“I have been earning a living from this forest,” says Mama Teresa Mwachai, a 43-year-old herbalist. Teresa says she frequents the forest every week to pick leaves and roots for her patients , a job she has done since her youth.
“Without this forest, my life would have been very difficult. I don’t know where I would get my medicine. My parents were herbalists. They used to send me to pick some leaves and roots for them so I inherited their work.”
When The Star visited her, she had a patient whose stomach had been running for three days. The patient was brought from Wundanyi, some 40 kilometers away. “I have to go and boil some roots for him. He is suffering from diarrhea,” she said as she reached her small hoe and methodically scrubbed into the roots of one tree. Its concoction would heal the patient. She says boiled roots of the Brucea Antidicentre which is locally referred to as Chamsidu stops diarrhea immediately.
We took a guided tour through the Ngangao Forest with a team led by Kenya Forest Service Taita Taveta Forest Station officer, John Mbori. “This forest has great history. It is not only the herbalists who benefit here. There are also rare birds and soon we are going to make it a tourist attraction site,” said Mbori.
“We have the rare and surviving Taita Thrus, Taita White Eye and Taita Hapilis birds here. You can’t find them anywhere else. So we are protecting the forest to ensure the birds remain here.”
A recent research report released by Nature Kenya indicates that three unique bird species which are only found in the forest are gradually declining in number following wanton destruction of the forest habitat. The report cites Taita Apalis, Taita Olive Thrush and Taita White Eye as being on the verge of extinction.
Ngangao forest made up of 13,993 hectares is also a home of some rare species of trees. One of these trees is ‘mother tree’ as the locals fondly refer to it for its old age and height. The ‘mother tree’ scientifically called Newtonia Buchananii is a source of clean cold water for Wundanyi, Tsavo East and West. It’s estimated to be 100 meters high and nearly 20 meters in diameter.
But poachers have not respected the ageing tree either. Some parts of the trunk were bare, courtesy of crude weapons used to fell the tree by illegal timber loggers.
“These people used crude weapons like handsaws at the time illegal forest activities thrived. But its huge size frustrated their assault before members of the local community stepped in to offer protection,”said Mbori.
According to the KFS chief communications officer, Charles Ngunjiri, the organisation encourages locals to join the conservation of the forest. Ngangao Forest community association, is one such group that has come to take charge of conservation of the forest.
“The community based natural resource management is being increasingly promoted as a solution to problems of nature conservation. The driving forces behind the adaptation of this concept especially in Eastern and Southern Africa have been the threat of species extinction due to over utilisation of resources, the inability of the state to protect wildlife, land use conflicts between rural communities in resource areas and wildlife managers,” said Ngunjiri.
With the rise of demand of timber, forests have been dwindling fast as poachers rush for the high prices, which has not spared indigenous forests like Ngangao. With the County governments coming to place, courtesy of the new constitution , the forest will be a tourist destination according to Mbori.
“This forest has a lot in terms of tourism potential. We have good sites and historical caves. Many tourists and scholars have been coming here and hope this will flourish in the near future,” said Mbori.
In his view, the forest is also a prime asset for the herbalists,which according to him should also be regulated. “Some trees known for their medicinal value could also face extinction if they are not protected,” he says.
Nathaniel Mukombola agrees with the conservator saying that most trees had dried up as their barks and roots are taken by herbalists thereby killing the trees. “We have seen a number of trees here dry up. Most of them had had their roots and barks cut off,” he said. But Teresa said the herbalists would not kill a tree. According to her, the young roots and of trees are always used. “We don’t disturb the main roots.”
Another unique tree species faced with extinction is the mwavwa tree. It is used to destroy ticks in livestock if washed with water from boiled leaves, said Jonam Mwandoe, 35 one of the locals. Watare or Crabia Zimarmanii which is believed to cure hypertension is also a prized tree here.
“People come all the way from Mombasa,Kilifi and Ukambani for its leaves,” says Jonam, “the tree needs protection otherwise, it will be no more in the near future.” There has also been a need to link conservation and development, says a study on Traditionally Protected Forests´ Role within Transforming Natural Resource Management Regimes in Taiga Hills, by Finnish Nina Himberg. According to Himberg, the principle of the approach is that of reforming the conventional “protectionist conservation philosophy” and “top down” approaches to development.
In Taita Hills are remnants of indigenous mountain rainforests play a crucial role as water towers and socio-cultural sites.They are a precambrian mountain range in the South-west of Kenya in Taita Taveta district. The hills consist of three massifs namely Dabida, Sagalla in the southern side of Voi town and Kasigua in the south near the border of Tanzania.
The Dawida massif is the largest and tallest of the three, with an altitude of 2,228 meters above sea level at its highest peak, Vuria. In the past, the hills were pressurised due to poverty, shortage of cultivable land and the fading of traditional knowledge.
“When you are close to that tree, you are closer to the ancestors. Thus, when you are talking to the tree you are talking to the ancestors, and when you pray for some rain, the rains will come,”said a middle aged Taita man who only gave his name as Hillary.
Indigenous forests are globally depleting despite various conservation and development efforts. Farmers face problems of droughts, soil erosion, water pollution and desertification.
Forests are surrounded by densely populated areas, thus under pressure for settlements, timber and non-timber products despite their designation as protected areas.
One key driver of deforestation and land degradation is the demand for firewood which accounts for 70-90 per cent of all energy consumed. It has been estimated that five percent of the remaining indigenous forest area was lost between 1990 and 2005. Fresh means for sustainable resource management are more often sought by sourcing from the traditional knowledge base of the people living in vulnerable areas.
The ministry of Forest and Wildlife through several projects like Miti Mingi mashambani and community based organisations to increase the country’s forest cover which is under 10 percent.
One such group in the region is the Dabico Dawida Biodiversity Conservation group, Nathaniel Mwaumba, the chairman of the group says they have taken their own measures to protect the forest.
“Such efforts have enabled the the tree known for its camphor wood to be protected. As a shrine, locals come to worship and make specific requests to God like to provide rainfall.
Mwaumba says the tree is an important eco-tourism destination for both local and international visitors and a destination for research researchers. Part of the current effort, says Mwaumba is aimed at increasing the number of the mother tree through regeneration of at least 50 tree seedlings.
Source: The Star