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Smallest national park is too small to accommodate tourists and rare species

NATIONAL
By Martin Ndiema | June 5th 2021
Saiwa Swamp National Park entrance [Courtesy]

A few decades ago, business flourished in market centres surrounding Saiwa, the smallest National Park in Kenya.

Saiwa is home to the endangered sitatunga antelope and the rare crane birds, which attract tourists to the park overlooking Cherangany hills to the East and the Sinyereri stream meandering from the north towards the park’s tail end before pouring into River Nzoia.

Saiwa National Park is sandwiched between Cherangany hills and Sinyeyeri stream creating a serene environment. Residents benefited from foreign tourists purchasing traditional artifacts. However, human activities are leading to environmental degradation.

Locals, for instance, harvest the Bulrush grass (makololwe) preferred by the sitatunga antelopes and crane birds.

This has been exposing them to threats of extinction in the national park, which was established in 1974 for the two endangered species, which also hosts the black and white Colobus and De brazza monkeys, genet cats, otters, mongooses and bushbucks.

The socio-economic gains that accrued from the resource are now disappearing at an alarming rate. Tourists numbers dwindled and small scale traders along the park moved elsewhere.

Growing population in Trans Nzoia has exerted pressure on land forcing those living along the rivers to cultivate up to the banks and Sam Juma, a private surveyor in Kitale argues that this has led to more people having “to reclaim catchment areas for crop cultivation.”  

Sinyereri, a tributary of River Nzoia, has seen farmers cultivating vegetables along it. The farmers have invaded the banks of rivers Kapenguria and Nzoia as well pile pressure on natural vegetation including the bulrush grasss, which farmers chop off to pave way for their crops leaving the river banks bare and soils exposed to erosion.

A senior game warden at the game park, Philip Rono said that locals also harvest bulrush grass for cattle feed, as thatching material and during brick making.

Saiwa Swamp National Park [Courtesy]

Exposed river banks result in raised water levels occasioning flooding during rainy seasons.  

While the park boasted about over 370 bird species including the Ross’ turaco and the blue-headed Coucal, Rono said that numbers are thinning alongside the Sitatunga antelope, crane birds and monkey chatters on trees along the 18km stretch are becoming bygones as well.  

“It is a challenge that requires collective and concerted efforts to address. Environmentalists, agricultural experts and the community itself are key stakeholders to jointly tackle the challenge,” he noted.

Areas of the swamp near Sinyereri Primary School to the south of the park bears the greatest brunt as it’s beyond the mandate of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) wardens.

The wetland region, not forming part of the park, has since been transformed to a communal grazing and watering land. A section has been grabbed by individuals owning bordered land.

The waters of Sinyereri stream which covers a big portion of the wetland are dwindling threatening the adjacent communities.

Sand harvesting is now a common phenomenon as lack of proper vegetation cover contributes to massive soil erosion in the area and subsequent river siltation.

Animals that used to cross over the Sinyereri bridge from the park to the adjacent marsh vegetation are rare as Vincent Kigen a resident of Sitatunga Village recalls.

“We used to see sitatunga antelopes and hares cross here, but nowadays they don’t since they have no place to hide on the other end and tourists either view them as early as six o’clock in the morning or late in the evening,” he said.

Government parks are also facing stiff competition with tourists shifting to the emerging private parks and museums, a situation area environmental officer, Stanley Ambasa, blames on degradation of the wetlands.

 

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