The gentle mid-morning sunlight filters through branches of African olive trees at Mau Eburu Forest, with a rich earthy smell seeping from heaps of leaf litter.
Maseto Kosen, 46, accompanied by his 16-year-old son Daniel Maseto, leads us deep through the thick forest to one of his beehives, which he says is ready for harvesting.
Without any protective gear, Maseto carries with him a traditional smoker, a lighter, a harvesting bucket, a bow, arrow and matches onto one of his traditional beehives to harvest honey.
Maseto quickly rubs two sticks together and within no time ignites fire on dry leaves. Together with his son, they start smoking the bees out and harvesting the honey.
Kosen is a member of the Ogieks, a traditional hunter-gatherer community of indigenous forest dwellers in Gilgil who were evicted from this forest by the government in 1998. However, Kosen remained adamant saying he does not know anywhere to call home except here.
“The government allowed people to farm in the forest, but it was misused, ending up destroying the forest, and in reaction, they ejected everyone here including the Ogiek who have been living here since time immemorial. For me, I didn’t have anywhere to go”, says Kosen.
Kosen stays with his wife and seven children in a mud-walled temporary house at the edge of the forest, with a warning sign erected by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) prominently standing a few metres off.
However, Kosen is not bothered by the sign. He says that having been born in the forest, he has learned how to coexist with wildlife.
Kosen says he earns a living through beekeeping, and he has about 300 beehives scattered around the forest. He says he learnt beekeeping from his father and grandfather, and has upheld the family tradition.
“The indigenous plant life and climate of Eburu forest provides an ideal habitat for beekeeping and this was the livelihood of my ancestors. In the past, we used to be hunters and gatherers, but now we know the importance of wildlife,” he says.
Kosen says the October to December period is the peak honey season, with the forest Dombeya torrida trees in full bloom. Bees that forage on Dombeya flowers produce the finest quality honey from their nectar.
“I have prepared, placed and maintained many beehives in the forest, which I normally check on regularly. I am also chairman of the Naretui Beekeepers Self Help Group where we produce, package and sell honey, with a kilogramme going for Sh600,” says Kosen.
Eburu Forest prides itself for hosting a several wild animals including the endangered Mountain bongos, antelopes, gazelles, buffaloes, giraffes and over 200 species of birds.
“Slightly over 10 endangered species of Mountain Bongos reside here. The sub-species are part of the estimated 100 remaining Bongos in the world that are found within pockets of Mount Kenya, Aberdares, Eburu and parts of Mau Forest Complex,” says Joseph Motongu, Rhino Ark Charitable Trust fence manager.
“Mountain bongos in Eburu Forest represent 10 per cent of their known population that exist in the wild,” he adds.
However, the Eburu Forest ecosystem has experienced pressures stemming from illegal logging of wood, fires, charcoal burning, poaching and encroachment.
As part of conserving the forest, the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust in collaboration with other partners constructed a 43.3 square kilometre electric fence around the forest at a cost of Sh 100 million. Kosen says the fence has been key in protection and restoration of the forest.
“Since the construction of this fence, the forest is almost regaining its previous state. It has really helped because there was a lot of destruction going on here; charcoal burning and cutting of timber posts was the order of the day. Even the amount of honey we are getting nowadays is high”, says Kosen.
Hannah Wangari, a farmer living adjacent to the forest says the fence has also helped to reduce human-wildlife conflict.
“Some years back, there was a lot of destruction and wild animals used to stray into our farmers destroying crops. We used to incur a lot of losses, and at one point I quit farming,” says Wangari. “Construction of this fence came as a relief to us.”
The farmer says like Maseto and other members of the indigenous communities whose livelihood depends on natural forests, their goal is to protect and preserve the forest ecosystem for future generations.