Rhino Ark boss: We are proud to play role in saving water towers

Rhino Ark executive director Christian Lambrechts /COURTESY
Rhino Ark executive director Christian Lambrechts /COURTESY

Christian Lambrechts, executive director at Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, spoke to the Star ahead of tomorrow’s 30th anniversary of Rhino Ark and Rhino Charge.

Since the establishment of Rhino Ark, what are some of the achievements?

Rhino Ark was established in 1988, so we are proudly celebrating the 30th anniversary of Rhino Ark. The initial objective of Rhino Ark was actually to address the main challenges affecting Kenya Mountain Forests that are today best known as Kenya water towers.

One of the critical challenges we are facing today is the fact that those mountain forests are hosting a very diverse wildlife, including many elephants and buffaloes and that those animals are actually causing havoc when they are leaving the forest to the neighbouring communities.

By doing so, they are actually disengaging communities in conservation.The only way to address the situation is to protect communities from wildlife and at the same time to protect the forests from illegal activities.

We came up with the idea of establishing an electric fence along the forest as a way to protect the communities.

As of today, we have built 620 kilometres of fence, of which 400 kilometres are on the Aberdare ecosystem. We have built 43 kilometres in Eburu forest, and close to 180 kilometres in Mount Kenya.

Currently, we are protecting the lives of 80,000 families who in the past were unable to derive livelihood because their crops were being destroyed by elephants and buffaloes.

Their lives are now secure and their kids can go to school.

After fencing some of these forests, has human-wildlife conflict reduced?

The fence that we are building is not regular fence. We are building the best fence, those are electric fences.

We try to have 8,000 vaults on the fence. It is not going to kill people but will be a major deterrent to the wildlife.

For instance, if an elephant touches a fence with 8,000 vaults, it will not go through the fence. And that is how we are holding the elephants inside the fenced area and it is working extremely well.

To prevent all types of wildlife from coming into the fence, our fences are comprehensive.

This means that in addition to the wire that keeps elephants and large mammals away from the people, we also have mesh wire that goes underground to prevent the burrowing animals from escaping the forest and interfering with the crops of the neighbouring farms.

Those animals could include hyenas, porcupine and those can actually create havoc on the farms.

How has the community responded to some of your work?

In all those fences, we were not imposing them on the communities. The communities have been begging us to come and put the fence in order to protect themselves and their livelihoods.

For instance, in the Imenti Forest, over a two year period, 11 community members were killed by elephants and it is a small forest in of Mount Kenya. So it gives you an idea of level of suffering that the communities have felt in those specific areas.

Communities are begging and as we speak now, communities are asking us to come in several parts of Mount Kenya. As fast and and as much as we can build fences to address human-wildlife conflict in the country and respond to the needs of communities and offer the tools for Kenya Forest Service and Kenya Wildlife Service to better manage those forests.

Poaching has in the recent past been a serious issue, what is the current trends in Aberdare?

The situation in Aberdare is not so bad and one of the reason is the fence. The communities are no longer looking at the forest as the habitat threatening their lives. They can now live in harmony with wildlife and habitat.

Kenyans by wature are nature lovers.

But of course, if they have been put in a situation whereby to safeguard their lives, they have to remove the forest and if such forest hosts wildlife that threaten their lives, they will not be convinced about protecting the forest.

The first is regaining and engaging forest-adjacent communities into conservation.

When I look at the Aberdares now, the first respondents to fires are community members, and we do not pay for them because protecting the environment is in their hearts and they do not see that ecosystem as a threat.

Over the last six years, we have not had any fires impacting the Aberdare ecosystem.

What was the status of some of the forests that you have just fenced. Were they degraded completely?

Some of those forests when we came in were quite heavily damaged. Eburu forest, for instance, is a small forest of 8,700 hectares, of which 50 per cent was cleared due to charcoal burning fires. It was basically heavily damaged.

However, since the fence was constructed and completed in November 2014, we can see major improvement in natural forest regeneration. So the fence has enabled partners to replant indigenous forest where in the past they could not do so because they were still being invaded by livestock and charcoal makers.

Now that the forest is secure, people feel comfortable to plant trees.

After fencing some of these forests, have we seen forest cover in them increased?

In 2011, after the fence was completed, we undertook a massive study to assess the impact of fencing the Aberdares.

What came out of the study is that we notice a 21 per cent increase in the forest cover in the Aberdares attributed to the fence because the fences are making those who want to access forest resources have to go through the gates, such that KFS and KWS can better control the happenings inside the forest.

It has enabled forest regeneration and tree-planting inside the forest to be much more successful as compared to the past.

Which is your next area of focus?

We are preparing to fence South West Mau, and we are also preparing to fence Kakamega forest. We are ready to work with the government whenever our support is required across the entire nation.

We will assess the areas where our help is most needed and we will look for funding to access those areas.

You normally do air surveillance. What are some of the illegal forest activities that occur the most?

We normally conduct air surveillance in Mount Kenya, South West Mau and Aberdares, and the single most-occurring illegal activities in those forests is actually the logging of cedar trees.

The main reason for cedar to be logged is to make cedar posts for fencing because people are sub-diving their land and developing.

So now we are looking at a ban on cedar posts because we have very good alternatives in the country. We have treated posts, we have metallic posts,plastic posts, concrete posts

and many alternatives in the country, such that there is no need to destroy indigenous forests to produce required fencing posts.

In terms of regeneration programme, do you have places where you raise seedlings?

Yes, we have places where we raise seedlings by looking at some of the most devastated areas and we get several strategies to address them.

Why do we need to jealously protect these forests?

The critical part is that what we call the water towers of Kenya, which are five in number-Mt Kenya, Aberdare Range, Mau Complex forests, Cherangani Hills and Mt Elgon-are main source of all main rivers in the country.

They are most critical upper catchment areas.

The way we have always had access to water in Nairobi largely depend on the conservation status of those water towers.

If they disappear today, the rain will come and run on the soil,cause some erosion and within three days, there will be no water in the ecosystem.

It will be all service water going straight in the river down to the oceans.

If we have those mountain forests, the water from rain will be able to percolate into the ground and replenish the underground aquifer, which are are the source of all the main springs that are source of the streams, source of the rivers that continue providing water even during dry seasons.

What does this runoff that will wash away fertile soils mean to food security?

It is a critical aspect because the more runoff you have, the less water is being retained at the local level.

This means towards the end of the dry season, you will have no water in the rivers for irrigation, wildlife,livestock and in the worst case scenario for domestic needs of human beings.

What is your organisation doing to secure wildlife corridors?

We are fencing ecosystem so if we fence entirely Mount Kenya, it means all the wildlife in Mount Kenya cannot exit.

Some of the species are migratory species, while others like rhinos are not.

And by putting the fence, we do not want to impact on the wildlife not just for the sake of wildlife, but also if we prevent elephants from moving away, the impact on the ecosystem where they are is going to become greater.

We do not want the wildlife to become the source of problems, and so we have to ensure that they can migrate.

Along those ecosystems, we still have a few number of narrow corridors still being used by wildlife and our role now is to secure those corridors.

We are working on corridor between Mount Kenya and Aberdare, we are completing corridor between Mau Eburu and Lake Naivasha.

We have completed the corridor between Kipipiri hills and Aberdares. Those corridors are aimed at ensuring wildlife are moving for the benefit of wildlife and ecosystem.

We have secured two corridors so far, namely Mount Eburu-Lake Naivasha and Aberdares-Kipipiri.

How much money have you raised so far through Rhino Charge?

We have raised to date Sh1.5 billion. Most of the funds have gone to fencing. The Aberdare fence was largely financed by us. We are fencing Mount Kenya but also receiving contribution from the government. We have completed fencing Eburu and we are going to use those funds to fence Kakamega forest.

The funds are also being used to develop conservation curriculum in primary and secondary school in 32 schools.

They will be taught about conservation in primary and secondary schools because this is a very important aspect as we have to educate and bring on board youth into the thinking of conservation for them to appreciate the environment they are living so that they conserve the same environment.

How do we strike a balance between environmental protection and mega projects coming up?

We have to make sure that all the key projects promoted by the government are not conflicting among themselves.

We know that the protection of water towers is a flagship project in Vision 2030. The government is looking to increase the forest cover by 10 per cent by 2022.

But at the same time, the government is looking at developing the nation and making sure activities can thrive to support people’s livelihoods.

What is core now is proper planning, making sure that while we are developing, we are not undermining the other priorities on the other hand. And actually, it calls for the good coordination between the various institutions promoting those key priorities within the government agenda.

As you commemorate 30 years, what lessons have you learnt?

One of the things we have learnt is that public-private partnership is critical to success. To try and do something alone by yourself does not guarantee success.

By the time you bring lead government agencies, the private sector,forest adjacent communities together, they always guarantee that the outcome of your project will be success.

The second thing that has come is that ecosystems are of extreme value.Three separate studies that have been undertaken, one by us, one by USAid and another by Kefri, are all telling us that every hectare of mountain forests contributes in terms of ecological benefits an amount equivalent of half a million shillings per hectare per year.

Think about what it means for the Aberdares. It means close to Sh 100 billion every year.

For Mau, it means Sh184 billion every year of ecological benefits and for Mount Kenya, it is Sh 120-140 billion. The nation is deriving in excess of Sh 500 billion worth of ecological benefits every year from those ecosystems.

When you look at how much it cost to secure them, you realise it is a worthwhile exercise.

The budget of KFS is Sh8 billion, the same to KWS. And only for those forests, they are providing Sh500 billion in terms of ecological benefits.

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