Category Archives: Tree poaching

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.

The nature of our Nature Reserve

Going by the definition of “Nature Reserve”….a nature reserve should be an area with predominantly untouched flora and fauna in their natural state and high conservation value. This week, Silas and Ngala went out to the Nature Reserve part of the Arabuko-Sokoke forest to do disturbance surveys. I had this definition on my mind and therefore expected it to be well protected. We began our five hour survey at  8am and we were to cover at least 5kms. None of us had a water bottle..all we had was a “piki”, GPS, clip board, data sheets and a pen. We hung our binoculars on our necks as usual and we therefore don’t consider that part of anything new with us.

 

 

 

 

 

Walking through the forest is not an easy task and really requires preparedness. We walk sometimes, we crawl other times and we even run, well, there are elephants and buffaloes unhappy to see us traverse their territories! Sometimes we are even more scared when we come across footprints of a likely poacher. If you met a poacher during a survey in the forest without the company of any ranger, your life hangs in the balance. They can do anything; strangle you, pierce your belly with a poisonous arrow, stab you in the throat or even worse enough, tie you around a tree. These are challenges we have faced and even sometimes evaded and we still go on with or without rangers.

When we arrived in the Nature Reserve part of the forest this week, we parked our “piki” on the forest edge and randomly followed one of the active paths leading into the reserve. There was no any form of disturbance seen except some footprints of what we suspected to be poachers heading back to their camp site after fetching some water. We passed through Cynometra and Brachystagia vegetation and all the cut stems were as old as maybe several years back. No new cut tree or laid snare was seen as we walked through.

On our way back after completing 6km, we decided to take a different route in order to explore other parts of the forest. We came across several water pools where elephants and buffaloes drink water and some of them were rich with very healthy grass. There were still no signs of poaching until we came across a stunning observation. Here, we realized that poachers have also taken their techniques a notch higher. When you talk of watch towers, security is the word that comes on your mind and the same thing, happens to come on the mind of a poacher. Visualize this scenario; a bed of poles constructed by tightening thin strong poles together is tight on two horizontal and parallel branches on a tree to make a comfortable stand where one can sleep and sit as well. And this bed to make it worse, is overlooking a water pool rich with healthy grass!! This definitely means that our guy is a person hunting buffaloes that come to graze in the pool as well as drink water. High-tech, isn’t it?? We however saw it and took its coordinates and all that remains is the rangers to go and take a look and get hold of this person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other than that, we could as well see some signs of death like the skull of a dead Suni. We proceeded towards the edge of the forest and when we came across the Cynometra forest, Ngala turned to me and whispered, ” Hey Silas, this looks like a perfect habitat for the Sokoke Scop’s Owl. Can we walk through and have a critical look?” My response to that was……..

We were very impressed with the state of the reserve and we are happy that the level of disturbance in the nature reserve is very low. However, due to the fact that there are still signs of poachers in the area, there is need to keep a close eye on the reserve in order to ensure that no poacher interferes with the resources in it. We are happy to continue doing our surveys even when situations are extremely hard to operate in. We hope that when we will have sufficient resources, we will put our protocols  a notch higher.

Thank you for reading this blog and recommending it to another person. Most importantly, we thank you for your financial support as well as good wishes.

Mystery Unravelled!!!!

I am talking of our never ending sojourn that has seen us get to learn a lot about natural resources and of keen interest, the threatened species of birds. Ngala is known for being the man behind Sokoke Scops Owl in Arabuko-Sokoke forest and I have accompanied him a couple of times to camp in the forest and be on the move at the crack of dawn as we follow the hooting Owl within thick vegetation. This is just one of the endangered species and at least there has been significant information about it on the web. However, there has been another species whose information is meager that you have to travel all the way to the Kenya coast in order to see it and learn something about it. This is the Clarke’s Weaver!! First was the breeding site discovered in Dakatcha woodlands over a month ago and since then, Ngala and I have been focusing specifically on wetlands within and around Arabuko-Sokoke forest. On 25th of March, this man with incredible mastery of the forest decided to ride his motorbike right on the edge of the forest and towards the south-west edge of the forest, he discovered a wetland. It was early evening and  birds would be returning to their roost sites. He decided to park his “piki” and have a closer look at the site and there he saw the Clarke’s Weavers. Most of them were female in their post-breeding plumage and there were a host of other species including the Zanzibar Red Bishop, Fan-tailed Widowbird and Grosbeak Weavers. Later on, last week, we undertook a visit as a whole team from Mwamba field study centre to witness this discovery by the Disney hero. The wetland as I saw it, was the perfect habitat for breeding of the species-made of sedges and reeds- and with abundance of water.

 

 

 

 

After spending two hours at the site between 5pm and 7pm, we set back to Mwamba and organized for a hike in the forest to all the wetlands. We managed this easily because we could pinpoint the pools from the Google maps. On a rainy Tuesday morning we set out in the forest again, this time without Ngala, to visit all the pools and assess the potential of them being breeding/roosting  sites for the Clarke’s Weavers. Out of the ten we planned to visit, we managed to trace eight and out of the eight, three were perfect for Clarke’s Weaver habitation. We had to stop after the eighth pool because the remaining two were three kilometres apart and it was totally rainy and windy.

 

 

Ngala and I are looking forward to visiting these three potential wetlands during morning and evening hours and spend some time monitoring any Weavers come in or fly out. We are certain that even if we don’t see them this year, we will see them next year during the breeding season between March and April. It is a puzzle to us still because we haven’t seen their nests but we won’t tire in monitoring them until we see them nest in some of these wetlands.

Well, we have the roost site unravelled around the forest for the first time since starting  our ten-year search. What’s next? leave it for us and follow us on this blog and you will definitely be the first to get the information. Your support either financially or through reading and recommending this post to other conservationists gives me the spirit of motivation to keep pushing with Ngala until we bring sufficient information about this threatened bird species.

Now, it’s time to wind up with this weird and wonderful!!!

Sniffing the poachers…..in Arabuko Sokoke forest-Kenya

Poaching is a subject that comes on the mind of almost every conservationist but the task is differentiating between this illegal activity and the entire exercise of getting down to the poacher. David Ngala and I are like “sniffer dogs” but we sniff a rather different thing. We search, GPS mark and remove snares from Arabuko Sokoke forest as well as surveying all the illegal tree logging going on within the forest, We do this by faith and by the fact that even the biblical context calls upon us to be stewards of God’s creations. We do this regularly to help bring the true picture of the kind of illegal things that are happening as a result of ignorance by man over God’s creation. We work closely with Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Forest Service who then make a follow-up. The bible in the book of Jeremiah 12:4 says…”How long shall the land mourn, and the herbs of every field wither, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein? The beasts are consumed, and the birds; because they said, He shall not see our last end”.

 

 

 

 

 

On 8th of March we set out early to a transect in the forest in an area that has been thought to be one of those areas bordering the tensely populated community around. We chose this area randomly as always and when we arrived at the place, we even encountered some men emerging from the forest with machetes. There was little that we could do as we have no authority whatsoever to arrest anyone. We were determined to cover about 5km into the forest using active human paths. We encountered several small trees cut for poles at the beginning and as we moved further deep, we began encountering the heavy stumps that were freshly cut. I could not believe my eyes seeing such huge trees that are home to birds, tree squirrels and even beautiful snakes having been heavily logged. As usual, we did take the GPS points and moved on to other areas. There were decreased number of animal species and less often, we could hear Greenbuls calling and at one point we came across two Crested Quineafowls. It was hot and we were very sweaty and thirsty. Unfortunately, none of us had carried a bottle of water-Ngala does it the camel style-taking a lot of water before starting the transect,  and for me, I was just lazy not to carry a bottle of water because it would become just another burden so hard to bear later on.

It is awful to realize that our forest is being heavily logged and the action being taken is not being fully implemented. Although environmental education has been incorporated, most people have been adamant to practice conservation. A Rocha Kenya is playing its role through creation of awareness through the ASSETS program which targets the surrounding community near Arabuko Sokoke forest by providing bursaries to students around it in order to ease the burden from parents who have to poach into the forest in order to raise school fees.The good news is that some of the forest trees that have been cut down in the past are now regenerating and we saw quite a number.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our way back, we came across a huge baobab tree, perhaps a few decades old and we were tempted to measure the circumference and try to calculate its diameter. It was about 8.4m in circumference which gave us about 2.7m in diameter. Such a tree grown to a height of about 30m, that’s HUGE!!!  Indeed, the forest has massive resources.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As always, we are determined to use the little resources we have to bring this to you and create awareness through our surveys to the people around the forest and around the world. We apologize for the poor quality of the pictures as they were taken using a phone.

You can also send in your donations through the Donate option on top right. Thanks very much for your support as you have just saved the habitat for an animal in Arabuko Sokoke forest.We also give our thanks for the support we are getting from our sponsors-both corporate and individual as this will propel us to the next level and help conserve the  resources in this forest.

 

Ngala again!!! He uncovers more illegal snares and and cut stems in Arabuko forest

Sometimes I take a stroll in the Arabuko Sokoke forest to do bird watching and I never mind where I step because I really have my eyes fixed on the birds. I have been used to hanging my binoculars around my neck  and walking with my eyes fixed on tree branches and my ears keen to listen to bird calls. Last week on Friday I joined the Disney hero for snare and cut stem survey and was shocked after completing our 5km transect. I am Silas Ekesa and I am currently coordinating Ngala’s surveys and this opportunity has always given me a chance to unravel a lot of mysteries that still put our conservation efforts into a complex puzzle. We set our journey for Mkongani at exactly 8am, which was precisely 24hrs after I left the same forest at a different location after a whole night of camping  to trace the Sokoke Scops Owl. Ngala got me on a motorbike and we were there at exactly 9.30am. Right near to the edge of the forest at the beginning of the transect we came across a relatively open area where most Brachystagia and Manilkara spp had been cut down for charcoal burning and timber harvesting.

We counted up to 21 stems of cut tree within the first 2km and came across a few debarked trees which I couldn’t tell the reason why they were being debarked initially. Shortly afterwards,  we diverted and followed the transect deep into the forest away from the main path. Here, the forest became thick and bushy and that is when I started coming across the snares and had to think out why the snares were more common there. I realized that there different types of snares and Ngala explained to me the types according to the sizes and their position. There were snares for Duikers, Elephant shrews, Crested Guineafowls, Bushbucks and some meant to detect the presence of any other person passing through a given path. Ngala and I removed 21 snares by the time we got to the end of the transect and all of them were GPS marked for purposes of management and community-based environmental education.. On the way, we had also counted and recorded over 50 cut and debarked trees  whose GPS points were also taken.

 

 

During this survey, I noticed two things; one is that trees are poached near the main paths probably because of safety and ease of transport of timber and poles by poachers and two, the traps are laid away from the main paths probably because most of these animals are moving and feeding away from main paths where there is a lot of disturbance. You now know why you need to mind your steps.

There was very few animals we encountered while doing our survey which means there are chances that either they are migrating to run away from disturbance or they have been poached to critical levels. Our major worry and concern is about the local endemics such as the Elephant shrew and the Sokoke Scops Owl whose habitats are being damaged. David Ngala and I will continue with our efforts to conserve our forest and all the natural resources in it and we hope that your support through donations will boost us to conserve this only remaining patch of forest and the endemic species in it till you come to see it with your own eyes. Our pictures may not be of good quality because Ngala’s camera has a broken screen and I therefore used a poor quality camera.  Thanks to all of you who are already supporting us and we will keep you up to date with every step we take. Your support of this project is highly welcome through donations to help us get materials such as a good quality camera.

Last week ,we decided to visit Munir site again but this time we went to the other side of the area.Accompanied by the KWS rangers, we started the survey at 9:00am.We saw alot of human paths which indicates that there is human activity.As we walked further in we started to see the number of trees that had been cut down.

This side of Munir has been really destroyed and it is the brachyleana huillensis tree that has been greatly damaged. This tree is mostly used by poachers for carvings.We even saw more trees that have been marked and might be the next ones to be cut down.We did a quick count and saw that there were 72 cut trees from the survey.

David said that he would like to return again to check on the marked trees and also go further in to see if there are any activities. Throughout the survey we did not find any snares which is very good and also there were alot of four toed elephant shrew paths..lots

KWS follow up on tree poachers campsites in Arabuko-Sokoke

After last weeks survey in which we discovered two camp sites, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) took immediate action and on Wednesday15th David and I were accompanied by the researcher at KWS plus two rangers, to the camp sites. We set out at 8:40am this time with the KWS Car. On our way we saw a dead Eastern Bearded Scrub-Robin( Cercotrichas quadrivirgata). We could not tell the cause of death but David thought it could be a snake bite.

We arrived at Munir site around 9:16am and set up everything to go in. After only 300 metres walk we saw a cut tree log written TOKENI HATARI which literally means LEAVE DANGER. There were two ways we could take this message written on the cut trees 1) The tree poachers were trying to communicate with their partners and warning them that they had been found out, or 2) The message was meant for us, attempting to intimidate  and scare us away from their camp… As we went further to the campsite we saw the same message more than twice. On reaching the camp we were able to judge that the messages were meant for us since there was one which said PLIZ CALL OR SMS FOR MAELEWANO YA KAZI which is to say that “WE SHOULD CALL FOR NEGOTIATIONS”.

At the same site there was another writing which was a warning to the other poachers that they should leave since we had been at the camp site (TOKENI JAMAA WAMEINGIA HADI HAPA meaning “Get out of here! The rangers have come right to this spot!”). They must have seen our footsteps from our first survey.

After taking pictures,we continued with the survey and took another  path. This path had a lot of snares and less tree cuttings. The KWS rangers took note and said they will be surveying that area regularly. It was a very cloudy day and later on the path it rained on us but luckily it was not a heavy downpour. We walked out of the forest at around 1:00pm.

It was  a shocking and scary day since we did not know what the poachers were up to with the intimidating messages and this was the first time that I saw this. It was at least safer with the two rangers who were on high alert after seeing that there were a lot of writings.

Rangers reading message

Rangers reading message

Two tree poachers camps discovered in Arabuko-Sokoke

David  has been continuing with the surveys in the forest while I am still doing the final reports for last year. Last week on 04/02,  David and I went to the forest to do a survey. We went to Komani area to a place known as Munir site, which is in the middle of the Arabuko-Sokoke forest .It was a very rough ride since it is a very sandy road and we were on a motorbike, but David rides well. We arrived safely and started the survey at around 8:30am.

We were very lucky to see a Red duiker from afar immediately. We finished setting the GPS for the survey. This was my very first time to see a Red duiker and I was very excited. I wanted to take a picture, but the camera could not zoom in well ,the duiker was meters away. David explained that before, it was possible to see many of this species but due to destructions in the forest, we were very lucky to see one.

Again, this was a very lucky day for us to see another animal, and, this time, it was a dwarf mongoose. They are very fast animals and we were not able to take a picture, again, since it dashed away on seeing us, though it was very close. As we went further into the forest, we saw alot of destruction on the brachyleana tree species which is mostly used by poachers for carvings.

As we went further, we saw an abandoned camp site which had left overs of the carvings and also feathers of guinea fowl plus lots of paper bags.Abandoned campsiteThis path we took led us to another campsite, which we saw as active and though the poachers were not there. There was clear evidence that they had just left maybe to get other things since they left everything there. Water, cooking utensils, sleeping nets and even few of the carvings were left. We have already reported this to the concerned authorities – Kenya Forest Service(KFS) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), whose support we really appreciate.David and patrick on campOn this day we were not able to finish our survey, as David suddenly started feeling very sick that he had to go rest for 30 minutes. So we ended our survey at around 1:30pm. I had to ride back since David was not well.David resting

POWER SAW AT THE CROWNED EAGLE NEST SITE IN THE ARABUKO-SOKOKE FOREST

The nest of the eagle shown in the picture below has been active for about 20 years and I have known it for the last 8 years. In October last year I took a visitor to the site and we both saw the eagle on its nest but there was a tree close by that the bird used to rest on before going to its nest which had been felled (see other posts).

Crowned Eagle Nest that I found in forest last year

This picture I posted last year showing the nest and the adjacent cut tree.

I reported the matter to the Kenya Forest Service and then later took them to the site. The Forester decided that forest guards should return to the site every day to see if the poachers had returned for the timber as they had not yet split the trunk into planks. However over the following days that they went to check, they didn’t find anyone there.

After some time I went on a safari for two days to Mlima wa Ndege on the western side of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest which is 80km from the Gede forest station. I had gone to educate the community about setting up a community run nature reserve in their area.

When I returned back I was told the shocking story by one of the game rangers of how the tree had been cut by a power saw and that it happened over four days but during the night. This activity took place from 7/12/09 to 11/12/09. I was told that the forest rangers and the forest guards had been informed when it was happening because people around Mida and Arabuko area could hear the power saw working in the forest during the night.

According to the story I got, when the forest guards and game rangers heard about this they took the boundary road on the north side of the forest instead of taking the elephant track which would take them faster to the place. I was told that they did this because there were many elephants on the tracks and it was therefore dangerous for them.

This information made me feel bad because I thought that the rangers and guards would use their thunder flashes to move the elephants away from the track but they decided not to do so and therefore missed the poachers!

The day I went back there with the rangers we saw how the tree had been split into pieces of timber and that they had collected almost everything as you can see in this picture. 
you can still see the eagle nest in the background

  

I guess at least they tried and it was very good to be able to work with them and show them where the nest was. Let’s hope next time they are able to get their quicker and catch the poachers.

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African Crowned Eagle nest threatened by tree poachers in Arabuko-Sokoke

On Saturday I went with Simon Thomsett and Laila into Arabuko-Sokoke Forest to show them the nest of the resident pair of African Crowned Eagles. Simon & Laila were keen to see if it was active and if so to get photos of the eagle on or near its nest if at all possible. We entered the forest in the early afternoon and I took them straight to the nest – but as we reached the nest we immediately saw the huge Brachystegia that was 36m from the nest tree and which the eagles liked to perch in before going to the nest… had been cut down. We were furious to see that the tree had been cut down by tree poachers.

Here’s the cut tree with the eagle nest showing behind (circled) – the disturbance to the nest when it was cut would have been significant.

The tree had only been felled and a start made on the sawing up of the trunk into planks. They had clearly been surprised and chased off by something because the cross-cut saw was left in place as well as their outer clothes and a 5 ltr jerry can of water – it was probably an elephant that came along and scared them off.

the water, clothes and other items the poachers left behind when they were disturbed

you can see the saw sticking out each side of the end of the tree trunk which was left by the poachers.

Simon & Laila took photos of the nest and we waited for about 20 mins to see if the adults would return… and sure enough one adult came and perched higher up in the nest tree, looked around a bit and then flew off again. We didn’t stay any longer for fear of disturbing them from the nest and instead returned direct to the Kenya Wildlife Service offices for the forest to see the Warden and make a report of the cut tree. Unfortunately he was not in but Simon took the Wardens phone number so he could explain the situation about the nest and the cut tree and to make sure that it should not be disturbed. This is particularly so as Crowned Eagles are getting rarer and rarer and need to be protected with the same level as rhinos are.

a close up of the eagle nest

I didn’t have my camera and GPS that day so I returned yesterday (Sunday) with them to mark the path and the trees and photograph the illegally cut Brachystegia. It is a huge tree – 226cm in circumference – and was really important for the eagles to perch on before going in to the nest. The disturbance by the tree poachers as they cut the tree with an axe would have been very serious and we don’t know the exact effect of it yet.

Today I saw the Warden in the morning and reported it in full to him and he is going to send some rangers to try and catch the poachers. I was to show them today but they went with Willy to see another cut tree in the Arabuko area of the forest that they hoped to catch the poachers – but they found the planks had already been removed by the poachers. I’ll therefore hope to take them to the Crowned Eagle nest tomorrow.

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