Tag Archives: Clarke’s Weaver

Mida Creek Bird Club is born… & meets an elephant in Arabuko-Sokoke

A couple of weeks ago, I was at our community project at Mida – the 260m-long suspended walkway through the mangroves, and was approached by Juma who has become one of the main bird guides there for visitors who told me that a bunch of the youth there had got together and formed themselves into the “Mida Creek Bird Club” with a view of doing lots of birding and other bird-related conservation activities. He is chairman and promptly showed me their 10-page constitution and talked of their ideas which included a monthly bird walk on the first Saturday of the month somewhere in the local vicinity – the first one being planned for inside Arabuko-Sokoke Forest on 4th August (yesterday)… and could I be their guide?

So early on Saturday morning I picked up volunteers Martin (from Nairobi) and Brian (an ASSETS graduate from Dida to the west of Arabuko-Sokoke) and headed for the Mida entrance to the forest via Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to collect the key for the barrier. KFS have got an excellent understanding regarding community members and encouraging them in conservation of forests by working with them and had given permission for the group to enter the forest for no payment. An African Goshawk was calling (can’t reall call the “chip! chip! chip!” sound they make a song…) high overhead and the first bird singing otherwise was the ubiquitous Red-capped Robin Chat from the bush next to the forest station. On arriving at Mida there were just six members of the Bird Club waiting – but as we turned into the forest a seventh ran to catch up and after we had stopped at the first spot about 1km in three bajajis (motorbike taxis) turned up with another six so that in the end we were quite a healthy sized group! Most of the group had not done a lot of birding before and even more had done any forest birding so everything was new for them. We were on the look out for the stunning Peter’s Twinspot which is often on the track as you enter the forest… and sure enough, 700m in there was a pair doing their stuff feeding on grass seeds out in the open in front of us. A great start! We stopped at that point for a good 20 minutes as there was a feeding party of birds in the mixed forest around there and we added coastal specialities such as Little Yellow Flycatcher & Fischer’s Turaco to the list before moving on a few 100m to stop again to listen.

We were all 15 of us out of the pick-up and starting to walk along the track when without any warning a hunking great bull elephant stepped out of the forest and onto the track about 100m ahead of us… and started walking down the track straight towards us!! There was a moments panic among the group but we stood and marvelled at such an awesome sight! It hadn’t seen or smelt us as we were down wind of it and it just kept on coming straight at us – until it was about 60m off and I thought I’d better warn it of us being here and waved my arms and shouted at which point it wheeled around and vanished into the forest to the left! A really awesome sight and a huge treat for everyone.

Here’s the guy on the road… and see the video clip at the end as well!!

After that there was a bit of nervousness about any noise coming from the forest on the left but otherwise it was down to some serious birding and pointing out the various bird calls we could hear. A little further down the track is a spot I know for an East Coast Akalat territory… and sure enough within a minute of arriving there, he started singing though kept deep in the forest and didn’t show. We then moved on to the Brachtstegia woodland habitat which lies beyond the Mixed Forest habitat along the Mida track and which is a beautiful habitat for birding and walking. Brachystegia is known further south in Africa as ‘Miombo woodland’ and we are basically located in the northernmost extent of the habitat in Africa. It’s also the habitat for our endemic Clarke’s Weaver – though we didn’t see any this time but did catch up with Pale Batis, Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike, Mombasa Woodpecker and Black-headed Apalis among others.

The group were hugely enthusiastic about the excursion and to add to the events of the day as we drove back to Mida Creek itself to drop everyone off, there was a Golden Pipit on the edge of the vlei you drive past down to the creek’s edge. My first here though the Mida guides had said one had been around in recent times.

As the club is still starting out, A Rocha Kenya is committing to helping them grow and strengthen – the first part of which is to give them some organisational training and capacity building on issues such as setting up a simple but robust financial system, how to run committee meetings etc. The finances in particular is something which countless small community groups (and even larger NGOs etc!) have fallen apart and collapsed over when not run transparently and properly and it’s a privilege to be in a position where we can contribute and help a group like this one become strong and effective.
Eastern Green

 Elephant in Arabuko-Sokoke video:

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Dakatcha Woodlands finally safe from Jatropha biofuel threat

It has been a long haul to try and stop the Jatropha biofuel threat of at first 50,000ha of land being cleared for plantations, then 10,000ha and now finally NEMA have officially stopped the project from going ahead and the Clarke’s Weavers and Sokoke Scops Owls and other endangered wildlife as well as the community members who would have had their lifestyles and societies dramatically changed and poverty increased can breathe a sigh of relief. NatureKenya led the fray and often were very much in the hot seat with threats and even attacks being made on them (and A Rocha Kenya was included in some of these too) by the supporters of the project. NatureKenya deserve a lot of thanks for their effort and there is an excellent write-up by Birdlife about this with further details.

In response to this we are keen to get some further work happening with the Dakatcha communities to help them improve their own incomes and ways of living in that special environment without impacting it too negatively. We are looking at building on the initial efforts we’ve had of introducing “Farming God’s Way” or “Conservation Agriculture” to some of the communities which, for those who have taken the training on board and followed it, has made a huge difference in the outputs from their farms. Below is a shot of Elizabeth in her shamba (farm) who’s husband Katana works for us in Dakatcha and who has really got excited about Farming God’s Way. They have carefully followed the simple method of a) no ploughing, b) use plenty of mulch and c) rotate your crops and as a result their maize (corn) in the last short rains was huge and dense as you can see in the photos.


Elizabeth in her shamba showing how high and dense the maize has got – and beans adjacent to the maize.

Their neighbour’s crop which was planted in the traditional way was a very different picture…:

…there is therefore a lot of hope if we can persuade people to take it up. Unfortunately we’ve heard rumours of a response from community members to assistance the Red Cross is offering people in the form of ‘food for work’ – which is a great programme to have and certainly helps those who are really destitute, but what they have not counted on is that people are apparently purposely not planting maize well so that it fails and so that when the Red Cross team pass by that place they see only poor crops and therefore offer bags of maizemeal in return for digging 2’x2’x2′ holes in which to plant 9 seeds… this method may work in kitchen gardens, but it certainly hasn’t worked in Dakatcha. So whilst the Red Cross programme is designed to help people, in the long run it actually hampers growth and keeps people in a state of poverty. this has meant that very few farmers have kept coming to our training sessions and fewer still are actually implementing it. However we are convinced it is the Way to go and will pursue raising funds to support the project in Dakatcha – donations greatly received. A single 2-day training workshop for 20 farmers costs only $12 per person so do join us in this effort to assist the farmers and communities in Dakatcha.

Unproven biofuel projects given clearance in unique wetlands and forest areas

News has just come through that the Provincial Commissioner for Coast has apparently ordered that the jatropha plantation project for the Dakatcha Woodlands that has been fought for over two years (see other blogs on this) should “start on Monday” – since “the MP and the local people want it”…

In fact there is a significant proportion of the local population who do not want the project and there is plenty of evidence that the crop will fail to produce an economic output that will improve the livelihoods of the people and not damage the environment.

All this comes in the light of the Minister of the Environment, Michuki, who helicoptered into the site last year September for a public meeting and said that “before he would give any go ahead, if Kenya Jatropha Energy Ltd want to implement their project, they must furnish his office with scientific evidence that Jatropha is commercially viable in Dakatcha and that it is not harmful to people and the environment.”

He gave an example of a failed “development project” that took place in Tanzania where the proponent clear felled an indigenous forest to cultivate groundnuts. The project failed because by clearing all trees the proponent eliminated all pollinators.

As it is, the Italian company who is behind this project have yet to even address or speak out in support of the economical viability of the crop even when challenged on it. There has been no scientific / solid evidence given publicly about the actual potential of the crop and all the reports we hear are that it doesn’t work here. I have just spoken a few minutes ago with a farmer from Mpeketoni near Lamu who tells me that jatropha has been tried around his area… and totally failed.

He further asked the County Council of Malindi to develop a multiple land use plan and zone all forested areas for conservation. This was agreed that it should be a collaborative effort including the main stakeholders such as NatureKenya and local community.

As it happened, the zonation map has been produced without any input other than from the County Council and done basically behind closed doors and presenting effectively a fait accompli which only those supporting the jatropha project had any input to. The map was produced in a very ‘jua kali‘ (Swahili for rough and ready, unprofessional) way and pretty much sketched by hand – as you can see from an image of it below:

The larger cross-hatch patterned area is the original area that they wanted to put under jatropha but which thankfully has been turned down – at least for now. I’m sure they’ll push for it in due course. The area they are apparently being ‘given’ to do the project is the smaller bold bordered area. Unlike what the project proponents have been saying, the area takes in a significant portion of the Brachystegia woodland habitat – the habitat that the endemic Clarke’s Weaver, found worldwide only in Dakatcha and Arabuko-Sokoke Forest 20kms to the south.

So it is that we are still fighting local government who are insisting in the light of evidence against the cause that it should in fact go ahead. There has been no word to my knowledge from the Minister of Environment’s office that it should go ahead and it would therefore appear that local government officers are being compromised in order for the project to happen.
WHEN will we have anything happening here by government which really benefits the local people and environment?? Those who read this and who pray – please pray that we can stop this project completely and instead bring alternatives for the people which will make a real difference to them and in doing so protect this amazingly precious part of God’s creation.

Jatropha threating unique Dakatcha woodlands continues

The battle to save the unique Dakatcha Woodlands has been going on for a couple of years almost now. We thought for a while that it had maybe dissipated and gone away, but far from it. Whilst we are rejoicing that we have managed to stop 50,000ha (500 sq kms) of woodland being turned into a plantation of non-productive, desertifying crop, there is still the threat of 5,000ha of prime natural forest, woodland and coastal bush going under the same bleak crop of jatropha.

I have just heard from conservation colleagues with their ear more close to the ground the following:

“I have reliably learnt that the County council of Malindi has submitted a land use plan for Dakatcha which include a 5000ha land for jatropha pilot. This plan was supposed to have been developed in a participatory manner after an adhoc planning team was constituted in the meeting called by Green Africa Foundation in Malindi in Oct 2010. If I can remember well, the planning team constitute of the following

  1. District physical planner Mr Riungu
  2. KFS Zonal manager Mr Orinda
  3. Nature Kenya Site Officer for Dakatcha Mr Dominic Mumbu
  4. A representative of County Council of Malindi (CCM)
  5. A Community member.
Whatever the plan this team was to develop was to be tabled in a stakeholders forum for ownership and final editing. CCM was to facilitate the process as part of the requirement set by Mr Michuki (Minister of the Environment) when he visited Dakatcha in September 2010. This was to be accompanied by a technical report on viability of jatropha.

The district physical planner has been avoiding everyone and did a plan alone with the CCM which before tabling to stakeholders has been forwarded to NEMA for approval of the jatropha pilot. This is dishonesty and conmanship of the highest order by the planner and CCM and everyone must rise and reject this devious scheme in the strongest terms under the sun. NEMA is also reluctant to share the plan with anyone.

Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourselves for another round of battle for Dakatcha.

Below is a quotation from an email

‘However I do have some further feedback.  I was attending the Ministry Of Environment Multi-sector Forum meeting end of last week, with the PS in the chair.  The Dakatcha/Jatropha issue was raised.  The current Acting DG, NEMA (Geoffrey??, Macharia is on 2 months leave) reported that NEMA had received a land use plan from the County Council and it was indicating a location of 5,000ha for the project.  I requested that NEMA be transparent and share the land use plan with us, as I suspected it was a desk exercise, and would be seriously ‘wanting’.  The issue of local community poverty came up.  I responded that it was very unclear who were the local community in terms of who was speaking on whose behalf.  But I also emphasized that trying to improve local livelihoods was supported by everyone, but we remained totally unconvinced that Jatropha would achieve such improvement. 
My suspicion arising from NEMA’s brief is that this fight is far from over.  I think we need to now ask our European partners to investigate the Italian company and lobby within the EU to name and shame this company.
I also think that if NEMA grants a licence, this may end up needing legal redress as a breach of the new constitution, etc.
And so it continues… We urgently need to do what we can to put pressure on the Italian company in Europe to stop this madness. There really is NO evidence that Jatropha will grow economically here in East Africa and plenty to show that it really does badly. Even 100ha of prime natural habitat going under a crop that will simply allow the soil to dry up and erode whilst eradicating forever habitats holding unique and even endemic species… should not be allowed.

We have been doing surveys in the Dakatcha area over the past year and found a good population of the Endangered Sokoke Scops Owl up there – otherwise thought to be restricted to the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest in Kenya. This is really going to be a continued battle, but one which is worth every step of the way to fight.

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Dakatcha Clarke’s Weaver Search

The past week has seen a team of intrepid bird-watchers and guides scouring the Dakatcha Forest for the endangered and elusive Clarke’s Weaver.  This bird is a great unknown, without any information recorded on its breeding habits, habitat or breeding season, so finding it presented a great challenge!

I was representing A Rocha on the trip, after over-stretched leader Colin was forced to withdraw due to meetings and lack of vehicle (another story entirely!) so I was the highest ranking (and only) A Rocha member present.  The team was led by Fleur Ng’weno, a veteran and well-known birder from Nairobi, accompanied by myself and half a dozen local guides and birdwatchers.

We set off Monday afternoon from Malindi, after stocking up on provisions and gear, to Marafa, at the edge of the Dakatcha Woodland to meet the District Officer and let him know what we were up to, as well as visiting the local Woodland Support Group, volunteers supporting conservation of the forest and wildlife.  We continued on to Adu, a village on the far northern edge of the woodland, home to many of our party.  Near the town, we found an ideal campsite and pitched tents in a hurry to beat the sunset.  After dinner, everyone was eager to turn in early, in anticipation of a pre-dawn start the next day.

The Dakatcha Woodland is a unique area of forest populated mostly by majestic Brachystegia trees and an abundance of grasses and shrubs and is home to many rare birds and animals, and made a stunning place to camp, surrounded by owls, nightjars and frogs.

Tuesday morning, and the 8-strong group was setting off at 5.30am after hot chai and buttered bread, optimistic and excited about discovering the first known breeding site of the Clarke’s Weaver.  However, it was not be, though we did record many bird species, as well as some unidentified flowers and shrubs.  After a morning of walking, we returned to camp for lunch, then repeated the exercise in the afternoon, with a similar result.

The next 3 days looked much the same.  Though we searched different habitats, areas of the forest and farmland, from before dawn till after dark, the Clarke’s Weavers continued to escape us.  On previous surveys, a few birds have been spotted flying overhead, but this month not a single one was seen, a bit disappointing.

However, we did have some exciting finds.  5 new species were added to the list for Dakatcha, including the Spotted Thick-Knee and the Booted Eagle, which felt like a bit of a consolation prize!  The local guides (and myself!) also received some very valuable training from Fleur, and had plenty of time to appreciate the beauty of such a timeless forest.

Of great concern to the area is the highly destructive industry of charcoal.  Charcoal production and use is extremely inefficient, polluting and requires the cutting of ancient and precious trees for burning.  We saw a worrying number of charcoal kilns and timber harvesting sites deep in the woodland, far from any settlement.  Up to 7 lorries filled with charcoal are leaving the area each day, destined for Mombasa and Nairobi, taking invaluable material from the ecosystem and habitats from the wildlife.  If Clarke’s Weaver breeding sites are discovered, it will go a long way to protecting the area, as sanctuaries for the birds can be installed and monitored.

Friday, the final day of the search, and we had moved camp to a site in which a possible Clarke’s Weaver nest has been sighted in the past for one final look.  All week we had avoided the rain, with only a few showers while we had ben driving, but during our last effort, the forest decided to send us off with a drenching.  Half an hour into our walk, we were soaked to the bone, and dashed back to the car trying to shield binoculars and notebooks from the rain with our bodies, to little avail.

So, we left the forest wet, tired and Clarke’s Weaver-less, but still happy to have added new birds to the list, trained guides and witnessed some amazing countryside, and eager to renew the search!

Sam Oldland (A Rocha Kenya volunteer)

Dakatcha Woodlands under threat of ‘eco-(un)friendly’ jatropha biodiesel project

The Dakatcha Woodlands form one of the 61 internationally important sites in Kenya for bird conservation (and therefore by assumption other biodiversity as well) – known as an ‘IBA’ (Important Bird Area).

a view of the Brachystegia woodland in Marafa – a few years ago before it was hit with charcoaling

It is the only other place on the planet that Clarke’s Weaver Ploceus golandii can be found apart from Arabuko-Sokoke Forest 30kms to the south and it also holds several other Threatened species such as Sokoke Pipit and more recently we discovered a population of Sokoke Scops Owls Otus irenae there. We have been working with NatureKenya to have the woodlands protected, to encourage the local community to stop cutting trees for charcoal and timber and instead to use it sustainably.

Endemic Clarke’s Weaver Ploceus golandii (by Steve Garvie)

NatureKenya has been doing a great work with local groups of young people to encourage them to take up birding and other conservation activities. This is one of the groups with Dominic Mumbu, the NK manager 4th from the left.

This year, however, an even more devastating threat is looming – one that is masquerading as an ‘eco-friendly project’… for bio-diesel. The Malindi County Council has welcomed a proposal by an investor, Kenya Jatropha Energy Limited, to clear large tracts of land for growing Jatropha curcas.  This South American bush has been aggressively promoted in Kenya for the ‘biodiesel’ extracted from the oil in its seeds. It is now being tried in localities that range from rainfall-rich Western Kenya to desert-like Magadi area. Yet little is currently known of the plant’s suitability, its yield under different conditions, and the market capacity. Talking to Ann and Ian Robertson in Malindi – Ian being an experienced farmer and agriculturalist and Ann one of East Africa’s leading botanists – who have planted some jatropha in their garden out of interest, they report that the yield from jatropha is hugely unpredictable, some years it can be good and others it can be dire – and with no apparent reason. As a result it is highly unlikely to be suitable crop to grow on a large commercial scale and much better to be grown by small holders who can exploit the good years and get something out of it and make ends meet on the bad years with the other crops they are growing.

The jatropha / biodiesel issue is going to be one of the hottest debates going in East Africa environmentally in the next few years. A lot of businessmen are likely to jump on the band wagon where they can see big funding coming from the West to fund what some see as effectively covering up the West’s guilt complex for the vast amounts of carbon pollution it is producing – i.e. “give money to developing countries to produce biodiesel so that we can maintain our lifestyles and claim to have reduced carbon emissions – oh, and shame about that priceless forest or wetland that was cleared to grow an alien monoculture, but it’s all for the greater benefit of the planet…”

Anyway – this debate could go on quite a long time here! The point is Dakatcha Woodlands really are under threat of disappearing under an alien monoculture – and thus causing probably at least one species to go extinct.

As A Rocha Kenya we are committed to finding lasting, long-term solutions for conserving such habitats and sites whilst at the same time ensuring that local communities can improve their lifestyles and living standards but reduce their ecological footprint. We have already started working with churches in the Dakatcha Woodlands to introduce them to Conservation Agriculture, a form of farming that hugely improves productivity whilst conserving the soil and in fact improving the soil such that farms become more productive over the years and not less (as they do using the traditional farming methods). This is just one way of seeking to improve the lot of the local communities while teaching them the importance of caring for the environment – God’s creation.

Conservation Agriculture training by Paul Simpson in Marafa, Nov ’08 for church leaders

We’ve employed Gabriel Katana to work alongside the NatureKenya manager in Dakatcha and to also follow up on the Conservation Agriculture workshops we’ve held with church leaders there.

Katana – our right hand man in Dakatcha and doing a great job.
He’s also assisting in bird surveys and done some excellent work on finding how far the Sokoke Scops Owl is found as well as looking out for Clarke’s Weavers and keeping an eye open for where they might breed. The area is quite large however and currently he’s trying to do all this on just a bicycle or sometimes borrowing the piki (motorbike) that the NK manager uses. For him to be really effective we desperately need a piki for him – and then funds to cover its running. Katana’s salary has kindly been covered by a church in the UK, but any assistance towards purchasing a piki would be hugely appreciated.

More to follow…

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Conservation Agriculture workshop for pastors in Dakatcha Woodlands IBA – home to endemic Clarke’s Weaver

Can you support a farmer and cover her/his costs at a Conservation Agriculture workshop? (for only $30 per farmer!). Read on…

Conservation Agriculture (CA) is a method of farming that is being taken up more and more widely in Africa with over 120,000 farmers in Zamibia alone having adopted this practice. It has been shown to significantly increase productivity on farms and is often taught in church circles as ‘Farming God’s Way’ (FGW). Why? Well because the basic concept of CA / FGW is to mimic the way that a forest grows (“God’s farm”) and thus produce the rich soils which you find in a forest (any farmer given the choice between a plot that has been farmed for 5 years and one that has just been cleared of forest would choose the newly cleared one since it will be way more fertile). There are cases where under the conventional methods, a farmer was getting 3 bags of maize from his acre and after using CA was getting 15 bags!

How do you do this? There are 3 main principles – NO ploughing (“plowing” for our American readers!),  lots of mulch (dead organic matter covering the soil surface), and rotate your crops. If you think of how “God farms his forest”, then there is no ploughing, there’s plenty of leaf litter etc on the soil surface (“God’s blanket” for the soil) and there is high diversity of trees and plants.

Taking these basic principles and building them on top of biblical teaching on how God cares for his Earth and has given it to us to look after and use wisely, it is a wonderfully effective way of encouraging rural farmers who are also Christians (probably 70% of the population in Dakatcha) to look after their farm and be able to get a good crop out of it.  Being built on biblical teaching means that church members are very quick in accepting the teaching and linking it in to biodiversity conservation – caring for God’s world – such as planting trees etc means that it becomes a very potent tool for conservation.

Conservation Agriculture plot being prepared

A CA plot being prepared near Watamu – careful measurement of where holes are dug is important.

Back in March, A Rocha Kenya ran a one-day workshop for 25 pastors in the Dakatcha Woodlands with Paul Simpson, a pastor and farmer from South Africa, giving the main teaching. This was received very positively and we are about to run a follow-up workshop going to much greater depth and lasting for 3 days for 30 farmers, pastors and church leaders. Dominic Mumbu of NatureKenya is working very closely with us on this and organising it on the ground.

Dakatcha is where we suspect the endemic Clarke’s Weaver to breed (found only in neighbouring Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and here) – a handsom black & yellow weaver found only in Brachystegia woodlands… and yet these woodlands are under serious threat of destruction due to logging and charcoal burning.

Clarke’s Weaver by Steve Garvie

Clarke’s Weaver (by Steve Garvie)

Charcoal kiln in Dakatcha Woodlands Charcoal burning in Dakatcha Woodlands IBA

It’s a very exciting venture – to be teaching people very practical and tangible ways of being able to help themselves out of poverty whilst at the same time conserving what is a particularly special part of the planet. Farming God’s Way gives people the possibility of using their land wisely and maximising what they can get out of it whilst allowing them to preserve the rest of the surrounding habitat.

Church member enjoying her Conservation Agriculture

…a cheerful farmer tilling her CA plot after a previous training at a Gede church

For this workshop to succeed, we need to cover the costs of the workshop participants – at $30 per person (includes all food, accommodation and materials). If you feel able to help support what I believe is an exciting project with huge potential to help both conserve biodiversity and raise the standard of living of poor rural farmers – then thank you and please do!