Category Archives: Sabaki River Delta

Integrated Conservation Research at Sabaki – the results are in!

It’s been 4 months since I departed Sabaki with armloads of data and a head-full of how to get at the core of conservation issues at this charismatic, unique, and under-valued estuary. Now, it’s more clear than ever, Sabaki River Mouth is a vital shared resource for people and waterbirds. Research to quantify the actual economic, social, and ecological value of wetlands enables us, as conservationists, to put conservation issues on the map of politicians, policy-makers, and civil society.

White-faced Whistling Ducks coming in to roost on the Sabaki River - photo Kate England

White-faced Whistling Ducks coming in to roost on the Sabaki River - photo Kate England

The illegal land-grabbing which occurred in 2010 at Sabaki (see previous blogs) and the proposed biofuel developments in neighboring Important Bird Areas (IBAs, Dakatcha Woodlands and Tana River Delta – see blog below) highlight the imminent need for policy-informing research and progressive conservation of these and other Kenyan IBAs. Nearby IBAs, Arabuko-Sokoke and Mida Creek, have been host of highly successful community-integrated conservation programs (ASSETS, the Mida Creek Boardwalk) – and more good news – Stipulations in Kenya’s new constitution (ratified 2010) include the need to redress unfair land allocations. Now, more than ever, is there promise for community-based conservation initiatives on the Kenyan coast.

Local guide Michael Kadenge carrying the scope along the banks of Sabaki at high-tide - photo Beccy Johnson
Local guide Michael Kadenge carrying the scope along the banks of Sabaki at high-tide – photo Beccy Johnson

As a master’s student from the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), I worked in partnership with A Rocha Kenya, the (52-member strong) Sabaki River Estuary Youth Group (SREYG), the local community, tourists and visiting students at Sabaki to collect baseline data on estuary use, ecotourism potential and threats to Sabaki’s waterbirds. My dedicated and highly driven research assistants included active SREYG members Joseph Mangi and Michael Kadenge. Further support was provided by the village mzee Sammy, Samuel Mweni, and Patrick Charo. Two volunteers (Gus Keys and Beccy Johnson) joined us for the final week of field-work, helping to collect data and taking plenty of beautiful photos (seen here!).  I spent ten wonderful (and action-packed) weeks at Sabaki River Mouth surveying waterbird/human use of the estuary and mapping the intertidal area.

Household surveys showed that the livelihoods of local people are heavily dependent upon natural resources from the estuary and adjacent bush & sand dunes. Natural resources constituted a mean 70% of household income in the village, of which 80 to 96% of resources were collected inside the boundaries of the IBA. Even further still, households interviewed cited that areas for livestock watering, fishing, and water collection are unavailable outside of the estuary. No households in Sabaki receive financial or social support from the Kenyan government, so the estuary’s resources provide a safety net against shocks and stresses to more than 2000 people in the Coast Province!

Conducting household surveys in Sabaki Village - photo Beccy Johnson
Conducting household surveys in Sabaki Village – photo Beccy Johnson

The intertidal areas, which are used for tourism, fishing, and livestock watering, are also important for huge populations of roosting terns and gulls and massive flocks of Palaearctic migrant waders. Protecting the area from land-grabbing and converting the area into a community-run reserve would achieve the end of securing livelihood resources and securing important habitats for migratory waterbirds. However, in order for conservation to operate successfully in a community-based manner, the community must realize benefits of conservation, lest they lose the will and trust needed to carry on community-based ventures.

A Rocha Kenya waterbird counts at Sabaki - photo Kate England

A Rocha Kenya and SREYG waterbird counts at Sabaki - photo Kate England

Our tourist interviews showed that a whopping 96.8% of tourists were willing to pay entry fees to visit the estuary. We also asked tourists how much they would be willing to pay to visit the estuary. By counting visitors every day for a month, we were able to calculate an average 5 foreign and 5 Kenyan tourists visit the estuary per day, and huge numbers of students from Voi, Nairobi, Mombasa, and other cities visit the estuary. Overall, 837 visitors came to the estuary during the month of October 2010. Based on these numbers, we calculated a rough estimate of the unrealized potential revenue from  ecotourism – which equates to $7500 USD per year. If improvements in infrastructure were made (the most preffered by visitors being implementation of a boardwalk and bird hide), aggregate willingness to pay would increase to $11 500 USD per year.

When local household heads were asked if they would like to see increased tourism and regulation of resource extraction activities, more than 90% of household responded positively on both issues. This unrealized revenue from ecotourism could substitute income which may be impacted by restricting activities (e.g. fishing) in the estuary. Further still, this unrealized revenue could contribute to the costs of provisioning piped water to the community. This venture would reduce the time and effort women in the community spend fetching water (currently they travel approx 4 km or more each day to fetch water), allowing them much more time to develop micro-enterprises, participate in education, or partake in other income-generating activities. Provision of piped water would also allow herders to water cattle outside of the intertidal area, where cattle represent a significant source of disturbance to waterbirds and churn up the intertidal substrate through trampling.

Local women carrying water from the dunes at Sabaki - photo Kate England
Local women carrying water from the dunes at Sabaki – photo Kate England

Experiments to determine the impacts of disturbance on waterbirds in the estuary highlighted the relative effects of disturbance on fourteen focal waterbird species (of the 71 waterbird species observed in surveys). Of these species, flamingos showed the highest vulnerability to disturbance. Both species which occur in the estuary, Greater and Lesser Flamingos, are subject to chasing when tourists pay local people to chase the birds into flight for photographs. Because these species are of economic value for tourism, conservation initiatives should aim at preventing flamingo-chasing and mitigating the effects of disturbance on these (and other vulnerable) species.

Greater Flamingos feeding in the Sabaki River - photo Gus Keys
Greater Flamingos feeding in the Sabaki River – photo Gus Keys

By gazetting the area as a community reserve, the community can inherit custodianship over the IBA and its precious resources. Regulating harmful activities in the IBA will help sustain biodiversity resources for local people, students, tourists, and biodiversity. Now, we’ve got the numbers to prove it…. the next step will be to attain the capacity and funding to get community-based conservation off the ground at Sabaki! Onward and upward…

Latest news on conservation research at Sabaki

ARK’s usual research activities have continued FULL STOP at Sabaki River Mouth over the preceding week, and new research to aid in developing a management plan for the area has gained ground after a month of waterbird and visitor surveys. I (Kate from the University of Cape Town) have been lucky to work with the local conservation group at Sabaki to collect hundreds of hours worth of data on human visitation and activity and waterbird distribution in the estuary. With more than 200 visitor surveys having been conducted throughout October – Kenyan and foreign tourists, students and teachers visiting the estuary for educational trips have all had their say on how conservation, education, and tourism can be improved at Sabaki.

Students from Voi filling out questionnaires at Sabaki

Students from Voi filling out questionnaires at Sabaki

As for the birds… after a rush of Eurasian Golden Orioles, the Barn Swallows are now moving through, and a few of the less-frequent visitors have been spotted at Sabaki. A lone Garganey tried unsuccessfully to camouflage itself in a flock of White-faced Whistling Ducks last week and we have picked up some Three-banded and Kittlitz’s Plovers during our waterbird counts. Flocks of Pink-backed Pelicans have been roosting up-river from the flamingos and terns during low-tide. On the full moon this past Saturday, we again braved the night to count the thousands of terns which roost on the sand flats near the beach at Sabaki.

Lesser Flamingos foraging during low tide at Sabaki

Lesser Flamingos foraging during low tide at Sabaki

Amongst all of the bird-counting, we’ve been perfecting household surveys and hope to complete 200 of them in the coming month. This information will illustrate the economic importance of the estuary’s natural resources to local livelihoods, and thus provide an informed framework to implement a management plan for this area. It’s clear, from the attention garnered by the illegal land-grabbing which has occurred in Sabaki, that both the people living here and conservation NGOs are highly motivated to get this area formally protected for both biodiversity and people! Please show your support for protection of Sabaki River Mouth by writing to the National Environment Management Authority ( For more information about my master’s research, feel free to comment here on the blog or email questions to [email protected]

New and on-going research to protect Sabaki for birds and people

Among A Rocha Kenya’s score of ongoing projects, work at Sabaki River Mouth continues! Like many projects, the forces opposing conservation continue to threaten Kenya’s biodiversity (see previous posts to read about illegal land-grabbing which is occurring in the Sabaki area) – but fortunately, the research aimed at conserving this Important Bird Area moves ahead with enthusiasm and rigour.

ARK with members of the Sabaki River Estuary Youth Group (the Sabaki Skimmers), Nature Kenya, and a Master’s student conducting research in conservation at Sabaki (your narrator for the moment) were busy last week on the tidal flats. On 23 September, a group of nine of us braved the threat of grazing Hippos to count more than 70’000 terns during the full moon at Sabaki. An incredible sight at 70’000, other tern counts at Sabaki by ARK have reached the order of a half million. These ongoing censuses continue to highlight the importance of conserving this beautiful area for the thousands (or millions) of birds which are resident, come here to winter, or stock up on much-needed energy reserves for migration.

Counting terns by the full moon at Sabaki

Counting terns by the full moon at Sabaki

We returned to the estuary again on 25 September to conduct one of the regular counts for diurnal waterbirds in the lower estuary. Among the thousands of birds counted were the regular Greater and Lesser Flamingos, some late-passing Madagscar Pratincoles, a flock of more than 30 Broad-billed Sandpipers, and 10 of the always affable-looking African Spoonbill. The globally threatened African Skimmer has also made its visits to the estuary this week, resting on the banks of the Sabaki at low tide.

Kadenge and Patrick from the Sabaki Skimmers with Nature Kenya's conservation officer Edwin, ounting wading birds

Kadenge and Patrick from the Sabaki Skimmers with Nature Kenya's conservation officer Edwin, counting wading birds

In honour of the BirdLife International’s World Bird Festival (, on 2 October, members of the Sabaki Skimmers and others from ARK and NatureKenya went out for some birding and the second waterbird census of the week. Among those counted were more than 3000 terns roosting, feeding, and preening throughout mid-morning, more than 2000 Curlew Sandpipers, hundreds of plovers, and good numbers of Sooty Gulls and Wood Sandpipers.

The Sabaki Skimmers and ARK Research Associate, Kate England, counting hundreds of waterbirds at Sabaki for the World Bird Festival

The Sabaki Skimmers and ARK Research Associate, Kate England, counting thousands of waterbirds at Sabaki for the World Bird Festival

Hundreds of gulls, terns, and wading birds in a tidal pool at Sabaki

Hundreds of gulls, terns, and wading birds in a tidal pool at Sabaki

Aside from the ever-exciting bird life at Sabaki, efforts to develop sustainable ecotourism are gearing up as the high season for tourism begins. The Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology has joined up with ARK to conduct research aimed at prioritizing areas for bird conservation in the estuary and to the identify economic and social factors which will govern a management plan for Sabaki River Mouth. Kate England (that’s me) from the FitzPatrick is working alongside ARK, community members, and the Sabaki Skimmers to conduct surveys on visitors to the estuary, estuary users, and quantify disturbance impacts on waterbirds. If you’ve ever visited Sabaki, we’d love to gain insight on your experience there! An online version of the survey will be available next week, so stay tuned.

The fight for threatened coastal habitats goes on – Sabaki demonstration

Excuse a brief posting today… A week ago I reported on the demonstrations against the illegal land grabbing at the Sabaki River Mouth. The press have managed to get something printed in the papers and also some video was released on TV and is on YouTube. The link for this is:

News today from Joseph at Sabaki is that there are even more beacons going in on the grabbed land. They are really keen to take whatever action they can – if you pray please do pray that this grabbing will be stopped and instead the nature reserve put in place and some good income generating ideas for the local community.

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Demonstrations against land grabbing of Globally Important wetland: Sabaki River Mouth

It doesn’t rain, but pours! Not only are the Dakatcha Woodlands & Tana River Delta under serious threat of destruction, but now the Sabaki River Mouth just north of Malindi is also threatened with destruction from illegal land grabbing. The Sabaki River Mouth is internationally important for the large congregations of waterbirds that gather to feed and roost on its mud flats, in particular the waders and terns. In fact 3-4 years ago we went there to ring waders one night and in the process discovered a vast, hitherto unknown roost of terns which this year (as posted on this blog) numbered an estimated 1/2 million birds.

Greater & Lesser Flamingos also occur in sometimes quite large numbers on the river mouth

The dune system to the immediate north and south of the river mouth are also used by many birds including as a roost site for the Globally Vulnerable Madagascar Pratincole which can number several thousands at times and a breeding site for Collared Pratincole & Spur-winged Plover. Insect surveys we’ve done on the dunes have also shown that there is an amazing diversity of insects including several important pollinator species which are critical for pollinating people’s crops.

One of our volunteeers, Rophus, insect trapping at Sabaki

Earlier this year, in May, we were doing a bird count and were told about and shown beacons that were delimiting a plot of land that someone had clearly taken a claim to. The Sabaki Youth Conservation Group took it to heart to find out who this was and what the story behind it was and to seek to get this ‘grabbing’ of land revoked since it was in the middle of the area planned for a nature reserve. It didn’t stop there and in recent weeks all of the land to the north of the river mouth, on new shifting sand dunes or shallow freshwater seasonal vleis / pools has been ‘grabbed’ and demarcated as belonging to someone. This has really upset not just the Youth Group but many other villagers as it has turned out to be local authorities and members of the Village Land Committee who have simply issued themselves with fat portions of land – 40 people have benefitted when there are 200 families who should get a share if ever it was to be subdivided.

the area of dunes to the north which are part of which has been subdivided

This is so typical of us here in Kenya – almost anyone with authority seems to abuse their position of authority to get what they can out of it and here it appears to be no different. It is said that the Chief, Assistant Chief, village Land Committee members, and even the District Officer have benefitted from it together with direct family members. As a result of this, Michael Kadenge and Joseph Mangi of the Youth Group have really got fired up about it and today helped to organise a demonstration by about 100 local community members to protest these land allocations and to demand that they be refuted and a proper process implented that takes into account the area that has been identified for a reserve. They managed to get the press to attend and to record the event and we’re praying that this publicity will help in having the whole fiasco highlighted and to have it stopped.

Sunset over the river mouth

The impressive thing about these guys is that they’re really doing it for the passion of having the site protected – they are digging into their own pockets to cover the costs of the campaign so far, something they can little afford to do as the only income they have is the little bit of bird guiding they can do together with fishing in the river mouth- and there are precious few fish in the river these days given the number of fisherman and the tiny size mesh many of them use which means they’re catching everything, even the young fish. We are hoping to assist in developing some ecotourism ventures at the river mouth which will be able to raise funds for them and put something back into the community without turning it into concrete and tarmac. If you pray, do pray for these guys and for the struggle to stop this illegal and extremely destructive land allocations that are going on. If you feel at all concerned about this, do write a letter expressing as such to:

Hon. John Michuki
The Minister for Environment and Mineral Resources
NHIF building
P.O. Box 30126, Nairobi
Fax: + 254 (0) 20 2710015/2725586
email: [email protected]

cc to:
The Permanent Secretary,
Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources.
P.O. Box 30126, Nairobi
email: [email protected]

The Director General,
National Environment Management Authority
P.O.BOX 67839, 00200 NAIROBI,
Email: [email protected] / [email protected];

Director, NatureKenya:
<[email protected]>

Regional Director
IUCN Regional Office for Eastern & Southern Africa
Mukoma Road,
P.O. Box 68200 – 00200,
Nairobi, Kenya
<[email protected]>

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Little Stint no-show at Sabaki River bird count

Early Saturday morning found us piling into the pick-up truck and making the drive to the Sabaki River, north of Malindi. There, we met the local bird enthusiast group, the ‘Sabaki Skimmers’ – Dixon, Michael, Joseph, Patrick and Sammy all guys from the village who are excited by conservation. A long walk through muddy mangroves and dunes to the river mouth followed and from there, we were ready to start counting the multitude of birds that were hanging out there.

Colin gives the Sabaki Skimmers a pep talk

Armed with a plethora of binoculars, telescopes, notepads, tally counters and the ubiquitous suncream (for the mzungus at least!), we split into two teams and started purposely pointing our lenses towards the fields of flamingos, Sanderlings and Crab-plovers and scribbling frantic notes.

As the morning wore on, we gradually made away up the delta, crossing hippo tracks and checking out the fish the local kids had caught, which amounted to a small handful of tiny baby fish. Disappointingly, there were several groups of kids out in the river fishing with mosquito nets. Not only is fishing illegal by national law in the river, fishing with a net with such small net sizes means that no fish can escape. Estuaries such as the Sabaki River Delta are vital habitats for juvenile fish, offering them protection amongst the mangroves from predators and other threats in the open ocean. Such non-discriminating fishing methods sweep up young fish and allow only the very very lucky ones to reach maturity and thus threaten the long-term viability of local fisheries. And yet, these kids need to eat. One of the challenges of conservation is ensuring the long term sustainability of habitats, as well as the livelihoods of the local people.

Local fisher-kids

Nearly 3 and a half hours later, with the mzungu skin truly beginning to crisp, we made our final counts. A successful morning indeed – we counted 42 species  and a total of 7,305 individual birds. Of these, it was particularly interesting to  large numbers of White-cheeked Terns and surprisingly, a major lack of Little Stints, a reason for which still baffles!

Counting flamingos