No holes to dig and no seedlings to transplant, but only encased seeds are thrown out randomly into the wilderness from the sky. This is the new way of planting trees.
Known as seed bombing, the method is being practised by conservationists working with Teddy Kinyanjui, who deals in eco-friendly products.
Kinyanjui, together with Chai Dust Ltd, coat acacia seeds in a charcoal dust ball to protect them from birds, insects and animals until rains fall to stimulate growth after they are broadcasted from the sky.
“Once coated, the seeds are fully protected as they sit on the soil waiting for the rain to come and wash off the charcoal dust and then they germinate,” said Kinyanjui.
The casing on the seeds is called biochar, made from charcoal dust and cassava starch for binding.
The charcoal dust mixture once soaked in water disintegrates to expose the seed for germination in ideal conditions. But it also helps retain a bit of the moisture around the seed. While the cassava dust has sugars and minerals that help boost seed germination.
“We collect dust that has piled over decades from charcoal sellers. Philosophically the old charcoal dust goes back to whence it came from in the form of trees to help grow new ones,” he remarked.
The biggest supporters of the project are the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Water for Wildlife Foundation, conservation organisations, and Tropic Air, a helicopter charter company.
“Whenever they fly up, occupants are given a bag of acacia seeds that are indigenous for the eco-system and they just toss the seeds from the sky,” said Kinyanjui.
The method, according to him, is the best way dryland areas that have been devastated by charcoal burning can be replenished.
Neville Sheldrick of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust says they have distributed roughly 225,000 seeds in the Tsavo and Chyulu Hills ecosystems since they started at the end of last year.
“From the plane we simply hold a sack of seeds out of the window and shake it as we fly. We’ve targeted mainly heavily degraded areas that have been damaged by either overgrazing or charcoal burning,” he said.
ADVANTAGES OF AERIAL BOMBING
Other places that have benefited from the aerial bombing are Samburu North, Nanyuki and Wajir. “We’re encouraging more flyers to jump into the fray.”
Kinyanjui said he started the project after research showed that routes sand lorries frequented were lined with acacia trees.
“They blow off in the wind as the lorries move. So I thought, what if we use a similar method of dispersal, but then there was obviously the problem of the seeds being eaten by insects, goats and wild birds, so after some research we realised we could then protect the seeds,” he says.
Although random, a big advantage of aerial bombing is that the seeds are dispersed in far-flung regions where there is literally no human habitation, and in terrains where it would be close to impossible to go planting trees. It also helps in seeding more acres in less time than with ground equipment.
Kinyanjui buys the seeds from The Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) to ensure quality at Sh3,000 per kilo. The seeds, tested by Kefri, have 60 per cent germination rate, and are then processed for bombing.
According to him, 1kg of the Kefri pack has 20,000 seeds. Once encased, a kilo consist of 50 seed balls, which he sells at Sh500.
“With acacia trees, they are indigenous and endemic to the areas and have thorns that protect them from predators,” said Kinyanjui.
Plans, according to Kinyanjui, are in advanced stages to start the same project with grasses that grow in the savanna and rangelands as well as Sesbania sesban.
Another method used for bombing seeds is through the catapult .
“We plan to start a sling shot competition in arid and semi-arid areas around the country at the beginning of the year. We believe that if we have got enough seeds out there, then there is no way we’re not going to grow forests,” he says.
In total, since the project started last year, some 1.3 million seeds have been dispersed using the method.
“We intend to do our assessments on growth success in January,” said Sheldrick.
Know it quick
Acacia dominates the drylands
- Acacia, an icon of the African savanna, is so beloved by giraffes, elephants and browser wildlife as well as livestock. It has come to dominate roadside verges and derelict urban plots after being shipped in sand.
- The aerial seeding programme targets arid and semi-arid lands requiring reclamation.
- Sheldrick Wildlife Trust says the venture is an important exercise because some of the areas have been so badly degraded that natural regeneration is very slow without human intervention.
- The conservation organisations obviously see the value in doing this and so they buy the seeds often.
- Encased seeds are bought at Sh500 a kilo.