The placing of the last pole in the 400-kilometre electric fence around the Aberdare forest concluded a two-decade exercise that was a pure blend of patience, sacrifice and adventure.
The stakeholders’ patience was stretched to the farthest limit by the numerous challenges and outright risks that the exercise came with.
But none left Kenyans holding their collective breath like the television images that captured a helicopter carrying top executives on a tour to assess progress of the exercise crashing after it developed problems.
The then Nation Media Group Chief Executive Officer, Mr Wilfred Kiboro, Rhino Ark chairman Collin Church, Safaricom’s Michael Joseph and Eddy Njoroge of KenGen all miraculously escaped by the skin of their teeth from the chopper crash on April 8, 2004.
However, these setbacks never derailed the commitment by the government and private sector players who had helped raise the hundreds of millions of shillings needed to ring the conservancy. The contribution of simple village folks who put in unpaid manhours to erect the fence was vital for the success of the project.
It was a joy last Friday to see representatives of the groups and local community turn up to witness what amounted to the final rite to the whole exercise.
Among the witnesses was Mr Perez Olindo, a one-time Kenya Wildlife Service director who kicked off the Sh850 million project 21 years ago, Mr Church who has been spearheading fundraising efforts and Mr Sospeter Njuguna, Kenya Forest Services (KFS) ranger who has seen each pole being fixed since the project began.
Wildlife and Forestry minister Noah Wekesa was lost for word to describe the event but asserted: “The success of the project is clear proof that the government can do a lot in implementing various projects if it embraces private partnerships with like-minded people keen on developing various sectors in the country.”
The long construction period has witnessed unrivalled bonding between local communities and Rhino Ark, KWS and KFS personnel on the need for a common cause in protecting the forest from further destruction.
Dr Wekesa recognised Mr Church, KWS assistant director in charge of Mountain Conservation Area Otungah Barasa, and KWS head of Fencing George Odhiambo as the lead team behind the success of the project.
During the venture, communities came together to form self-help groups which were trained on the importance of forest conservation and how to benefit economically from the existence of forests. This saw the groups provide man-hours at no cost.
The local groups – Gatamaiyo/Karimenu, Kereita/Kinari/Kamae (Kekika), Kipipiri/Kinja and Geta Forest community and Njabini – were noted as the lead mobilisers of forest edge communities in getting involved in the project. Kikaka and Gatamaiyo received the Michael Werikhe Award for their contribution towards the project.
A community representative, Mr Peter Karanja, said farm production had increased threefold and that the human wildlife conflict had been effectively stamped out. Water flowing into various rivers had also increased, thanks to the erection of the fence that restricted human activities within the forest.
Mr Church said that a well-managed gate access management at various sections of the forest had also been put in place to ensure residents use the forest in a sustainable manner.
The communities also provided scouts employed full-time by Rhino Ark to monitor the fence round the clock with expertise and tools to repair the fence whenever damage is detected. Each scout covers eight kilometres a day patrolling the fence while outposts situated every 20 kilometres receive distress calls and daily reports.
The importance of the fence was highlighted by an Environmental Impact Assessment report compiled by Dr Thomas Butyaski of Zoo Atlanta (USA) in conjunction with experts from KFS and KWS.
This was quickly followed by an aerial survey by United Nations Environmental Programme experts who said a fence was essential if the fragile Aberdare ecosystem was to be safeguarded from further ruin.
The reports also established that the Aberdare forest had an income potential of Sh20 billion in water, hydro-power and investment opportunities in tourism activities, annually.
“Local communities will have a chance to seek employment once investors are invited to put up eco-lodges at identified locations while at the same time enjoying increased farm output,” says Mr Church.
Dr Wekesa challenged residents to take leaders head-on in demanding for formulation of strategic plans which should include plans to improve the ecosystem within their areas by supporting school tree nurseries and projects where school children would be encouraged to plant trees annually in their schools and at home.
The government had given Sh100 million towards the project as well as staff to monitor the project’s implementation and management, he said, adding that the challenge now lay in securing the other water towers currently threatened with extinction.
Among these are Cherangany Hills, Mount Elgon, Mau and Mount Kenya. “Kenya’s future as a nation with self-sufficiency in water and adequate food for its people is not assured until the water towers are secured. Aberdare should not only be a reminder of how forests ought to look like but a model of how they ought to be managed,” he said.
KFS deputy director Emilio Mugo said successes witnessed in the project needed to be replicated elsewhere if all Kenyans were to enjoy the benefit of forest conservation. Aberdare Forest is the catchment that provides Nairobi and other major towns with fresh water for domestic and factory.
“To sustain this project, we need a proactive approach where forest edge communities are continually involved and assisted to start income generating activities beneficial to this project such as local populace’s involvement in plantation establishment through the shamba system,” Mr Mugo said.
KWS director Julius Kipng’etich said water supply to Nairobi had been secured and that “future generations would not condemn people of Central Province of destroying the environment.”
Now a trust is expected to maintain the fence. Apart from maintaining the fence, the trust will also manage a Sh700 million endowment fund that will provide resources.
Interest from the fund will be used to pay personnel manning the fence and buy equipment and maintenance materials. The trust will bring together Rhino Ark, the organisation that helped raise money for the fence, the KWS, the KFS and communities living around the park.
The success of the project will serve as a management model for other threatened forest areas in Kenya.
The formation of the trust was to coincide with completion of the final part of the fence. The trust is expected to provide a legal structure for the operation of the endowment fund. Endowment funds are set up through donations which must be invested and the principal left intact in perpetuity or for a defined period.
Only the interest is used to support the intended cause and this allows for donations to have a much greater impact over a longer period of time.
Through KWS, the Treasury has committed to support the fund through its A-Shilling-For-A-Shilling policy of funding development by private ventures. To provide the Sh40 million in interest required annually to maintain the fence, the fund’s principal is expected to reach Sh700 million.
Rhino Ark is expected to provide most of the private sector funding through the Rhino Charge, a special off-road vehicle race.
According to Mr Church, the Rhino Charge has been raising Sh100 million annually which has been used to construct the fence.
Among the responsibilities that the trust will have is to cater for personnel that will be manning the fence on a daily basis.
The trust will also provide vehicles and communication equipment for personnel, post and wire replacement of material destroyed through vandalism, breakages and general wearing out.