The disappearing forests

Friday January 12 2018

The critically endangered bird Taita apalis bird. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT

The critically endangered bird Taita apalis bird. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT 

Taita Hills plays host to very rich and diverse flora and fauna that needs to be rescued from modern life encroachment. By Rupi Mangat

The mist swirls and whirls, white and dense, hiding and revealing the valleys and peaks of the hills. We’re climbing through Yale forest to reach the ancient bare rock at the top of the Taita Hills.

These ancient hills date 290 million years – they are older than the age of the dinosaur. They jut out of the arid plains of Taita Taveta at Voi. These hills catch the first moisture-laden winds swept off the Indian Ocean. Cloaked in mist for most of the morning and evening, the high forests play home to flora and fauna that’s unique to them.

It’s surreal here, surrounded by indigenous plants like Lobelia gibberoa, towering tree ferns and the elegant palm that’s a signature of the Taita Hills, Phoenix reclinata. These hills are the sole home of endemics that are now fighting for survival. In the last two centuries, 98 per cent of the indigenous forests have been cleared for agriculture and forest plantations, and invaded by exotic trees that allow nothing else to survive in them.

I’m hiking with Evanson Jardel Wangusha, a guide with Dawida Biodiversity Conservation group (DABICO), the local partner of Nature Kenya, the country oldest natural history society established in 1909.

A tiny bird chirps in the undergrowth of the natural forest by a stream gurgling down the slope under the canopy of towering tree ferns. “It’s the Evergreen forest warbler,” says Jardel. Although widespread, Taita Hills is a stronghold for them.

From the rich tapestry of the indigenous forest, we enter the forest plantation of tall eucalyptus trees. The contrast between the two forest patches is stark. There’s no jigsaw of shrubs or vines under the canopy – only the leaf litter of the exotic eucalyptus that allows nothing to grow under it.  It’s empty save for kids on holidays walking through it to collect firewood.

A little climb up and we’re back into a natural glade on a steep slope by the rock face of Yale. “About two years ago,” says Dr Luca Borghesio, “we began to remove the exotic trees here because nothing lives in them, to allow (the indigenous flora and fauna to regenerate).” His concern is over the one bird that is only found in the Taita Hills, the Taita apalis. Fewer than 200 survive today.

With Borghesio are his team mates, Lawrence Wagura and Maina Gichia, all associated with the National Museums of Kenya. Lawrence is in charge of restoration sites, working with the local community, while Maina searches for nests during the one breeding season of Taita apalis, between November and February.

As they vanish into the thickets to search for nests and install camera traps by them, Jadel and I look at the peak of Yale. It’s now shrouded in mist and signals our time to descend.

Beautiful butterflies flit like confetti from the sky on the wild flowers. A Blue-banded swallowtail butterfly, vivid blue and laced in black wing, flies by. It’s another Taita endemic that’s endangered. Perhaps all these regeneration efforts will bring back the hills’ glory.





Contact Nature Kenya for guides to the hills –

It’s tarmac road from Nairobi to Voi and Wundanyi in Taita Hills, 360km southeast of Nairobi and 190 northeast of Mombasa. Taita Hills has three massifs – Dawida, Mbololo and Sagalla. Dawida has the forests of Vuria, Msindunyi, Ngangao and Yale.

Drive on the historical First World War (now tarmac) road via Maktau through Tsavo West National Park. Take the road via Loitokoikitok to Amboseli National Park and Emali or Namanga back to Nairobi. There are nice, inexpensive hotels in Wundanyi from where you can drive up to most forests and hike further in beautiful, natural mist mountains.