Mel-el-lek's Mountain: A call to protect endangered species in Aberdares

The author must be celebrated for his conservation efforts through this book, and for contributing to the preservation of knowledge.

In Summary

•The Aberdares is home to some of the world’s most cherished wildlife.

• It is a sanctuary to rare but endangered species, such as the black rhino, which is indigenous to Kenya,

Conservationist Colin Church greets President Mwai Kibaki.
ABERDARES" Conservationist Colin Church greets President Mwai Kibaki.

In July 2016, I returned to Hargeysa, Somaliland, for another literary jamboree. Prof Jama Musse Jama, the founder of the Hargeysa International Book Fair, had made me a permanent feature of this Pan-African literary gathering.

Every time I arrived at the modestly built Egal International Airport, I was met with a sense of déjà vu. It was common for me to meet a familiar face at the airport and some of the Immigration's officers already knew me. This time round, however, there was something special.

Apart from the intellectually stimulating discussions around the overarching theme of 'Leadership and Creativity,' I had occasion to go on an excursion. I was one of the pilgrims who visited the centuries' old ‘rock paintings’ of Laas Geel on the outskirts of Hargeysa, an exquisite historical site of beautiful rock art in caves that dates back more than 10,000 years.

We marvelled at the creative genius of our progenitors, their imagination and skill. We read spontaneous poetry created on the spur of the moment in these caves. This rock art is an addition to the body of evidence of Africa as the cradle of mankind.

In these caves, one encounters painting and writing depicting domestic animals, wildlife and human beings. The Laas Geel caves are situated in a desert. If you came across a painting of an elephant, for example, you suppose that once upon a time elephants roamed present-day Somaliland.

Today, however, you will not spot an elephant in Laas Geel, that desert environment is not just conducive to elephants. As a Kenyan on a literary tour in Laas Geel, I was reminded that my country is home to these huge pachyderms, but are we doing enough to protect and ensure their well being?

Can each one of us be a conservationist, to paraphrase South African national poet laureate Prof Mongane Wally Serote, who once told me that as an African he will remain an activist for life! A writer or journalist can play this role perfectly well by creating awareness on environmental or conservation issues.

This brings me to the thrust of this article.

A few weeks ago, my former editor at the Star, Wycliffe Muga, called me to find out how I was doing in these coronavirus times. I am well, trying as much to keep safe, I said.

Muga had a pleasant surprise for me, a gift: two souvenir pens and refillers to last me forever! This was Muga’s appreciation of every columnist who worked with him before he left his editorial duties. My former editor had another gift for me in author Colin Church’s book, Mel-el-Lek’s Mountain. I have enjoyed reading this excursive book that takes you on a journey through millennia. Mel-el-Lek’s Mountain is a sweeping history of the Aberdare Mountains. Indeed, the Aberdares, as Colin writes, is a place of mystery, drama, and compelling events in our unfolding story as a nation.

Book cover: Mel-el-Lek's Mountain.
ABERDARES: Book cover: Mel-el-Lek's Mountain.

The book carries a powerful story of conservation, especially, of the fauna – and flora – that’s unique to the Aberdare Ranges. But this only becomes clearer as you read through the pages of this compelling story, well researched and well told. It encompasses history, geography, science, literature, mythology and contemporary knowledge.

The book begins with the formation of the Aberdare Range. However, knowledge of rock formations and volcanic eruptions alone does not tell the full story; there is a mythical twist to it, a narrative that comes down to us through Mel-el-Lek, a mythological figure who  represents his people, the Wandorobo, who in more recent times prefer to be called the Okiek (Ogiek).

This hunter-gatherer people are known to be some of the earliest to have made a home in the vast slopes of the Aberdare mountain range that dominates the Eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley. The Aberdare Range is an extraordinary landscape of forested rock mountains that run through several kilometres! Colin Church describes it as “an uplift of rock formations along the eastern wall of the Rift Valley. It was formed as a result of volcanic eruptions due to massive faulting pressures where “massive slabs of rock slid over and past each other.”

This is how this expansive mountain range was formed over an extended period of time of active and inactive upheavals. The Aberdare Range runs from the southern foothills of Nairobi’s suburb to Rumuruti in the Laikipia plains. The name Aberdare itself was given by British explorer Joseph Thomson who first came to Kenya in 1883. Then, the 160-kilometre range had no single name but various names for a number of its peaks, mostly Maasai in origin such as Ol Doinyo Lesatima, which in Maasai means the 'mountain of the bull calf.' Thomson decided to name these sprawling ranges after Lord Aberdare, then president of the Royal Geographical Society who had sponsored his trip to Kenya.

The Aberdares is home to some of the world’s most cherished wildlife. It is a sanctuary to rare but endangered species, such as the black rhino, which is indigenous to Kenya, and whose population has dwindled to a mere single digit in the Salient of Aberdares.

The salient’s abundance of browse, well-watered valleys, waterholes, bush screened slopes and mineral licks made it a perfect paradise for the black rhinos. In 1987, visionary conservationists such as Ken Kuhle, started the Rhino Ark project, as its founder chairman, to secure the Aberdare Range with an electric fence to protect this endangered species and other threatened wildlife.

They succeeded. However, poaching of the rhino continues to be aided by a network of criminal gangs of poachers in Kenya, and their Chinese financiers. In China, the demand for rhino is fanned by a misleading notion that their horns have aphrodisiacal potency. Colin warns that the future of this rare species is bleak, unless the Chinese government takes a more proactive role in dissuading its citizens from their obsession with the rhino’s keratin horn as a cure for lost sexual libido. While this is a well meaning call, the cartels in Kenya must be named and punished, whether they are to be found in rogue game rangers, government offices or fake business executives.

Kenya boasts of many rare species of wildlife that are domiciled in the Aberdare Range. There’s the elephant, whose ivory feeds an illegal international trade, buffaloes, eland, bongo, rare types of the duiker, such as the diminutive suni (the smallest of all antelopes), bush pigs, porcupines, giant forest hogs, bush bucks, jackals, serval cats, golden cats. Colin writes that animals such as the bongo, elephant, black rhino, wild dog and the ubiquitous leopard, to name but a few, are critically endangered.

This book is both a celebration of Kenya’s heritage, as much as it is an awareness campaign tool to preserve the forest and protect our wildlife. In terms of policy, Colin calls for a review of the cropping and culling, which was stopped in 2003 and a ban placed on the sale of selected game meat to restaurants.

Colin makes a strong case for a review of the revenue streams of Kenya’s tourism industry, especially wildlife, to move “beyond passive tourism” to “consumptive tourism.” Wildlife’s contribution to Kenya tourism’s total GDP in the last decade swung between a high of 13 per cent and a low of nine per cent. Colin argues that when consumptive utilisation is added, this figure will rise.

This push is supported by private conservancies who argue that this is necessary 'to maintain and manage numbers' in national parks and private conservancies. It will also generate revenue for private conservancies and aid their conservation work. Much as this can work as a disincentive to poachers, it might backfire and heighten poaching.

Colin advocates opening of more wildlife corridors, a model that allows people with large tracks of land in wildlife areas to leave them fallow so that animals can have an expansive area to roam and feed. The owners of such lands are discouraged from farming or erecting concrete jungles and are paid fees.

Communities can also support in conservation efforts and stem poaching through initiatives such as the Bongo Surveillance Project and the Aberdare Joint Surveillance Project. The BSP monitors the movement of Bongo, and where this animal is being stalked by poachers they nab them.

But perhaps it was the construction of an electric fence around the Aberdare Range by Rhino Ark that remains a pacesetter in a mountain forest environment “where humans can co-exist in harmony with habitat and wildlife”, thus limiting human-wildlife conflict; only a fence would separate a farmer tilling his land from an elephant grazing just across!

Colin Church’s Mel-el-Lek’s Mountain is an important book on conservation. The author must be celebrated for his conservation efforts through this book, and for contributing to the preservation of knowledge.

It is a book I recommend for anybody who cares to know Kenya more.

Khainga O’Okwemba is the presenter and producer of The Books Café on KBC English Service.