens the monkeys to venture out of the wooded areas and into the bustling streets and markets, hunting for feed to eat and feed their young ones. 

In recent years, the conflict between the primates and humans has become so rampant that it is threatening the previously peaceful co-existence. 

Joel Mengich Malakwen, a resident, has noted the plight of the small animals with concern.  

“The vervet monkeys are one of the sacred primates of the Kalenjin community. They are the identity (totem) of some clans in the community. I belong to one such clan, the Kiptapkei clan, and I empathise with the challenges the monkeys are facing due to adverse climate change and human activity,” he says. 

The expansive woodlands include the Nandi forest and a section of Mau Forest that extends to Nandi Hills and Tinderet, two of Nandi County’s six constituencies. The areas that were initially made of indigenous fruit trees were replaced by exotic vegetation during a two-decade restoration process that was spearheaded by the government and NGOs.

Spurred by his passion for saving vervet monkeys, Malakwen started to mobilise his community towards forest restoration in riparian lands and water catchment areas. 

“We came together as a small family and formed a group of about 20 members. The idea was to sensitise the wider community on the importance of growing indigenous trees to support the wild animals roaming in the villages,” he says.

The Standard catches up with Malakwen on Earth Day as he is leading over 500 members of the Kiptapkei clan in a tree-planting exercise. His jungle green outfit makes him stand out from the rest of the group members.

Malakwen, who is 48 years old, reminisces about his childhood days in the remote village of Kapseng’ere. He says that monkeys coexisted with humans and they hardly invaded the settlements and farms.

“In those days, food was abundant for the monkeys and other primates. Even children would gather the fruits that grew naturally in the bushes,” he narrates.

Inspired by his love for the environment and his curiosity about the primate species, Malakwen completed his O-Levels in Nyang’ori Secondary School in 1995 and proceeded to the University of Nairobi where he pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Botany and Zoology.

“After graduating in 1999, I ventured into the Institute of Primate Research at the same institution. I discovered that the vervet monkeys were in danger of being wiped out if appropriate measures were not taken to protect their habitats,” he narrates.

As an affiliate researcher for Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), he discovered common tropical and viral diseases affecting primates and human beings.

“I stayed in Nairobi engaging in various businesses for close to 20 years. We founded the Urban Green Nairobi Group, a movement that brought together environmentalists who advocated for the reclamation of Nairobi River and the beautification of Nairobi’s Central Business District,” he said.

In 2019, Malakwen thought of taking his initiatives back to the community and he registered a community-based organisation (CBO) that brought together the members of the Kiptapkei clan in Nandi County.

The members have been participating in various environmental projects in Kipsebwo, King’wal, Kimondi and Kapsaos water towers.

Since the group officially started planting trees under the tutelage of Malakwen, the membership has grown to over 100,000 across Nandi County.

“We have reclaimed over 15 acres of private land in the water catchment area of Kipsebwo. The residents have voluntarily subscribed to the spirit of environmental conservation and abandoned farming for beekeeping. We are looking forward to scaling up honey production to boost the community's economy,” Malakwen says.

Initially, baboons were still populous in Nandi according to Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) but due to their aggressive nature, they had to migrate due to frequent attacks from humans. But the troops of vervet monkeys are not hostile and they interact with the residents in their settlements though they massively destroy maize plantations.

Daniel Yaem, chairperson of the Kiptapkei Council of Elders, says the organisation has been recognised by the Kenyan government for spearheading environment conservation activities.

“In the government objective to grow 15 Billion trees by 2030, we have been working with NEMA, Mama Doing Good among other non-governmental organisations in restoring government forests and promoting eco-friendly farming activities,” he says.

He adds that environment-friendly activities and beliefs should be integrated with environmental conservation measures.