Luck of the Draw…or Complex, Socio-ecological Interaction?

Looking over my field notes after a recent survey of human activities in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest near Matsangeni village—which involved trekking through the forest with David (rather, stumbling along, clumsily trying to keep up with him) for the better part of the morning and afternoon—I was struck by what seemed to me to be an inconsistency: the existence of two significant, yet seemingly contradictory relationships regarding illicit human activities in ASF. The first, and more predictable, is an apparent negative relationship between the extent of human activities and distance from the forest edge. In other words, the further one travels from the forest edge into the forest interior, the less evidence of human activity one usually finds. The second, related to this ‘usually,’ is a correlative relationship between human activities and habitat type. It appears that certain human activities are tightly linked to habitat, or forest, type, and occur regardless of distance from the forest edge.

That day, David and I first followed a well-worn path 2.5 kilometers into the interior of the forest, traversing from Mixed to Brachystegia forest—and finding much evidence of harvested trees, as well as both inactive and active snares. However, around the two kilometer mark, evidence of human activity began to decline and by the 2.5 kilometer all evidence of human activity ceased, even though the path ahead appeared well-worn and recently used. Unperturbed, we re-traced our track to the forest edge, found another well-worn path running in the same direction as the former (south ? north), and set off anew.

We kept to this second path for some time, traversing from Mixed to Brachystegia to Cynometra forest over 3.5 kilometers. However, whereas evidence of human activities decreased with distance from the forest edge on the previous path, evidence of human activities actually increased with distance on this new path, especially in the deepest, Cynometra forest section. There, David and I found evidence of an industrious pole-harvesting operation; there were numerous piles of freshly-cut poles, 5-10 centimeters in diameter. Likewise, the number of snares we located in this section, intended for Duiker, Suni and Bushbuck, more than doubled our day’s total count.

Sitting at the Kenya Wildlife Service offices, I tried to allay my confusion by asking David a clarifying question: Had we been lucky in locating the large amount of illicit human activity on the second path, in relation to the first? Or, was something else at work?

David chuckled. His answer: “Both.”

As anyone who has ever conducted a survey of human activity in ASF with David, much of what is found is done so by chance. Pick the wrong path, and you will be disappointed to find no evidence of human activity. (Or, rather, you will be excited, as this is a good indication conservation is working by serving the needs and interests of the forest-adjacent communities, while providing for biodiversity conservation.)

However, distance from the forest edge, “agency” of the harvester, and the habitat type are significant factors in determining the spatial distribution of illicit human activities within ASF. Generally, evidence of illicit activities decreases with increased distance from the forest edge. This is understandable; the forest is quite dense, and one’s ‘returns’ decrease with the increased exertion that extracting resources from within the forest (e.g. timber from a felled tree) require. However, as David and I found on the second path, this precept does not always hold. Rather, if one is seeking out a specific forest resource, for a specific purpose (e.g. sturdy, long-lasting pole for constructing a living structure), one is apt to disregard distance and increased exertion in order to acquire the specific forest resource. Furthermore, forest resources are not distributed uniformly through the forest as a whole, or even within homogenous sections of the forest (i.e. Cynometra forest, Mixed forest, etc.). For example, due to species-specific requirements (soil type and water content, sunlight penetration, etc.) Manilkara sulcata, which provides poles of exceptional quality, and is therefore highly-sought for building, is found mainly within areas of Cynometra forest. Distance from forest edge and human valuation aside, if the requisite ecological conditions are not met, a certain tree species will not grow in, or a certain animal species will not colonize, that specific area in the forest. Effectively, while space matters, socio-cultural, economic and ecological conditions matter as well (and potentially, even more) in determining the spatial distribution of illicit human activities in ASF.

For us, David explained, this means that its a combination of luck and the above knowledge that enables successful surveys. David certainly seems to possess both, and continues conducting his surveys multiple times a week in an effort to produce more comprehensive records of illicit human activities occurring within ASF for the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Management Team. The hope is that this group of stakeholders will utilize the vast amount of information David provides in formulating more robust, responsive forest management policies. An upcoming meeting of ASFMT will feature David’s data, in GIS (i.e. ‘map’) form; we’ll have to wait to see how the team harnesses it.

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One comment on “Luck of the Draw…or Complex, Socio-ecological Interaction?

  1. Will Knocker on said:

    It looks like ASF urgently needs protection, like most of Kenya’s PAs. Whether they will get it is another matter. Keep up your exemplary work David Ngala..

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