In Kiptunga forest, one of the 22 blocks of Mau water tower, lies Enapuiyapui swamp, a critical source of water for Mara and Nyongores rivers, that flow into Lake Victoria.
The swamp is also source of the Molo River which flows into Lake Baringo and River Njoro which feed Lake Nakuru.
It is at Enapuiyapui swamp that celebrations of Wetlands day will be held.
“If you want to know how Mau is doing, you have to check on Enapuiyapui. You can tell where we are going wrong just here. Like now, you can tell that despite all the lush and greenery, all is not well. Enapuiyapui is hardening, it is no longer the soggy swamp that it used to be,” Joseph Chemaina, an Ogiek elder said.
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To the locals, efforts to conserve Mau forest are slowly bearing fruits after the tree planting drive spearheaded by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and the late Prof Wangari Maathai in 2010.
The land around the recently fenced swamp, is covered by pine and eucalyptus, trees while bordering it metres away, is an ambitious shamba system, an initiative by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to boost livelihoods and help nurture trees.
However, locals feel the shamba system is negating conservation efforts.
“Challenges facing conservation milestones are all here in. Planting of exotic trees around the wetland, overgrazing and shamba system that promotes plantation of exotic trees,” Chemaina said.
He noted that planting trees for commercial purposes on huge tracts of land including pine and eucalyptus will finally render the swamp dry.
“But what is tea cup filled with poison? That is exactly what Enapuiyapui has been turned to. It has been interfered with so it does not serve its purpose,” Chemaina said.
He noted that some years ago, Kiptunga forest used to have large tracts of indigenous trees, some surrounded the swamp but almost half of the forest block has been turned into commercial plantations.
Then, he said, the Ogiek had tasked three clans to protect the swamps in Kiptunga forest.
“Way back in the 1970s through to 1990s the elders had unwritten regulations governing the swamp. The cows were not allowed to graze in to the swamp and there were three clans -Gapyegon, Giptieromu and Gipartore tasked to take care of it. We did not introduce any foreign tree around the swamp. They knew the swamp as Mau’s heart and did not want anything to poison it,” he added.
Chemaina proposed zoning of the forest to set aside areas for indigenous and commercial plantations of trees.
“The efforts to reclaim degraded areas is a good initiative but the biggest challenge is that the government does not have plans in place. What if in the race to finally achieve laid goals are reached but with entire commercial forests. We will not have solved the challenge and the rivers will continue reducing in volume,” he said.
The fencing of Enapuiyapui swamp, he said, is a step towards conserving the swamp but this will not save it from drying up due to exotic trees planted around it which siphon a lot of water. David Rotich, a resident of Marioshioni that borders the forest block, concurred with Chemaina that zoning will allow more indigenous trees to grow.
He regretted that shamba system has led to degradation of the forest as this is a major contributor of forest fires and illegal felling of trees.
“When locals are preparing the farms, they often light fire to clear the land and end up causing forest fires. Also, when replacing the degraded areas, exotic trees are mostly preferred, a situation which has over the years slowly replaced indigenous plantations that keep the rivers flowing,” Mr Rotich said.
Joseph Barngetuny, a community forest association member, said locals have been on the fore front in conserving the forest and volunteer community scouts who work with KFS.
“Following the many cases of charcoal burning and illegal logging before the moratorium was put in place, the community decided to take part and boosted the KFS rangers with the volunteer community scouts. Although they do not receive any payment, through Ogiek People Development Programme, the volunteer scouts receive airtime while working with the KFS rangers to conduct patrols,” Mr Barngetuny said.
The ten volunteer scouts, have been working with the KFS for the past three years.
He said Kiptunga Forest community association, has also partnered with KFS to fence the swamp following the large herds of livestock that graze in the forest. The community, had since fenced 300 meters when Ewaso Nyiro South Development Authority teamed up with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to fence the entire 4 kilometre square around the swamp.
“The fence needs a lot of protection as it has experienced a lot of changes. It has turned from the once very soggy swamp and has since been hardening up with time,” he said.
According to the National Environmental Complaints Committee, complaints have since been raised concerning the status of the swamp.
“We have since received numerous complaints where local communities are concerned of the large tracts of exotic trees surrounding the swamp. Concerns have also been raised on shamba system bordering the swamp that it should be done away with,” Dr John Chumo, the secretary to the committee said.
The committee recommended that exotic trees plantations be replaced with bamboo and the Water Resource Authority, National Environment Management Authority and Nakuru County government create awareness on importance of conserving the swamp.
“Water Resource Authority should also task Water Resource Users Association and Kiptunga community forest association to supervise all activities around the wetland so as to put potential swamp destruction in check,” Dr Chumo said.
Recently, Mau forest complex was admitted to Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, a project expected to raise global awareness and boost its conservation as the largest indigenous mountain forest in East Africa.