Tag Archives: Kenya



Increasingly in East Africa, media reports on poaching and trafficking of game ornaments has become so common that rarely a week passes without mainstream press covering such events. Sadly, these stories are no longer ‘breaking news’ stories. On average, there will be a haul of illegal game trophies found either on key gate-ways to the international market, mostly at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, or with poachers caught and arrested, or killed summarily in the act.

There is that African saying: “since man has learnt to shoot without missing, most birds have learnt to fly without perching”. But in the poaching world, while it is true that man-the poachers- today lethally shoot without missing, unfortunately, the big endangered animals, more so elephants and rhinos, have not mastered the cunning knowledge of the birds in the air.

What is reported is what we know, however, wildlife conservationists and environmentalists claim there are more animals being killed out there whose fates go unreported and whose stories are never told.

Reading through any website of hotels and holiday homes, from the coast inwards to Maasai Mara, there is always a promise that visitors will be able to see this animal or that; from rare birds, monkeys, and the famed big five. Wildlife therefore, is part and parcel of the visitor experience in most of East Africa’s high-end tourist resorts and holiday homes.

Yet in some East African countries, wildlife conservationists flaunt statistics and figures of killed animals which boggles the mind. Often, the war on poaching is given a positive spin; like when wildlife agency officials appear to be winning. Each dead animal triggers a change in the laws, hot debates in legislative houses and dismay in national conversations. Sometimes, Kenya’s high and mighty, and even the world’s known celebrities, descend on animal sanctuaries to adopt, or feed orphaned animals. Such swaps end in newsrooms.

Has there been a deliberate and determined effort to conserve wildlife as key to ensuring the growth and development of other sister industries? For example the hotels and related service industries? Keeping safe East Africa’s game needs a renaissance on the role of the wild in completing the economic and social life cycle of the domesticated, including man.

Unlike most of the developed world; East Africa is still in technological neanderthals, so the world do not visit us to get awed by new inventions in machines or breakthroughs in architecture and the build sciences. The wild is East Africa’s wonder, and economic hope. The East African wild offers the chilling contrasts with the developed world, because, after seeing two elephants caged in a zoo in some world capital, thousands of East Africa’s elephants, roaming freely in troops with clear figureheads and ‘leaders’, become the most scintillating experience of the touring visitor.

Conservation of these animals, therefore, is not only an exercise to continue God’s work here on earth, but also to grow and empower this region still constructing its own science and technological devices; be they huge superhighways or meandering subways or imposing buildings that pierce the heavens. Because we still at least half a century to be glorious, and I am being very optimistic, our animals continue to fill this gap.

Tourism in East Africa powers many sectors of each of the region’s economies. Wildlife is the very foundation of tourism, together with the warm tropical beaches along the Indian Ocean coastline. An example is the perilous wildebeest migrations. More tourists check in at the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti across the border in Tanzania to watch this unique animal migratory experience. Hence, to endanger the wildebeest is to render many accommodation and service establishments here a worthless, and wasteful endeavour.

Whether it is the donkeys at Lamu or the Gorillas in the pristine mountains of Rwanda, caring for East Africa’s game is the next frontier for wooing visitors to this part of the globe. Animal poaching is a luxury that the hospitality industry in East African countries cannot afford.

Marine Photo of the Week

This week I have been exploring areas outside of Watamu Marine Park, and venturing into the “Reserve”. The Reserve is a buffer zone extending from north of Malindi Marine Park to south of Watamu Marine Park in which artisanal fishing a marine resource collection is allowed, but other more damaging economic activities are prohibited. These areas are poorly studied and some of the reefs are unknown to many people, except the fishermen who work there. While exploring these reefs I have even found habitats and species not seen in the park, adding two new species to my fish list this week alone. The first new species was on a reef to the north near the village of Kanani where I saw this Dusky Gregory (Stegastes nigricans) in cloud of tiny Blue Chromis (Pomacentrus pavo).

To the south of the park near the village of Uyombo, I found a real speciality. The Meyer’s butterflyfish (Chaetodon meyeri) is a species I have never seen before in my life, it is now the 8th butterflyfish species I have recorded in the Watamu area, and the most beautiful butterflyfish I have ever seen. I am told by a local expert that this species hasn’t been seen for many years and was a rarity even in the hay-day of the reef before the 1997 bleaching. It is massively encouraging that these species and reefs are persisting and flourishing in areas which are also supporting local fishermen and local economies through traditional sustainable practises. 

Gede Ruins Forest Regeneration Study is Under Way

In April of this year we at A Rocha Kenya have had the opportunity to resume/restart an exciting project in the Gede Ruins, a thirteenth-seventeenth century stone city, which is surrounded by a 44 hectare patch of forest (Robertson et al 2002). In the 1980’s the Gede village, surrounding the ruins, was expanding, and the forest surrounding the ruins was being cleared for cultivation, poles, and firewood (Robertson et al 2002), which stopped in 1991 once the Museum constructed a fence around the forest to protect it. A botanist living in Malinidi, Ann Robertson, worked with a curator at the museum, Mathias Ngonyo to replant a 5 hectare patch of the heavily degraded land with indigenous trees, with the end goal of restoring the land back to a healthy tropical dry forest.

After planting, the heights of the trees and the diameter at breast height of trees where d > 1 cm, were measured with the idea of obtaining valuable growth rate data, as nobody had previously studied growth rates of indigenous tropical dry forest tree species. These measurements were gathered annually each year after planting, starting in 1992  up through 1997.

Enter A Rocha Kenya….The project we are now involved in is a continuation of the project started by Ann and Mathias 20 years ago. The location of each planted tree was mapped, and with Mathias’ help a team from ARK has been able to go back through and re-label all of the trees, and thanks to Professor David MacFarlane (Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University 2001, and current Associate Professor of Foresty at Michigan State University) take tree height and DBH measurements for all of the surviving trees which were planted.  With support from the National Museums of Kenya, partnering with KEFRI (Kenya Forestry Research Institute), a team of entomologists led by Professor John Banks Ph.D. (Director of international programs and Director, Office of Undergraduate Education) and Professor David MacFarlane, we are hoping to gain a valuable data set on tropical dry forest growth rates, regrowth, and recruitment success of the trees, as well as examining the insect and bird species richness and biodiversity. It is an exciting project to be involved in, as nothing like his has been been done in tropical dry forests at least in Kenya, possibly all of East Africa. In the immediate are we have traditional slash and burn farms, we have our plot of regenerated forest, and we have the 400 year old forest surrounding the ruins to compare with each other.

Currently, Phase I of the project has been completed, basically re-labeling, recording, and measuring the status, height, and DBH of all the planted trees. The next phase, Phase II is going to be going back through the plot and measuring the recruits which have come in naturally, as well as assigning a competition index to each tree, both planted and recruit, to gain a better understanding of what could potentially be affecting growth rates across the study site.


It is true that when you plant a tree, you are blessing generations to come. Thanks to Ann and Mathias and their hard work we regularly encounter Suni, Fischer’s Turaco, Hadada Ibis, African Goshawks, Little Sparrowhawks, the occasional Bush-buck, and the endangered Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew while doing field work in the regenerated plot. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now…

Ann and her husband, Ian, came and visited the plot last month for the first time in close to 15 years. It was incredibly special to see her eyes light up, and listen to her tell stories about how the plot used to be, and to see her stand next to trees she planted years ago, enjoying their shade and relaxing out of the hot sun. Their way of saying “Thank You” to a woman with vision and conviction.



Robertson, A. Hankamer, C. Ngonyo, M. “Restoration of a Small Tropical Coastal Forest in Kenya: Gede National Monument Forest Restoration Project.” in: Plant Conservation in the Tropics: perspectives and practice. The Royal Botanical Gardens. 2002.





Marine Photo of the Week

The Convict Surgeonfish (Acanthurus triostegus) is a convict in both form and behaviour. It was presumably given the name because of its distinctive pale yellow and black stripy colouration similar to that of uniforms that criminals wore in times gone by. However, these fish are also convicts because they are the raiders of the reef. Like most Surgeonfish they are herbivores, feeding on turf algae found on the reef, but unlike many reef fish they don’t maintain territories. Instead they move in large shoals, descending and overwhelming a resident fish, rapidly eating all the algae in its territory and then moving on. They may appear to the untrained eye to be an innocent shimmering of stripes zipping around the coral heads, but for reef inhabitants they are no good hooligans!

Finishing up Marine Work

Time has really raced the last few months for the marine team. Starting in January, Joy Smith an Oceanographer from Virginia, USA, joined me (Benjo) and together we really pushed forward with data collection on the reef. However all too quickly we’ve come to the end of this year’s field season, with weather set to get windier and the sea to get rougher from April through to September during ‘kusi’ monsoon. I’m now sitting in a coffee house in Nairobi thinking about all those wonders way down on the coast and realising that none of the magic of the reef has been lost. Below are a couple of photos from the last snorkel I did around a site we call ‘the larder’. A huge shoal of trevally completely surrounded us and beautiful sweetlips swam lazily over to figure out what these strange new creatures in their home were.

A final piece of news is that nearly all the plates we put down in December are now out of the water. I say nearly, because sadly we couldn’t find one of the plates placed in Kanani, but nevertheless recovering 35 small pieces of equipment that have been sitting on a large underwater landscape for 3 months is quite successful I feel. We did the work in collaboration with Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KEMFRI), which not only being another great contact for future work, but was a lot of fun for the three days we were zooming around the park and pulling the plates up. Juliet from KEMFRI started helping us analyse the plates looking at the major types of organisms settling. While I could see some little corals on the plates, we need to use a microscope and Juliet’s expertise for a longer period of time to get the final results of this interesting study. The plates are stored and can be analysed at any time in the future, so all the more to look forward to for the next field season!


Marine Data Collection

For the past few months the marine team have started collecting baseline biological data about the coral reef here in Watamu. Baseline data is information about the general characters of the reef and its inhabitants, which is not designed to answer any particular scientific question, but rather provide a wide range of basic biological metrics for comparing and contrasting, over time and space. These simple methods are used by people around the world studying corals, and although they aren’t as standardised as methods used in other fields, say ornithology, these data can be used to compare with information from different scientists from the past or in other areas.

The two main areas we look at are benthic (bottom living) cover of the coral substrate and the fish that live around the coral. For both of these we lay out a transect, which is a standard straight line distance across the reef indicated by a tape. With the benthic cover we look at all corals, seaweeds, sponges and other bottom living organisms which are found along 10m. From this data we can calculate the percentage cover of different types of organisms, and for some, such as macro-algae and corals, the types which dominate an area of reef. For fish we lay out a 100m transect and swim along counting the numbers of fish from 10 main fish families, such as snappers, butterflyfish and wrasse. We also estimate their size into 10cm size classes, which will allow us to estimate biomass of each fish family for the different areas of reef.

These methods have been used in Watamu for a number of years by Kenya Wildlife Service research group and Wildlife Conservation Society, but only in a constricted area around “Coral Gardens”. The exciting thing for us in A Rocha’s marine group is that we are now able to explore more areas of the park  that haven’t ever had this data collected and so we are expanding into previously unstudied areas of the park. So far we’ve collected data in two unstudied sites and have identified a further 3 which need attention. This data is the first benchmark for what we hope will continue for years to come and be useful for future studies seeing changes in a range of coral areas in the park.

It is incredibly exciting to be collecting these data knowing how significant the information coming out is. Not only that but we get spend hours in beautiful reef habitat and seeing plenty of cool things along our transect lines. Below is a photo of beautiful pipe-fish (relatives of sea-horses) and scary and very poisonous scorpion-fish I photographed along the transects.

Benjo conducting a fish transectBenthic cover transect line laid out over coralScorpionfish on transectPipefish on transect

Recycling for Research

Its really astounding how much stuff one needs when starting something new. From seaweed books to snorkelling bags all the little items necessary for effective research add up to a lot of new equipment. Africans are well known for their resourcefulness and being able adapt and reuse items for novel tasks and its no different here at A Rocha Kenya. When I told Henry (the Centre Manager) I needed a clip board for my underwater paper we looked around what scrap material we had here at Mwamba and settled on an old plastic toilet cistern as being the perfect tool for my new clipboard.

Henry and the Cistern

Clipboard in Action

Beginnings of a new chapter

Hi this is Benjo. I am A Rocha Kenya’s new marine volunteer, starting an exciting new branch of A Rocha Kenya’s work in the marine park just off the beach in front of Mwamba. I have spent time in A Rocha Kenya before working with David Ngala in Arabuko-Sokoke forest, but now I have turned my attention to my true passion in life which is all things marine.

Watamu Marine Park and the larger Marine Reserve combined are one of the oldest Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the world, being gazetted in 1968. They have successfully protected the amazing coral reefs and seagrass beds found on this coast ever since. However, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) have highlighted the need for research in order to manage this incredible wildlife sanctuary in a dynamic and changing world. For example in 1997 coral across the whole Indian Ocean suffered a mass bleaching event, where unusually hot water caused by an extreme El Nino event, overheated the coral and caused it to die. It is increasingly believed that bleaching events are a result of climate change and create difficult management task of how to help the coral persist and recolonise when these extreme events occur. I will hopefully be looking into some of these issues and other conservation threats concerning the MPA and joining together with the international community of coral conservationists, trying to find the best solutions for maintaining healthy colourful reefs.

So far I’ve been working on this project for three months, and there has been some great progress with all areas of the project. Each week I will try and update the blog with a new story and photo from the park so you can see what is happening. Stay posted and I’m sure there will be lots more exciting discoveries and updates about this new branch of A Rocha’s work.


Public hearing for jatropha project in Dakatcha Woodlands

It’s over a week since the Public Hearing for the Dakatcha Jatropha biofuel project and there has been some good feed back about it (including apparently today a full article in the Daily Nation about it). The meeting was held in Sosoni which is in the heart of the Dakatcha Woodlands IBA (Important Bird Area) and when we got there it was already getting crowded though nothing much was going on. There was a tent where the authorities and invited guests were to sit including the District Commissioner for Malindi District and for the newly formed Magarini District which is where Dakatcha Woodlands now lies (Magarini has been split off from Malindi in the past year and has very little infrastructure to it yet so much still comes out of Malindi).

Some of the Dakatcha community members at the meeting

There was quite a crowd of community members already there and the local Dakatcha Woodlands Conservation Youth Group were there wearing their group T-shirts. In the end there was probably a good 1,000 people present and as the meeting went on it was apparent there was a large contingent of women in particular who were very vocal in support of the project. Stanley (our Community Conservation manager) wandered around a bit and made some enquiries and discovered that a womens group had been bussed in by the county council to support the project and make lots of noise in support of it… However there was also a strong group of people who stood very strongly against the whole project with some extremely passionate presentations by some who had been lied to by the project proponent: in initial discussions they had been told that the project would only be put in areas which were nobodys land as such and where no-one was farming – only then to have land demarcation beacons placed right in people’s farms. Also they were told that the project was going to open up a road to access the plantation site, which the community thought was OK only then to find the bulldozers opening up an area of c.30ha in size and very much wider than you would need for a road. That was when they then forced the bulldozers to stop work and a court order was put in place.

The first presentation was by an Italian developer, a Mr Ivan, representing Jatropha Biofuel Energy Kenya, who presented the project to those gathered. He gave a very unplanned, unstructured presentation and almost appeared uninterested in it with his main point being that as from the day the licence is granted they would immediately hire 150 people and in 3 years would employ 1,500. He gave the classic spiel about how good jatropha is because it has been shown to grow in very arid conditions – and was therefore perfect for Dakatcha. He also called Dakatcha an ‘abandoned area’ and that Jatropha Energy Ltd wanted to ‘develop it’ When challenged as to where the land the project was taking actually lay (none of the community members were at all clear about the boundaries and if their area was or wasn’t included in it…), he brought out a photocopied and selotaped together map and vaguely flattened it out on a chair for the few people who went forward to have a look at it.

The Italian developer from Kenya Jatropha Energy Ltd with his colleague and interpreter
…jatropha is apparently 100% renewable…

This was followed by a chance for 5-10 community members who were for the project to come and give their reasons why followed by the same number who were against it. The County Council for Malindi was there in force and for some reason the chairman of the proceedings sat down and the Head of the Council took over introducing and controlling the speakers and called up 3-4 councillors who each spoke for 30-40 mins uninterrupted but with much whistling and clapping and shouting from the ‘yes’ group of the audience. In their presentations they also made very direct and almost personal attacks on NatureKenya and ‘two people’ who they accused of trying to prevent development in the area and who were bringing no benefit to the people. I was actually really shocked at how almost vitriolic they spoke against NatureKenya but told Kagema that he should be proud of it as it really showed that he had been doing his job to protect the woodlands from destruction. The councillors claimed to have followed all the correct procedures for acquiring the land and stated that sufficient public community meetings were held to inform the community – it is interesting to note that at a meeting of community leaders for the NatureKenya project that was held after the EIA had been carried out for the Jatropha, the 20 or so people at the meeting were asked how many were aware of the EIA process having happened… just two had even heard about it. Who were they? The two Chiefs present who have been in on the project since the start. Interesting.

The main case ‘for’ the project was that it was going to bring employment and jobs to people who otherwise had no form of income. It is true that poverty levels are very high and there is precious little for people to earn an income from. Over the past five years charcoal making has really taken off that has raped and destroyed large sections of the forest (and continues – there were three lorry loads of charcoal driven past the meeting site in just two hours…) but apart from farming there isn’t a lot for people to earn off. And farming is a challenge as the soils and rainfall are so poor – hence why we as A Rocha Kenya have been introducing Conservation Agriculture to try and improve fertility of soils and increase productivity. The really sad thing, however is that by bringing jatropha to the area in plantation form, it will definitely increase poverty, not reduce it. There are now a number of examples of how it has failed and instead brought problems. In the light of this, it was amazing to hear some of the ‘for’ speakers telling the community to ‘consider the future.. and choose jatropha!’.

Following the county council speakers, a chance was given to the government institutions and NGOs and other ‘technical’ organisations. The Zonal Manager for Malindi Kenya Forest Service spoke very clearly and strongly about how procedures had not been followed since even to that day he had yet to receive an official letter informing him about the project. Anthony Githithu of National Museums of Kenya followed this up with further clear examples of how jatropha as a crop would not succeed and highlighting the importance of the biodiversity of Dakatcha and how we need to conserve it rather than clear it for plantations.

Anthony Githithu of NMK speaking

The councillors gave some heckling to several of these latter speakers – though not the government officers except they did try to get them to stop talking saying their time was over after about 6-7 minutes including when I spoke. I guess we came away with a concern that there did seem to be a larger number of project ‘supporters’ than those who were against it and also a horror of how people have had the wool pulled over their eyes as to what jatropha really is like and how it will do. However it was good that we were the ones to present after the councillors as it meant that the political hype they spoke was followed by some more calmly presented facts as to how jatropha really will NOT succeed as an economic crop but will lead to further poverty. There was less heckling from the crowd when we spoke and there’s a chance people started to think that there may be a truth to the other side of the coin which they had never had presented to them. We’ll see what happens next…

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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