Protecting mangroves in Kenya

Mangrove trees at Mwakore Creek in Gazi, Kwale County. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Mangrove forests in Kenya represent approximately three per cent of the natural forest cover.
  • Mangrove trees act as a form of natural coastal defence by reducing soil erosion and impact of waves, and even reducing the height of storm surges.

Mangrove trees act as a form of natural coastal defence by reducing soil erosion and the impact of ocean waves, and they also reduce the height of storm surges.

They play an important role in reducing vulnerability to natural hazards and increasing resilience to climate change impacts. Mangrove soils are highly effective carbon sinks – reservoirs that have accumulated carbon-containing chemical compounds over a period of time.

Sadly, mangroves are under threat, laments Casper van de Geer, the conservation and scientific adviser at Local Ocean Conservation: Watamu Turtle Watch.

Mangrove forests are less than one per cent of all tropical forests worldwide, and less than 0.4 per cent of the total global forest estate, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).

Mangrove forests in Kenya cover about 61,271 hectares (151,403.9 acres) representing approximately three per cent of the natural forest cover or less than one per cent of the national land area. About 59 per cent of these forests occur in Lamu County, according to the government’s National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan 2017-2027.


“Mangrove trees grow very slowly yet they are still being cut down in an unsustainable manner. Locals hack down mangroves for construction or for use as fuel. It takes decades for the trees to grow back," says Casper van de Geer.

One mangrove tree takes 10-15 years to reach maturity.

Members of a self-help group tend to mangrove seedlings on May 16, 2018, which they sell to various organisations at Sh10 per seedling. PHOTO | FILE

De Geer adds: “Fishermen digging up bait from the mangroves roots also pose a huge problem. The trees eventually wither from burrowing. During the dry spells, livestock keepers cut mangrove leaves to feed their animals. Leaves harvesting weakens and dries up mangrove trees."

The National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan (NMEP) identifies illegal harvesting, pollution (oil spills), overexploitation, coastal development and sedimentation as the major threats to mangroves in Lamu County.

In Tana River County, the mangroves are threatened by illegal cutting, dams upstream, climate change (flooding, rise in sea level, salt water intrusion, sedimentation), and encroachment, especially the building of human settlements.

The NMEP notes that mangroves in Kenya do not seem to suffer a great deal from natural causes.

“However, a few cases have occurred, for example, where mangroves have died due to massive sedimentation caused by extreme events,” NMEP indicates, citing destruction caused by the 1997-1998 El Niño.

Unesco warns that mangroves are disappearing three to five times faster than overall global forest losses. This will have devastating ecological and socio-economic impacts.

There are nine mangrove species in Kenya, with the Rhizophora mucronata (loop-root mangrove or mkoko) and Ceriops tagal (mkandaa) being the most dominant.

Mida Creek, a beautiful tidal inlet in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Kilifi County, flourishes with six species of mangrove trees.


The International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem is marked on July 26. This day was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 2015 and was first marked in 2016.

It seeks to raise awareness on the importance of mangrove ecosystems as “a unique, special and vulnerable ecosystem", and to promote solutions for sustainable management, conservation and use.

Lamu Civil Society members under the umbrella of Save Lamu plant mangrove trees in Kililana during the International Day of Forests on March 21, 2018. PHOTO | FILE

To protect mangroves, communities adjacent to forests could borrow a leaf from the Gazi Bay Project in Kwale County. The project links mangrove forests to the global carbon market, according to UN Environment, and helps promote conservation efforts.

“The [Gazi Bay] project raises money by selling carbon credits to people and organisations eager to reduce their carbon footprint, through the Scottish charity ACES. This supports the planting and conservation of mangrove trees.

“The payments for ‘mangrove carbon’ are also used to benefit the local community,” UN Environment reported in September 2017 in an article titled ‘Mangrove Conservation, Kenyan style’.

Specific to Kilifi County, the National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan recommends the rehabilitation of degraded mangrove areas. It also recommends forming community forest associations (CFAs) and strengthening existing ones to enhance partnerships with the government in the management of mangroves.

The plan also suggests periodical monitoring of the mangrove forests; promoting best farming practices in the areas adjacent mangroves and the hinterlands; and surveillance and patrols by law enforcement agencies to protect mangroves and prevent encroachment.

In the article ‘Mangrove Conservation, Kenyan style’, UN Environment recommends that the government incorporates sustainable management of mangrove into REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) action plans and strategies. It also suggests incorporating them into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to help countries meet their emissions reduction targets.


At the edges of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest is a butterfly project aimed at conserving nature and also plays a role in protecting the vast mangrove trees that grow in the forest.

David Ngala, a local conservationist, says that the Kipepeo Project is an incentive for community participation in the conservation of the forest.

"Arabuko-Sokoke Forest was fast becoming barren ground. The surrounding community would hack down trees to get wood for construction. In the wake of fallen mangroves and a host other trees, the Bird Life International initiated a nascent project that encompasses butterfly farming and block making. It was hoped that by training the community to make blocks from soil the destruction of the forest would be thwarted," Ngala recounts.

Kipepeo, the Kiswahili word for butterfly, is befitting for the project.

The project demonstrates the important link between conservation and livelihood.

It markets butterflies, moth pupae and live insects, as well as honey and silk cloth produced by the community. The live insects hatched from the pupae are exported and displayed in insect parks globally.

As the marketplace for nature-based products from the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, the Kipepeo Project coordinates production and sales of the insects. And through training and monitoring, it ensures the insects are bred and raised on-farm in a sustainable manner from wild parent stock.

About 350 community groups living around the forest are members of the Arabuko-Sokoke Adjacent Forest Dwellers Association (AFADA) and they are involved in butterfly farming, bee keeping, block making and tree planting. All these activities are aimed at conservation, which is a major objective of the Kipepeo Project.