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Farmer at the foot of Vuria Hills
Taita Hills, Kenya

Community in Kenya comes to the rescue of bird endangered by forest clearing

At the far end of his one-acre farm at the foot of Taita Hills in Taita-Taveta County in southern Kenya, Mzee Augustine Mwakisha, bends over a long row of germinating seedlings. His hands, gnarled from years of cultivating, feel the underside of the tender leaves for signs of pests. He finds none. Satisfied, he trudges to a raised portion of earth where more fruit seedlings are sprouting and caresses their stems.

“These are doing well," he said with a delighted smile. "Within a few more weeks, they will be ready for transplanting."

Mwakisha, 62, is one of 1,200 small-scale farmers from more than 10 villages around the Taita Hills who have embarked on an ambitious project to rehabilitate vast swathes of degraded forest. Dubbed Vuria Forest Reforestation and Livelihood Improvement (VUFORELI), the project brings together several community groups whose aim is to restore the degraded forests to their original status to preserve the hill area's vital ecosystem.

Located 200 kilometers northwest of Mombasa, Taita Hills is one of Kenya’s water towers and a biodiversity hotspot. The hills are part of a complex ecosystem made up of several forests, including Vuria, Mshomoto, Mbololo, Fururu, Ngangao and Chawia, amongst others.

The densely-forested hills are a source of key watersheds, including the 210-km long Voi River, which feeds into Aruba Dam in Tsavo East National Park for use by wildlife. These hills also are home to several small mammals, insects and rare bird species.

However, years of illegal logging and unchecked bush clearing have resulted in severe degradation, reducing the forest cover and causing rivers to dry up.

Alarmed by this wanton destruction, community members with farms bordering the hills have formed groups that advocate for the replanting of both indigenous and fruit trees in all degraded areas. As an additional requirement, individual group members must maintain their own tree nurseries and are expected to plant trees to extend the forest cover from the hills to their farms.

farms surrounding Vuria Hills
Some of the farms surrounding the Vuria Hills where the VUFORELI project will be carried out / Credit: Wagema Mwangi

“We want to have the whole area under forest [cover], as it used to be before the degradation happened,” said Mwakisha.

While the overall goal of reforestation is to increase Kenya’s forest cover from the current 7.4 percent to 10 percent by 2022, conservationists say the restoration of Taita Hills’ forests will serve an arguably more noble goal of giving a fragile lifeline to the survival of two of the most critically endangered bird species in the world.

Taita Thrush and Taita Apalis, endemic to the Taita Hills, feature prominently on the Red List of Critically Endangered Birds by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The critically endangered category is the final stage before a species is officially declared extinct.

In a survey in August 2018, IUCN established that the global population of Taita Apalis was between 210 and 430 birds. In 2016, IUCN had reported the population of the Taita Thrush to be 930. Several factors have been cited as contributing to the sharp decline of these species.

A report by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and local conservation groups titled Action Plan for Conservation of Critically Endangered Birds in Taita Hills- Kenya 2015-2020, fragmented habitats, nest predation and reforestation using exotic trees were cited as key contributors to the disappearance of these birds.

The report indicates that the population of the Taita Thrush is 1,400, a figure slightly higher than the one cited by IUCN. It says the birds are scattered in fragmented forests, with Mbololo having a population of 1,060; Ngangao, 250 and; Chawia home to just 35 birds.

The number of Taita Apalis is somewhere between 300 and 500, the KWS report says, noting that rare sighting of those birds have been reported in Iyale, Msidunyi and Ngangao forests. The Apalis has already totally disappeared from the Chawia and Fururu forests, underscoring the profoundly grave danger facing the species.

While the overall goal of reforestation is to increase Kenya’s forest cover from the current 7.4 percent to 10 percent by 2022, conservationists say the restoration of Taita Hills’ forests will serve an arguably more noble goal of giving a fragile lifeline to the survival of two of the most critically endangered bird species in the world.


John Mlamba, a conservation specialist, says the survival of the two species hangs by a thread. Human activities, such as farming, have led to the shrinking of their habitats, pushing the feathered beauties to the verge of extinction -- hence the need for urgent intervention.

“Their natural habitats are all destroyed and they are struggling to survive," Mlamba said. "We are seeing the last of Apalis and Thrush in the world,” he noted.

In the 1960s, the two species flourished in the tens of thousands. The University of Helsinki, which has done extensive studies on the history of the Taita Hills, says its forests covered an area of 1,000 hectares in the 1960s, with the region's human population around 90,000 people. Over the last 50 years, the hills have lost more than 60 percent of their forest cover, reaching a paltry 400 hectares, while the human population has jumped to over 350,000.

Women carry loads of firewood from the forest
Women from villages around Vuria Hills leave the forest with loads of firewood illegally felled. Most homesteads in the region use firewood for cooking / Credit: Wagema Mwangi

Mlamba, who is also the executive director of Management of Arid Zones in Development Options (MAZIDO), an organization that deals with community-empowerment programs, says the surging human population has had a near-catastrophic effect on Taita Hills.

Farmers cleared large tracks of forest, as settlements cropped up between once unbroken habitats, he said. That resulted in fragmented forests with a small population of birds permanently cut off from neighboring forests and trapped in shrinking ones.

“When the forest was an unbroken continuum, the birds could fly for miles and miles to other areas. The situation [now] is radically different. When forests were cut down, the birds were confined to a singular forest habitat. They are prisoners in their habitats,” Mlamba explained.

This scenario has catalyzed inbreeding among small bird populations with higher male ratios and, ultimately,  led to a reduction in the avian population.

With the VUFORELI project, Mlamba said, there is hope for these species.

The project envisages the creation of "forest corridors" on farms that will act as vital links connecting scattered habitats. Once the farms are forested, the birds will move through these corridors to other forests without hindrance. The project is expected to add 1,000 acres of farm forests, Mlamba said.

“The farm forests will be bridges to connect different habitats. The birds will be free to move,” he said.

Forest walk in Vuria Hills
Elders lead two local sightseers through parts of Vuria Hill Forest untouched by degradation / Credit: Wagema Mwangi

Already there are signs that reforestation efforts in Taita Hills are bearing fruit. Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the government agency responsible for forest protection, says degradation has significantly been reduced and the rehabilitated areas are showing signs of recovery.

Christopher Maina, the County Conservator, says KFS is urging farmers to plant bamboo and other indigenous trees on their farms and that was contributing to increased tree cover. The region currently has a forest cover of 3.6 percent. Once the project takes off, Maina said, the forest cover is expected to go beyond five percent.

“We are assisting farmers by donating seedlings. We have planted over 4,000 seedlings at Iyale Forest already,” he said.

To ensure sustainability, farmers are encouraged to practice agroforestry by planting fruit trees alongside indigenous ones. These fruit trees include avocado, macadamia, apricot and passion.  Mlamba said that if farmers can make money from the project through the sale of fruit, more will join this conservation initiative. He calls VUFORELI a broad-spectrum solution that will solve the degradation menace, offer livelihoods to farmers and give the endangered birds a chance for survival.

Yet the project is not without its challenges. Livestock keepers have allowed their herds to graze in some rehabilitated areas, destroying the seedlings. There is also an issue with villagers raiding the forests for firewood. To address this, the community groups are working closely with government officials to keep the livestock out of their farms and stop illegal firewood cutting.

“We are hopeful the project will succeed as the farmers have owned it,” Mlamba said.

Nevertheless, even as optimism remains that VUFORELI will change the future for these birds, it will not be until 2023 -- after the farm trees fully mature -- that the true effectiveness of the bird corridors will be known.

An earlier version of this story appeared in the Kenya News Agency on 25 Dec. 2019. It was produced following a workshop on wildlife trafficking and conservation as part of the Earth Journalism Network's East Africa Wildlife Journalism program.

Banner image: A farmer at the foot of Vuria Hills points out sections of degraded forest areas as a result of clearing land for farming / Credit: Wagema Mwangi