In the heart of Maasai Mau Forest, inside the mud and wattle homes, low voices are heard planning for a new day.
The tranquillity is shattered by the crack of chopping firewood for breakfast fire. A child cries for food. An old man coughs.
And as the emerging sun covers the vanishing trees of Mau Forest, where a number households live, a herd of donkeys in their hundreds stream out with their owners driving them to the nearby Tipis trading centre.
At Tipis trading centre, about 75km from Narok Town, business men are waiting to unload bags of charcoal from the donkeys.
A bag of charcoal goes for Sh1, 000 and every donkey in the forest is loaded with two bags.
The charcoal business in the vast fading Mau Forest is going on despite a recent ban by the government.
Illegal logging is also a daily activity here with the narrow roads in the forest jammed with tractors that supply logs to saw mills in Baringo, Narok and Nakuru counties.
According to Patrick Kumomoru, the chairman of Maasai Mau Community Forest Association, the biggest activity that is killing the forest ecosystem is charcoal burning.
“Those who do illegal logging in Mau forest target certain trees, but those who cut trees for the charcoal business cut every tree they see, even the recent presence of police men and environment officials in the forest doesn’t scare them,” he says.
Mr Kumomoru blames Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Kenya Forest Service (KFS) for the problem that is affecting the Masai Mau.
“As village elders, we have had several meetings and we all agreed that no donkey should be seen in the forest. We also banned logging and told the families living in the forest to move out but the government through KWS and KFS is not helping us, they are also benefiting from charcoal and logging cartels,” he explains.
When the Nation visited the forest a few days ago to assess the situation, sources from Narok Town, warned that we were endangering our lives and our equipment could also be confiscated.
It is only after getting deeper inside the forest that one comes face-to-face with the destruction on trees. The forest borders several saw mills and timber yards. This has led to the growth of Tipis centre.
Close to seven kilometres deep into the forest, one sees huge tracts of land spreading to the neighbouring Olepolos village.
Thousands of tree stumps dot the expansive open stretches of land.
Donkeys ferrying the charcoal are driven by suspiciously looking young men and women. They converse in hushed tones and some sped off when we arrived.
Locals say business is ‘vibrant’ with donkeys transporting charcoal until the dead of night.
Olepolos village elders accuse the county government of Narok for “simply watching” as the forest was destroyed.
“Charcoal burning is rampant in Mau Forest. Huge caravans of donkeys leave the forest every day, each carrying two sacks of charcoal,” said Mzee Samson Kanai a member of Community Forest Association, adding that “no action has been taken against the encroachers, even though the community has been reporting the matter to government authorities.”
Most locals interviewed accused KFS of excluding the local community from the management of the forest despite an earlier agreement that the agency would involve the locals in conservation.
The Mau Forest is the country’s largest remaining indigenous forest and also the largest of the country’s five water towers as well as the largest closed-canopy forest ecosystem.
The complex, now a pale shadow of its former self, forms part of the upper water catchment area, and is the catchment source for Lake Victoria and the White Nile.
Mr Seleila Ole Mwanik, the chairman of Ewaso Ngiro South Development Authority based in Narok town says that the massive cutting down of trees by charcoal traders has made the Mau Narok river dry up.
“The Masai Mau Forest ecosystem is so delicate that when you destroy trees it affects the flow of rivers as well as the water supply for irrigation agriculture. The cutting of trees must be stopped before we all die of drought and starvation,” he says, adding that the Authority is involving schools in planting of trees on the edge of Masai Mau to save the remaining part of the forest.
The forest encroachment is blamed on government institutions, corruption, and abuse of office by by officials from KWS, National Land Commission, KFS, county government, and individual buyers of land. Settlement of the poor, illegal sale of forest resources and use of land to secure political support has also been cited.
Meanwhile, rogue timber merchants, corrupt KFS officials and well networked cartels of prominent people would have been colluding to plunder the Mau Forest complex, it has emerged.
Independent investigations by the Nation reveal that cartels of prominent people would have been involved in illegal logging and charcoal burning at the fringes of the expansive Mau Forest.
The illegal activities undermined efforts to save the vital water tower, by relevant authorities.
The revelations come in the wake of outcry that shows an unfolding environmental disaster due to degradation of the forest.
Livelihoods of millions of Kenyans who depend on the forest are now threatened as rainfall patterns begin to change in the surrounding areas.