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Saving the cloud forests of Taita hills from wildfires and drought

 Part of Iyale forests within Taita hills forests in Taita Taveta County. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Viewed from the peak of Iyale rock in Wundanyi sub-county in Taita Taveta, Vuria hill stands menacingly tall above the clouds.

Vuria and Iyale, are among the few pockets of forests that together with Ngangao, Chawia, Mbololo and Fururu make up Taita Hills forest.

These forests are part of the Eastern Arc Mountains, a chain of mountains that run from South-eastern Kenya through to Southern Tanzania and boast the existence of a higher number of rare species.

But the current drought and the forest fires that have been raging in some of these forest fragments are worrying local communities and conservation experts.

Some of the forest fragments within Taita hills hold global populations of bird species that include the Taita thrush, Taita Apalis and Taita White-eye, which are now under threat.

"Forest fires are spreading so fast. The current drought situation makes it difficult to contain them. It is sad that people are burning these forests with belief that it might bring rain, while others are expanding farmlands. We are, however, losing habitat to some of the species which are only found here," Honorina Wache, a member of Iyale Angamiza Jangwa group said.

International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) Redlist has classified Taita Apalis as critically endangered. Research estimates that there are between 50 and 250 individuals of Taita Apalis in the wild.

Cases of forest fires, Beatrice Mkavanga said, are common, especially during the dry season.

"The biggest challenge with eucalyptus trees is that the fires spread so fast. Most eucalyptus plantations are usually bare on the ground unlike in indigenous forests where other trees sprout beneath. With eucalyptus, only dry leaves are scattered beneath and it makes it easier for forest fires to spread really fast," Mkavanga said.

Drought has lead residents to graze their livestock within the forests, a situation that causes disturbance to the species, especially during the breeding season.

"This year, for example, the drought has been intense and people come into the forests to harvest some tree species that are edible to livestock. Unfortunately, some of the targeted species are nesting sites for some species. When cows roam in the forests, they also disturb some birds like the Taita Apalis and Taita thrush when they are nesting," Nathaniel Maunga said.

Maunga said that whenever cows roam in these critical habitats, they trample upon the nests and in many instances, breeding fails, leading to dwindling populations.

Deforestation in Taita hills, communities say, has had direct impacts on water sources that are now becoming fewer.

According to a 2019 research that evaluated the forest cover change in Taita forest fragments between 1973 and 2016, Vuria recorded 43 per cent forest cover loss during the period, marking the highest record.

Chawia forest recorded 32.7 per cent forest loss. Both Chawia and Vuria are however non-gazetted and are under the management of the County government of Taita Taveta.

"There are springs that never use to dry but they are now drying up. As communities we have realized that if we lose these forests, the effects might be devastating because there will be no water to support agriculture too," Gift Kisome said.

Communities like that of Iyale Angamiza Jangwa have come up together under an umbrella environmental group known as Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Group, where they engage in conservation activities geared at saving the forests of Taita hills.

Nathaniel Ndagila is part of the monitoring team and also a tour guide, who says that monitoring species helps tell if their populations are increasing or reducing.

"We have been engaging in the restoration of these forests because we cannot survive without them. We monitor a number of species mostly during the breeding season and also during the wet and dry seasons. The information usually helps in knowing the trends," Ndagila said.

Paul Matiku, director for Nature Kenya, said that conserving endangered species in fragmented habitats poses a challenge of inbreeding and there was a need to secure critical habitats to ensure the survival of the species.

"The total gazette area in Taita hills is about 400 hectares, which is a very small area more so given that it is fragmented. This means that the populations are also fragmented and this is one of the reasons why these species are on the verge of extinction," Matiku said.

Through joint efforts to lease and purchase land for nature reserves by a consortium of organizations including the World Land Trust, African Bird Club, Rain Forest Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Nature Kenya has since secured about 12 hectares in Msidunyi in Vuria.

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