A Maasai Ranger Remembers the Nyakweri Forest

The Indigenous Forest That Is Fading Away, by Caroline Kiugo

 

 

These are sad days for Nyakweri forest. It is written all over Sirere’s sad, heavy face as he tells again and again how the famous forest’s majesty is being irreparably tarnished at the hands of its destroyers.

 

The Nyakweri Forest is the largest remaining indigenous forest in Kenya, covering approximately 500 square kilometers. This forest has high ecological and socio-cultural importance to the Maasai people, and it provides critical habitat for the region’s wildlife. Huge specimens of East African Olive, Dispyros, Wild Olive, Kenya Greenheart and Manikara Butugi dominate the forest and create vital dispersal habitat for game species like Buffalo, Elephants, Waterbuck, Lions, Hyena, Bush Pigs, Impala, and Leopards. Its canopy is also home to more than 200 species of birds, including Turacos, Trogons, Eagles, Wood-hoopoes and Hornbills. And apart from the wildlife and birds it hosts, the Nyakweri Forest is also a critical watershed for the Mara River, which gives life to animals and people throughout the Mara and into the Serengeti ecosystem.

 

Though AKTF and other organizations are fighting to save what remains, the mystery of the Nyakweri and the sounds of nature are almost forgotten as the forest is destroyed, along with endangered species and indigenous trees.

 

 (Photo credit: Mark Downey)

 

In contrast to the current degraded state of the forest, AKTF Ranger Sirere told me about what he remembered of the Nyakweri Forest from his childhood.

 

“Our Maasai forefathers told us stories of large hairy ‘bigfoot’-like creatures. They told stories of ‘ever moving’ giant trees with huge shaggy roots, that could awaken you in a sweat. The story goes that one could see these ghost trees at one moment and the very next moment they would be gone, disappeared. These stories, needless to say, kept the local Maasai out of the Nyakweri. The forest was a gem, sacred in Maasai culture since time immemorial…that is until recently. The forest is being desecrated by ‘outsiders’ who are plundering it.

 

“Less than 20 years ago, only the elders would access Nyakweri seeking sacred medicinal plants hidden in the dense indigenous forest, grateful for the healing provided. Elders would also access the forest to herd cattle during dry season. They alone knew the way into the forest without losing their tracks. They alone knew how to return safely.

 

“This indigenous forest, situated in the greater Maasai Mara, has supported generations of wildlife and has been an important part of the ecosystem for the local Maasai communities. The rate of its destruction by outside forces, however, is worrying. The numbers of wild animals have been greatly reduced due to human encroachment and deforestation. We Maasai will suffer too if we lose this gift that our ancestors preserved for us. Our children may never know the Nyakweri as their ancestors did.”

 

 

As recently as 2004, the forest still had only one opening through which hunter-gatherers and elders could access its resources. Sirere is concerned that it is now too easy for people to enter the forest from many different points and harvest precious timber. Illegal charcoal-making and logging pose the greatest threats to the Nyakweri Forest. As people from near and far clear the forest, creating ‘open pockets’ inside the once sacred space, huge swaths of habitat can disappear in a matter of weeks.

 

The original inhabitants of the forest, the Ogiek, who lived there for hundreds of years have now sought another home, a home far away from Nyakweri.

 

 

 Despite forest protection work carried out by rangers and patrols from relevant institutions, including AKTF, the rate at which the forest is being cleared is beyond alarming. People, most coming from other regions, have occupied the forest, illegally cutting down the ancient indigenous hardwood trees like African green heart, teak, and olive, which are protected by Presidential Law Appendix 123. These illegal loggers do not understand the impact of the deforestation they are causing, and if they do, they do not care. After all, it is not ‘their’ forest, and once it is destroyed and there is nothing further to gain, they will return to their homes far away where they have already used up and degraded the land. These people and their activity are also a threat to any wildlife still living in what is left of the forest, because they stay for weeks or months in the forest and kill wildlife to eat—and to sell as illegal bushmeat.

 

Just like Sirere, the rest of the AKTF Team dreams of the Nyakweri Forest of old. We are dedicated to save what remains of this magical forest, which meant so much to their forefathers, and we pray it will survive with their help and dedication.

Photos credit, unless otherwise stated: Marcus Westberg@lifethroughalensphotography

 

 

 

 





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