Africa's second largest home of crocodiles fast vanishing as ox-bow lake gets drained

By Caroline Chebet | Tuesday, Sep 11th 2018 at 13:53
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Kiptilit gulley at Lake Kamnarok, an Ox-bow lake in Baringo North sub-County. [Joseph Kipsang/Standard]

A flock of ducks gracefully glide on the shores of Lake Kamnarok as a crocodile dives into a gully-turned-river at the sound of approaching footsteps.

The distinct chirping of the birds that are an equally impressive sight on the little patches of water left by the aggressive water hyacinth weed seems to soothe the lake that is slowly losing its glamour as the second largest home of crocodiles in Africa.

Even as Lake Kamnarok enjoys its serenity, peacefully tucked in the slopes of the Elgeyo escarpment, many challenges are slowly sucking life out of it.

The lake, about 30 kilometres from Kabarnet town in Baringo North, was once recognised as a wetland. But the challenges are slowly dimming its lustre.

“Lake Kamnarok is fast depleting and we might soon lose it. The crocodiles and over 59 bird species and other aquatic life are on the edge as the gulley threatens to drain all the water even as the invasive water hyacinth continues to wreak havoc,” Elijah Chemitei, the Lake Kamnarok Wildlife Reserve warden, said.

Kiptilit gully is a natural fissure that is now threatening to join Lake Kamnarok and River Kerio. The gully has been expanding fast and has drained a lot of water from Lake Kamnarok into River Kerio.

Large amounts of the invasive water hyacinth is swept downstream and conservationists have warned that this will affect other lakes, including Baringo and Turkana. These are freshwater lakes, where hyacinth thrives.

"A lot of water is being drained from the lake. And the gully is growing bigger by the day. Sadly, the water is also sweeping away the hyacinth, which may end up in other lakes,” James Kibet, a community liaison officer at Lake Kamnarok Reserve, said.

Mr Chemitei said since more water was being drained than the amount coming in through its only tributary, the lake could dry up in three months.

About Sh19 million has been used, in the past four years, to build gabions, but the gully diverts its course and continues draining water.

"We need an extra Sh20 million to fix the gully and hopefully save Lake Kamnarok," says Chemitei.

The water hyacinth has covered about 90 per cent of the lake and siltation has worsened the situation.

“It is beyond control. This weed is spreading fast and we do not have funds to remove it. A county government project to remove it guzzled Sh2 million within 10 days. The problem is that the weed multiplies fast,” Mr Chemitei said.

Mr Kibet said the water hyacinth had exacerbated human-wildlife conflicts as crocodiles have been pushed to the shores.

"The reserve is a critical migration route for elephants traversing Baringo and Turkana counties. However, since 2013, we have not been receiving tourists. The fact that the ecosystem has yet to be fenced has not made things any better,” Kibet said.

The Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KeMFRI) said the weed had invaded two other lakes in the region, with Lake 94 and Kamnarok being the hardest hit.

The county KeMFRI coordinator, Jembe Tsuma, said if not controlled, the weed might choke aquatic life, thereby threaten fishing, a major economic activity in the region.

Hyacinth spreads

“The water hyacinth spreads fast in freshwater lakes. When in such favourable conditions, the weed spreads twice as fast,” Dr Tsuma said.

In 2013, the lake, which was estimated to have a population of over 20,000 crocodiles, dried up and became a grazing field. Many crocodiles died while others took refuge in Kiptilit gully. The lake was reclaimed in 2014 and 2015 after the gully was fixed. However, the fissure re-emerged. The hyacinth appeared at this time. The lake is part of the Rimoi-Kamnarok ecosystem. 

John Chesoni, a resident, said: "The management of Lake Kamnarok Game Reserve has been rocked by disputes, which the local community feels should be resolved to pave the way for conservation."

The reserve was gazetted in 1983. However, the residents of Katibel, Kaptilomwo Barwessa, Kuikui, Muchukwo, Keturwo and Konoo villages claim they own the land.

The county director for tourism, Evans Kandie, said the reserve had not benefited the residents due to the disputes.

"The disputes have affected tourist numbers here. Rimoi, which is in the same eco-system, is doing well,” Mr Kandie said.

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