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Why Lake Kamnarok’s death is a disaster for the ecosystem

By Caroline Chebet | June 4th 2021
Locals and Kenya Wild Life service offers trying to assist one of the three elephants that got stuck in Mud at Lake Kamnarok National Game reserve in Baringo North on April 1, 2019. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Except for random patches of water that dot the vast fields, everything else looks like a paddy field right in what used to be a lake within Lake Kamnarok National Reserve in Baringo County.

Lying within the base of Kerio belt, overlooking the scenic Elgeyo-Marakwet escarpments, Lake Kamnarok once boasted of being among the few ox-bow lakes in the country and a home to thousands of crocodiles.

In its prime years, Lake Kamnarok only rivaled Lake Chad, becoming the second-largest host of crocodiles after the former. Today it is a shadow of its former self. The greenery of fresh grass has replaced the mass of water that once spanned five kilometer-square.

“It is sad that siltation finally chocked the lake. The water drained out, leaving the greenery behind. It was once a crocodile paradise. It was once a haven for hundreds of elephants since the lake lies within a critical migratory corridor. It hosted hundreds of species of birds and together with the neighboring Rimoi National Reserve, formed a critical ecosystem,” James Kibet, Lake Kamnarok National reserve liaison officer said.

The lake lies within the 87.7-kilometer-square Lake Kamnarok National Reserve, which was gazetted in 1984. The reserve is under management of the local county government, but the degradation challenges within the reserve explain the disappearance of the lake that was once a wonder. It once hosted more than 15,000 crocodiles. Some of them, according to the locals, were white crocodiles.

“The crocodiles are also fighting for their survival and many of them are hiding within Kiptilit Gulley that drains water from the lake into Kerio river. Others followed the river into Lake Turkana when the lake (Kamnarok) started drying up,” Kibet said.

The scenario that has finally dealt a final blow to the ox-bow lake stemmed from siltation intensified by invasion of water hyacinth. The lake also developed the gulley that drained large amount of water, a case that gradually led to dwindling volumes before the lake finally turned in to a vast field of grass.

While other lakes within the Rift Valley, including Baringo, Bogoria, Nakuru and Elementaita are increasing in volumes, at Lake Kamnarok the scenario is the exact opposite. A tiny stream that once used to be the main tributary of the lake still snakes its way along the current bushy shores to join the massive Kiptilit gulley.

The fields that were once a vibrant national reserve have been demarcated into plots by locals that live right inside it. Logging, charcoal burning, farming and clearing bushes here is rampant, cases which are linked to extinction of the lake.

“What do you expect when people fell down trees within a place that has been designated a national reserve? all the soil is swept in to the lake and that is what led to water hyacinth thriving in this lake before it finally dried up,” Mr Kibet said.

And while the ox-bow lake is already scripting a once-upon-a-time tale, lush and greenery completes the serenity of Rimoi National Reserve in Elgeiyo Marakwet, complete with tented camps along River Kerio.

Both Rimoi and Kamnarok national reserves are extensive ecosystems separated by River Kerio. The ecosystem forms a vital migratory corridor for wildlife traversing to the northern corridor. Every year, hundreds of elephants converge within the critical ecosystem, a spectacle which use to attract tourists.

“There are certain times of the year when elephants visit here in hundreds to bathe their young ones in mud and quench thirst. However, following the drying of the lake, cases of elephants being stuck in the mad for days are common. In 2019, three elephants got stuck and it took intervention of the Kenya Wildlife Service to remove them,” Oscar Sirma, a resident said.

Mr Sirma said comparing Lake Kamnarok National Reserve to Rimoi is like ‘comparing developed and undeveloped countries’. Over the past years, Lake Kamnarok has not collected a single revenue from tourism, a case linked to mismanagement of the reserve.

“You cannot expect tourists to visit the reserve to only look tour livestock and residential areas. Something needs to be done to salvage the national reserve,” Mr Kibet added.

Lake Kamnarok has suffered such challenges previously, and efforts had been made to revive it. In 2017 the lake was cushioned with gabions to solve the challenge of the aggressive Kiptilit gulley that has been expanding over the years. However, lack of maintenance has been blamed on the current state.

Lake Kamnarok, which was once the home to over 10,000 crocodiles [Courtesy]

The reserve has been riddled with unresolved boundary issues, where some residents claim they are yet to be compensated so that they can pave the way for the national reserve. This has seen more than 1,000 families settle within the national reserve. Over time, four schools have also come up right within the reserve.

Maxon Karani, a resident, blames the authorities for mismanagement of the reserve, saying the locals have not been involved in solving the issue.

“We have been living here over the years. This is our home but the county government the Kenya Wildlife Service should look in to ways of involving the residents to save the challenges that has resulted in the disappearance of the lake,” Karani said.

According to Karani, forested areas around the lake have been cleared, resulting in massive siltation. “There used to be very rare white crocodiles in this lake, but all seems to have migrated. This is all due to mismanagement by authorities. We are, however, grazing our livestock within the reserve,” he added.

The National Environmental Complaints Committee says the lake and the reserve require a lot of resources and political will to be revived. “There have been a lot of environmental complaints stemming from land-grabbing, siltation, deforestation and charcoal burning activities within the national reserve. While the situation is dire, the county government and Kenya Wildlife Service should step in to look in to the matter,” Dr John Chumo, the secretary of the committee said.

The committee has several times investigated the challenges within the reserve. In 2014, then Baringo Governor Benjamin Cheboi formed a task-force to look in to the game reserve’s boundary issue and stop encroachment.

The task-force was mandated to collate findings and submit a report to Mr Cheboi with detailed recommendations on boundary lines, compensation and resettlement of affected households. The issue is yet to be resolved. Musa Simukwo, a resident, blames the ongoing destruction at Lake Kamnarok to what he terms laxity by authorities to solve the land issues since 1983.

“It beats logic that the issues have taken that long to be resolved. The reserve could be generating millions of shillings and boosting livelihoods of the locals,” Mr Simukwo said.

He said whereas the reserve was critical and a unique heritage, the wanton destruction calls for restoration. The reserve, he says, was a no-farming zone, except for grazing, where the community grazed their cattle only during the day.

Joshua Lokuol, a resident neighbouring Lake Kamnarok, said he was part of those that surrendered their land to pave the way for the game reserve, but wonders why others returned to their farms.

“It is like people are scrambling to have a piece of Lake Kamnarok. People are clearing chunks of land meant for conservation as authorities watch. They are burning charcoal and felling trees and driving out wildlife,” Lokuol said.

Kenya Wildlife Service Central Rift Assistant Director Dickson Ritan said they had already assessed the reserve and that national wildlife census would soon take place there to ascertain the kind and number of animals there in.

He said the agency is also working with Baringo County government in providing advisory. “Sensitisation of the locals on the importance of the reserve has also been done. The county government is also expected to resolve the ownership issues to pave way for conservation,” Mr Ritan said.

20,000   Number of crocodiles initially living in Lake Kamnarok

2 - The lake was only second to Lake Chad in terms of the number of crocodiles it had

2013: The year the lake dried up and became a grazing field

In 2014, a taskforce was formed to look into the boundary issue of the game reserve so it could pave way for fencing off to bar encroachers

The Rimoi-Kamnarok ecosystem is a critical corridor and one of the largest current remaining elephant ranges in the Country.

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