For years, Eburru Forest, home to the rare bongo antelope species, was known as ‘the smoking forest’, thanks to tens of charcoal burners who had taken over the troubled water tower.
Everyday, scores of indigenous trees came crashing to the ground as a blame game between residents and government officials raged.
So feared were the charcoal burners and poachers in the nearby villages that no one dared mention their names or point them out.
But in a bold move, the Rhino Ark, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) has managed to convert a number of poachers and charcoal burners into custodians of the forest.
The billowing smoke from charcoal kilns has been replaced by heavy mist as the 21,535-acre forest slowly regains its former glory.
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The sound of crashing trees has been replaced by the humming of bees and chirping of birds.
Clean water is now flowing in the erstwhile dry riverbeds as the donkeys once used to ferry charcoal now ferry farm produce from the surrounding farms.
Eburru Forest is part of Mau Forest Complex in the east.
The forest’s ecosystem forms part of the watershed between lakes Nakuru and Elementaita on one side, and Naivasha on the other.
Cases of logging and illegal poaching have gone down as the once most wanted criminals now jealously protect the forest that is home to tens of various species of animals and birds.
One of the former poachers only identified as Peter for security reasons, describes his conversion as the best decision he ever made after years on the run from KWS rangers.
Peter, who is currently involved in farming apart from protecting the forest and the endangered bongo species, describes his former life as rich, but full of fear and danger.
“One would never know peace. Even as we sold the charcoal or game meat we were always wary of traps set by KWS officers,” he says.
But it was not only the game rangers that Peter had to contend with - there were the silent guardians of the forest, too. At some point, Peter came face to face with a leopard inside a cave as he fled from armed forest rangers.
“From the darkness I could easily spot the leopard, but out of fear I could not move as the forest rangers were passing near the cave. This was one of the turning point moments for me,” he says.
Upon deciding to leave the forest and work with KWS and KFS, Peter encountered some resistance from his colleagues, who accused him of being a sell-out.
His fellow villagers could also not believe that he had reformed.
“It took time for the society to accept us. Now we have a legal way of earning our daily bread while at the same time protecting this precious forest,” he says.
According to Joseph Mutongu, the fence community manager at the Rhino Ark, using reformed poachers and charcoal burners has been a boon for Eburru Forest conservation efforts.
“Since we decided to use the reformed group, cases of charcoal burning is now a thing of the past while poaching is on its deathbed,” he says.
In the first phase of the programme, six reformed poachers have been hired to conduct surveillance on the bongo.
The reformed poachers know the forest well and are helping track the bongo as well as charcoal burners and poachers.
“Apart from protecting the forest, this group has engaged their former counterparts who have agreed to leave the forest and are now involved in bee keeping and farming,” says Mutongu.
Eburru Forest manager Samuel Mundia says the decision to use reformed charcoal burners after years of playing cat and mouse with them was bearing fruits.
“Some sections of this forest are very steep and dangerous, making it difficult for us to venture, but with the reformed poachers on our side, we have nothing to be worried about,” he says.
Meanwhile, the government has allocated Sh200 million for the construction of an overpass on Moi North Lake Road to be used by wild animals on their way to Lake Naivasha.
The overpass is meant to join Eburru Forest and Lake Naivasha and has already been approved by stakeholders.
Rhino Ark and partners have fenced the corridor from the forest to the lake ahead of the project.