Mt Kenya is not just a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the country’s highest mountain, it is one of our main water towers. Now the forest is under threat from fires, adding to the threats of illegal logging, and experts warn of unforgiving effects if the moorland continues to burn every year.
Moorland plays the critical role of collecting water during the rainy season and acts as a natural reservoir which keeps rivers flowing, especially during dry seasons. But forest fires pose a threat to their existence, and the mountain’s role as a water catchment area.
This year alone, a third of the moorland section has been destroyed in bush fires in February and May, with a total of 18,000 hectares of moorland destroyed in fires reported in Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Embu, Tharaka Nithi and Meru counties. So bad is the damage this year that authorities are not declaring the end of wild fire danger season just yet despite the rains.
“For the first time ever, we have witnessed forest fire in May. I have never witnessed this kind of thing,” Kenya Wildlife Service Assistant Director Simon Gitau told HealthyNation.
Ideally, the Kenya Forest Service issues a fire season alert at the beginning of the year as the dry season starts. The alert is meant to prepare the service to battle and prevent wild fires that may occur during the season.
Mt Kenya fires are caused primarily by human activities but authorities are concerned that the occurrence is becoming almost predictable.
“Of course all fires are started by human activities. Some accidental, but most are illegal or intentional,” Mr Gitau says.
One major cause of the forest fires is arson by communities who hold a superstitious belief that burning forest vegetation attracts rain. They believe that burning the moorland section of the forest catalyses condensation of moisture to form heavy clouds causing rain.
For decades, locals living around Mt Kenya believed that burning forest vegetation attracts rain and each year thousands of hectares of forest land is lost in the flames, endangering both human and wildlife population.
Going by weather patterns in the mountain region, January and February are usually dry months but a few millimetres of rain hit the region as March approaches. When the rains fail to fall soon enough, some opt to use fire to "call" the rains. As a result Kenya Forest Service and Kenya Wildlife Service rangers battle fires every February.
Charcoal burners, herders, honey hunters, poachers, campers and marijuana growers are the other major culprits in forest fires. In some cases, poachers are known to start fires in section of the forest in order to divert attention of outnumbered game rangers.
In the last 15 years, at least 50,000 hectares of the forest have been destroyed by wildfires. In 2012, the country witnessed the worst bush fire in history during which 10,800 hectares of the forest was destroyed. The fire is said to have been started accidentally by a tourist and burned for days before being contained by forest rangers, fire-fighters, the military and private conservation bodies. A section of the moorland and the bamboo and indigenous forests were destroyed and wild animals died in the blaze.
So bad was the fire that the lost section is yet to be recovered seven years later and experts say that recovery process could take hundreds of years.
“Indigenous trees that took hundreds of years to mature were destroyed then. Some of them take up to 300 years to mature. Some of those parts that were damaged then have not recovered,” Mr Gitau told HealthyNation.
Even though the 2012 fire is rated as the worst environmental disaster, the fires this year have destroyed more vegetation in terms of acreage. In terms of area affected, the damage this year alone is equal to 62 per cent of the cumulative damage from fires recorded between 2000 to 2015. Between 2000 and 2015, at least 29,000 hectares of forest vegetation was destroyed by fires.
Ideally destruction of the moorland should not be a major cause for alarm as the grass regrows, but environmentalists have warned that the continuous destruction will have extreme effects.
“The fire was mostly in the moorland section of the forest which will regrow thanks to the rain. But at the same time a lot of biomass especially insects and crawlers were destroyed and that could greatly affect the ecosystem,” KFS Deputy Chief Conservator of forests Charity Munyasya told HealthyNation.
Forest cover destroyed by fires is usually left to recover naturally but even though the shrubs and grass grow back eventually, animals killed in the fire take a while to repopulate.
“For the moorland, it will take three to four years for any substantial regrowth to take place. It will recover relatively quickly, but it will take time to re-establish properly in terms of the high heather and protea plants lost. We have no idea what we might have lost in terms of rare species or small mammals,” Mt Kenya Trust Executive Officer Susie Weeks said.
What worries environmentalists the most is that with the continuous burning of the moorland, some species might fail to regenerate all together. This will put the mountain at great risk of soil erosion and could affect the tree line level.
The moorland is considered as a key part of the mountain’s hydrologic function because it retains the water that drips through the soil to fill up rivers. The section generally works as a giant sponge and holds rain water from the rain.
Once the ground is saturated, the grass prevents it from evaporating during sunny seasons and the water is able to seep underground into rivers.
“The moorlands like all ecological zones provide a function too, acting as a sponge to hold water from precipitation or ice melting before it seeps down into the forest zones. This sponge effect will be lost for a few years while the moorlands recover, and black ash filled water will rush down the upper slopes of the catchment at a faster rate,” said Ms Weeks.
Continuous damage of this vital section of the mountain means more soil erosion and the risks of flooding in the mountain region following heavy rains will increase.
“Without the moorland, the risk of soil erosion is very high. Rain water will not be retained to be used in the dry season. That already means the effects of the damage on the water tower will be felt downstream,” explained KWS Assistant Director Simon Gitau.
EFFECTS OF FIRE
Research by the University of Eldoret on fire occurrence on Mount Kenya and patterns of burning also found that mountainous areas around the world are prone to large-scale ﬂooding in the aftermath of ﬁres followed by the potential for decreased dry season ﬂows.
Besides flooding and reduced water flow, the burning of forestland releases carbon which is usually stored in the soils in high-altitude cold and wet areas.
Battling and prevention of forest fires has been a major setback in environmental conservation, with the main hurdle being lack of funds.
Both state and private conservation agencies run short of resources to deal with forest fires which spread very rapidly once started. The biggest shortcoming is the poor funding of the Kenya Forest Service and the Kenya Wildlife Service. Most resources directed towards fire fighting on Mt Kenya are usually raised through donations locally and internationally.
KWS spends up to Sh3 million battling a fire burning for five consecutive days. It took at least Sh30 million to battle this year’s fires, all of which came from non-governmental conservation groups. Most of the finances went to battling the fire using aircrafts, fire fighting equipment and supplies for rangers and personnel fighting the fires.
Mt Kenya Trust spent Sh16 million, while Rhino Ark spent Sh12 million in battling the fires. An additional Sh2 million worth of supplies was raised from donations by companies countrywide. The supplies included food that was airlifted to hundreds of personnel that was battling fires on the mountain.
Besides limited funding, shortage of personnel has been a hurdle. This year up to 500 people drawn from KWS, KFS, NGOs, local communities and even the Kenya Defence Forces were involved in battling the fires. The people involved in fighting the fires usually have to stay on the mountain until the fire is put out.
“Our protected areas lack the resources to keep them secure from illegal activity that leads to disastrous fires because the agencies are not given the resources they need to keep doing this effectively. As it is, KFS and
KWS are hampered by low budgets even when good men and women on the ground have the best intentions. The Mount Kenya National Park and Reserve is over 270,000 hectares, but the number of rangers, vehicles and resources allocated to the area are completely disproportionate,” said Ms Weeks.
Apart from inadequate staff and low financing, another major setback is lack of proper fire fighting equipment and specialised training for personnel.
“Rangers and communities need specialised training in fighting forest fires. We lack enough training and mostly have to rely on basic methods like using branches. That is not enough, nor is the equipment we have at our disposal. We need to always have teams on standby that can be dispatched and reach the fire line in the shortest time possible,” added KWS Assistant Director Simon Gitau.
Aircraft are considerably the most effective way of battling forest fires as well as conducting surveillance of the mountain. Using aircraft not only makes it easier to spot the location of the fire, but also reduces the time it takes to contain it and prevent it from spreading. However, the high cost of procuring aircraft is a big hurdle, though conservationists feel that it is a worthy investment that the government should make.
“Mount Kenya once had daily aerial surveillance necessary to keep an eye on an area this size. This isn’t about protecting a tourist resource; it is about protecting far more than that. Kenyan lives depend on the health of the forests of our water towers,” said Ms Weeks.
Following this year’s fires and after years of illegal logging, efforts to right the wrong through tree planting have been in top gear. But conservationists fear that reforestation campaigns are not enough. They are calling for an action plan to protect the mountain and prevent forest fires.
Already forest rangers have started putting in place preventive measures including putting up firebreaks around the mountain.
Environmentalists, however, feel that the government has not done enough and believe it is time for authorities to step up and fix the mess.
“As a nation we can build highways and dams, but we can never reconstruct whole forests that allow our water to flow into rivers and replenish aquifers that fill the dams. We have the manpower and the will of people from all walks of life to protect these vital forests, but it is not backed by higher authorities, yet there are people on the ground ready to give their all and risk their lives to prevent ecological disaster. We work with KWS and KFS and the local communities every day, and we exist to assist the agencies protect the mountain, but when a national disaster looms and then gets fully underway it is time for higher powers to step up to the task of preventing the disaster from affecting the livelihoods of the Kenyan people,” said Ms Weeks.