Planting trees to safeguard elephant habitats in Tsavo, Kenya

Aug 22, 2023 | Commentary


In Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park, the land becomes lush and green as one climbs the Vuria Hills. 

These hills—the source of the rivers that flow through Tsavo East and West national parks —serve as a critical water catchment for lower-lying wildlife conservancies that have provided elephant dispersal areas and migratory corridors for generations. But climate change is threatening to dry up the rivers, devastating the people and wildlife that depend on them.

Elephants coming to a watering hole in Tsavo East National Park. 

Restoration to combat drought

These rivers and the entire area have suffered prolonged droughts—said to be the severest the Horn of Africa has experienced in 40 years—with four consecutive failed rainy seasons. They have not only harmed wildlife but also heightened poverty and food insecurity.

The Taita community, for instance—a subsistence farming community that depends on livestock, poultry, maize, beans, and vegetables—has managed to toughen out dry spells in the past, but the recent droughts have wrought havoc on their water sources, ‘underscoring the urgency of restoring and conserving these catchments for people and wildlife,’ says Robert Kitau, a natural resources management graduate and manager of Kutima Ranch.

According to Gladys Mwamburi, secretary of Chawia Farmers in Kironge village—one of two community-based organizations (CBOs) in the area, ‘The last drought was extremely severe. We had no maize, no beans, no vegetables. Our springs dried up. Women had to be up before 4 a.m. to draw the little water that trickled down through the night.’ The only alternative was to buy water from vendors at roughly Sh300 (approximately US$2) per household daily. ‘That is a lot of money for a poor community.’

To combat droughts, IFAW is implementing a tree-based restoration project in Tsavo to rehabilitate water catchment areas for people and wildlife in conjunction with USAID and the Taita Hills Wildlife Conservancies Association (TTWCA). The project involves a donation of 10 improved avocado seedlings to each member of the Chawia Farmers CBO.

While the initial plan was to implement farm forestry by giving each household indigenous tree seedlings to protect soils and ease pressure on the nearby 86-acre community-owned Chawia Forest, the third largest cloud rainforest in the Taita Hills, the community chose to plant fruit trees.

Why tree planting?

Planting these trees can help combat the effects of climate change in many ways. The roots of trees curb soil erosion and the risk of floods while helping the soil retain its moisture. Trees also reduce the rate of water evaporation and attract cloud cover. The resulting rainfall ultimately minimizes the risk of drought, which helps to restore water catchment areas.

The trees also provide health and economic benefits to the community. ‘Unlike indigenous trees, fruit trees won’t be cut for firewood, charcoal burning, or building materials,’ explains Eliud Kimwori, the CBO group chairman. ‘They will improve food security because farmers can eat avocados, which are a rich source of vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutritional benefits. The harvested fruits can also be sold and the money used to buy food. The trees will also prevent erosion, because our land is hilly and steep, and provide income for households once we start harvesting our crop.’

In addition to planting fruit trees, the group runs an indigenous tree nursery and practices passion fruit farming and beekeeping

Gladys is optimistic that when the crop matures in three to five years, beneficiary households will begin to earn approximately Sh35,000 (about US$250) per harvest, money she says will enable families to pay school fees for their children.

‘If we educate our children, they will not need to burn charcoal to earn a living,’ Gladys says. ‘And if we get support to harvest, store rainwater, and install energy-saving cooking stoves, we will be strong enough to cope with droughts. There will be less pressure on our forest and the environment.’

A similar success story is taking shape in Choke village, which is also perched high up on the hills and overlooks the Bura, Taita Hills, and Lualenyi wildlife sanctuaries. The Bura River, which sustains these three wildlife sanctuaries and wildlife dispersal areas for Tsavo West National Park, spouts from these lush, green hills. But like Chawia village, Choke experiences frequent, cyclic droughts, rising food insecurity, shrinking river volumes, and disappearing springs—all in the last four to five years due to climate change.

Latin Mwasi, a local macadamia farmer from whom TTWCA bought 560 grafted macadamia seedlings for distribution to members of a farmers group, believes the crop will change people’s lives in his village.

‘I built my house with money from the sale of macadamia,’ Latin explains. ‘Previously, my wife and two children shared a single room. Last year, I harvested 400kg, which at current market prices translates to Sh20,000 (US$143). Before global prices fell due to the pandemic, I could have made three times more. This is good money. It supplements my income and enables me to save fees for our daughter, Salome, who is joining secondary school next year.’

Clara Riziki, 42, is one of the project’s beneficiaries. In addition to macadamia, she grows Irish potatoes, maize, and beans and keeps three cows and five goats on her one-and-a-half-acre farm.

‘I have only planted macadamia on an eighth of my land,’ Clara says. ‘My dream is to expand the crop to half an acre so that I can earn enough income to improve my house, buy a better livestock breed and ultimately invest in a biogas digester. I want to cook with gas, not firewood.’ She describes macadamia as her ‘pension plan’.

With just ten fruit seedlings per farmer, these two community groups are demonstrating how planting trees can be used to restore degraded catchments, boost food security and livelihoods in communities adjacent to wildlife, and, in the long term, secure safe dispersal and migratory corridors for Kenya’s elephants.

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