The Menaces of the Mau Forest

A NWNL NextGen Blog by Jacqueline Jobin, University of Minnesota.

Photos by Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Jacqueline Jobin is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota studying Environmental Science, Policy and Management. She is currently an assistant at a soil testing lab and participates in a number of extracurricular clubs, including Leadership in Careers and the Mentor Program. Jacqueline recently returned from studying abroad in Kenya, where she took courses in Nairobi and completed an internship in the rural village of Maungu (northwest of Mombasa, on the southern edge of Tsavo East National Park, and south of Voi).


The opportunity to study abroad in Kenya was a chance to learn the country’s history, culture and traditions, and a chance to experience the surrounding landscape, ecosystems and environmental issues. I learned the importance of the diverse ecological communities for everyday Kenyans and their economy. Through studying and observing, I was able to identify major problems within the country that affect its water bodies.

Pristine Mau Forest rain forest.

During my stay in Nairobi, several times classmates would complain of not having water at their homestay, a result of overpopulation causing strain on water sources throughout the city. Also, due to the lack of waste management, it was normal to see trash lying in and around rivers, ponds, or streams. I witnessed the lack of social corporate responsibility in the country by touring the Uhuru settlement, a small coastal community located outside of Mombasa, where hazardous waste was seeping into their water sources from a battery manufacturing factory. Unfortunately, water issues like the ones I experienced extend outside of Nairobi and have become prevalent, specifically in the region of the Mau Forest.

The Mau Forest, covering over 988,000 acres [3.998 sq km], is the country’s main water tower and the most extensive native forest remaining in Kenya.1  The water sources within the forest are a part of the Mara River Basin, a critical resource providing life to all organisms in its almost 3.5 million-acre basin [14,000 sq. km], as well as throughout southwestern Kenya and northwestern Tanzania. Its Mara River tributaries emerge into Kenya’s Great Rift Valley after flowing through the Mau Forest and across tea plantations and Maasai lands. This Maasai territory is home to iconic wildlife dependent on the Mau’s waters and protected in the world-famous wildlife habitats of the Masai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park.2

The Mara River, below of the Mau Forest in the Mara Conservancy, during rainy season. 

There are thirteen rivers extending from the Mau Forest, including the Mara River (fed by its two tributaries, the Amala and Nyangores Rivers) and the Njoro, Molo, Ndent, Makalia, Naishi, Kerio, Sondu, Ewaso Nyiro, Nyando, Yala and Nzoia Rivers. These rivers flow directly into the Maasai Mara National Reserve and some of the country’s major lakes including Lake Turkana, Lake Baringo, and Lake Nakuru.3 The rivers and lakes fed by rains from the Mau Forest are extremely important for wildlife, tourism, and agricultural production within Kenya. Any changes to these waterways and the forest they drain drastically affect rivers and lakes further downstream.

The destruction of the Mau Forest is a multi-problem affair and remains a politically divisive issue for many Kenyans. The Ogiek people are Mau Forest’s native inhabitants and are known for activities such as hunting and gathering.4 Over the past few years, there have been many outcries from the Ogiek about the current state of the forest, specific damaging activities occurring underneath its canopy, and consequent devastating deforestation. Even from a distance, it is easy to see the fallen trees and buzz of tractors moving in and out of the forest floor – all signs of illegal logging.5 The most politically divisive issue is settlers encroaching on the forest which has increased deforestation and burning activities. However, there are ongoing evictions of illegal settlers by officials in order to protect the forest from these destructive activities. Thousands of evictions are taking place each year.6

The disappearance of so much forest has already been felt throughout the country as water levels and rainfall patterns throughout the river system have become unpredictable. To the northeast, below the falling trees of the Mau lies Lake Nakuru. Lake Nakuru is a major tourist destination, wildlife hotspot, and connected to the rivers from the Mau Forest. Upon Googling Lake Nakuru, images pop up of a pink lake covered in flamingos. But in the last ten years almost a third of the birds have fled. With climate change extremes, intense rainfall is causing unusual flooding. Simultaneously, deforestation in the Mau has left few tree roots to absorb and retain rainwater for gradual release later in dry months.

Thus, with the deforestation of Kenya’s main water tower, Lake Nakuru’s water levels are increasing sharply, forcing a retreat of spirulina – a biomass that serves as the flamingoes’ main source of food. Spirulina are micro-algae that thrive in salty, alkaline environments. The rainy-season surge of freshwater levels has caused a decline in the lake’s salinity making it uninhabitable for the Spirulina. With little food available, flamingo populations have reached between 5,000 to 15,000, a sharp contrast to the millions that called Lake Nakuru home just years ago.7 It was clear, from the very few flamingos I spotted that the issues happening upstream in the Mau have had unintended and ignored downstream effects – a pattern being replicated throughout the entire Mara River Basin.

Flock flamingos (‘Phoenicopterus minor’) standing on water’s edge of Lake Nakuru National Park.

The Mau Forest is an example of how human activities can harm ecological sites. This crisis presents an educational opportunity for us to recognize the impacts our own behavior can create, not only on water bodies but also to the surrounding ecosystems. My opportunity to witnessing water issues in Kenya has given me a new perspective on the struggles Kenyans face each day. How fortunate I am to live in a country where access to clean water is rarely considered.

Even though Kenya suffers from major environmental threats, the country and people continuously filled me with the hope that the world’s beautiful landscapes will survive as long as there are people who want to protect them. The Mau Forest is not totally destroyed; and with better policies, continued reforestation efforts and environmental education it can make a strong recovery.

Aerial of Mau Forest during during a NWNL Mara River Basin Expedition to document deforestation.

Footnotes:

1.Waitagel, Stanley. The Story of the Mau Forest Complex, Standard Media, February 1, 2017.  Accessed January 13, 2020, by JJ.  https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/lifestyle/article/2001227875/the-story-of-mau-forest-complex

2.Why the Mara River Basin?, USAID. Accessed January 13, 2020, by JJ. https://www.swpwater.org/why-the-mara-river-basin/

3.Olang, Luke. Kundu, Peter. Land Degradation of the Mau Forest Complex in Eastern Africa: A Review for Management and Restoration Planning (1-2). Kenyatta University, Nairobi. Accessed January 13, 2020, by JJ. http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/22747.pdf

4.Rotich, Japhet. Who are the Okiek People?, WorldAtlas, Aug. 1, 2017. Accessed January 13, 2020, by JJ. worldatlas.com/articles/who-are-the-okiek-people.html.

5.Letiwa, Paul. Matara, Eric. Charcoal trade, logging wiping out Mau Forest, Daily Nation, March 6, 2018. Accessed January 13, 2020, by JJ. https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Charcoal-logging-wiping-out-Mau-forest/1056-4329818-cprtig/index.html.1

6.Kiplagat, Robert. 3,000 people evicted from the Maasai Mau Forest, Standard Media, July 10, 2018.  Accessed January 13, 2020, by JJ. https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001287406/3-000-people-evicted-from-the-maasai-mau-forest

7. Magoum, Ines. Kenya: Millions of flamingos threatened by deforestation, Afrik21, February 28, 2020. Accessed March 5, 2020, by JJ. https://www.afrik21.africa/en/kenya-millions-of-flamingoes-threatened-by-deforestation/

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