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January 22, 2019

Groups need Sh7m to rescue Taita's rarest bird

Vuria Hill where Nature Kenya working with local communities, plans to restore 115 hectares of degraded forest under Vuria Community Forest. By James Muchai.
Vuria Hill where Nature Kenya working with local communities, plans to restore 115 hectares of degraded forest under Vuria Community Forest. By James Muchai.

Nature Kenya has launched an appeal to save one of the rarest birds in the world, the Taita Apalis, from extinction.

The organisation needs to raise at least Sh7million to secure the future of this unique bird species that lives only in the forest fragments at the peaks of the Taita Hills, which have come under intense encroachment and destruction.

Arsonists have been burning the forests in Taita-Taveta County in the name of attracting rainfall, a practice steeped in outdated cultural belief that smoke induces precipitation.

Wild fires swept across the scenic hills destroying hundreds of acres of vegetation early this year.

Some locals have also been setting the forests on fire in retaliation for crops destroyed by wild animals thus destroying crucial wildlife habitats.

The bird is considered critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation for Nature (IUCN) list because it has a tiny occupied range of 500 hectares, according to Nature Kenya, the country’s oldest conservation group. “The very small population of the Taita Apalis has consequently, been fragmented into extremely small sub-populations and consist of only 100-150,” the report adds.

“The future of the bird depends on how quickly the current habitat can be restored, expanded and protected. Actions include land purchase or lease, active restoration of degraded areas and engaging local people in protecting this unique species,” says Norman Kiboi, the organisation’s membership marketing and communication officer.

Nature has already leased Msidunyi forest, a 6.28 hectares private forest fragment located on the Western side of Vuria peak. This small forest fragment will secure six per cent of the world’s Taita Apalis population.

Funding for the lease was secured from the World land Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and African Bird Club.

Additionally, the organisation, in conjunction with local communities, plans to restore 115 hectares of degraded Vuria Community Forest. “Further Nature Kenya is looking for more private land to buy or lease to secure the Taita Apalis habitat for perpetual survival,” says Kiboi.

He said the organisation is doing all it can to ensure Kenya does not lose this endemic bird species.

Donations can be made online through, Mpesa Business No. 100300, Account No. “Save the Taita Apalis” and cash at the organisation’s offices located at the Nairobi National Museum, or by cheque.

County environment chief officer Pamela Dio urged people living around the Taita Hill forests to desist from lighting fires purportedly to induce rainfall using smoke.

Dio who was formerly Nature Kenya coordinator in the county, blamed the archaic ritual for the many destructive forest fire incidences that have been recorded in the region over the years saying it must stop.

“Die-hard traditionalists still cling to the outmoded belief that such fires irritate and goad the gods in their shrines deep in the forests into sending rain, which is a lie” she said.

The wild fires have become an annual ritual, sweeping across the forests, reputed as a biodiversity hotspot with rare plant and animal life forms.

Wesu, Susu, Iyale, and Mghambonyi are some of the forests that were affected by the recent fires, largely blamed on the peculiar rainmaking ritual.

Dio says the forest reserves also serve as major water towers and their destruction would lead to severe water scarcity in the region.

“Two bird species are on the brink of extinction among other rare animal and plant species found in the forests owing to rampant environmental degradation,” she said.

The other birds include Taita Thrush and Taita White Eye, which are also endemic to the region.

Dio warned that the community risked losing one of its most important heritage and tourist attraction offered by the biodiversity.

“We cannot afford to lose such a vital heritage which offers many economic opportunities through tourism among other activities like research expeditions,” she warned.

The forests are also home to rare reptiles including a snake locally called “Sadu” that lives in water and which, unlike other snakes, is said to give birth to its young ones.

African violet, a rare flower found in Mwambirwa Forest, is another gem in the region that is highly valued abroad.

Dio urged residents to actively take the lead in the conservation and restoration of indigenous forests, failure to which they risk losing even the little that is left.

She says the county government has intensified public awareness campaigns to discourage the annual ritual of deliberately starting wild fires to stimulate rain.

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