Name: Victoria Wangui Wanjohi
COMMUNITY EDUCATION, AWARENESS AND SUPPORT IS ESSENTIAL
We are a step closer to ensuring conservation thrives, especially at the community level and those who live with wildlife, when we choose to act instead of waiting for authority to act for us. In Kinangop, Central Kenya, the community has been involved in conservation, directly or indirectly. Kinangop is an Important Bird Area in Kenya and home of the endangered Sharpe’s Longclaw (Macronyx sharpei) where conservation of grasslands is a principle to protecting biodiversity in the area
The Sharpe’s Longclaw (Macronyx sharpei) is endemic to the Kenyan Highlands of Mt. Elgon, Uasin Gishu, Mau and Kinangop Plateaus, South Aberdares and North of the Slopes of Mount Kenya. All these zones are Important Bird Areas (IBA). It is a specialized grassland bird. Their population has been declining over the years due to land use change. Endangered as listed by BirdLife International. To survive, the Sharpe’s Longclaw and other grassland birds need a safe place to breed and a good food supply. Land owners are converting grassland areas to farm marketed food crops. To preserve the habitat of the Sharpe’s Longclaw, there is the need to encourage landowners to rear sheep.
Grasslands are among the ecosystems with highest species richness in the world. They aid in Carbon sequestration through the soil which holds tubercles, bulbs and rhizomes. This is 90% of biomass is below ground. This enhances high accumulation rates and slow decomposition of organic material. These plant adaptations help retain water during the dry season and also aid in mitigating climate change.
Highland grassland conservation may seem obscene to many people. Some may ask why grass? What are the benefits of grass? In an area that rears sheep, grass becomes important and it’s not all about weaving wool. Although, a landowner may choose to plant crops rather than rear sheep. However, livestock farming has been considered to cause less land and soil degradation compared to crop farming, when properly managed. Sheep farming is a delicate but less known topic amongst conservationists, ecologists, birdwatchers and even botanists. This is because of the need to still maintain this farming practice while protecting grasslands without a community shifting to other farming practices such as cultivation.
So, how do you ensure the community does not shift to other farming practices to protect the highland grassland biodiversity? Friends of Kinangop Plateau (FoKP), which started as a Self- Help group in 1997, later becoming a Site Support Group working with Nature Kenya and later registered as a community-based organisation, works to ensure the conservation of highland grasslands.
FoKP has various activities within it to support conservation. This includes a school outreach program where the members visit schools and educate the students on the environment. They also invite the schools to the resource center to learn more about the environment. When children are educated on this, the environment can be able to resonate more easily with the parents/guardians and even their friends. To ensure farmers do not cultivate their land, farmers have been provided with several beehives as they encouraged to maintain the grassland habitat. The end product of beehive farming can be sold and the farmers gain incentives from this.
The Kinangop highland Grassland Area is mostly privately owned. Therefore, for biodiversity to thrive on this land, there needs to be pro-active intervention between community members and FoKP to ensure continued conservation of biodiversity. With this, the community-based organization does monitoring and evaluation during the wet and dry season within these private properties. However, this is not highly sustainable as private owners can decide to do as they please with their land and will lead to a continued decrease in the countries highland grassland areas.
To reduce degradation of grasslands (an important habitat for the Sharpe’s Longclaw which depends on the tussock grass to nest) through farming, FoKP has been able to purchase Nature Reserves with the assistance of Nature Kenya. Nature Reserves aid in the conservation of biodiversity which is required to keep our ecosystem in natural balance. FoKP aids in monitoring and assisting in conducting research within the four nature reserves. Two of these reserves have been able to support breeding pairs of the species and in the end, promote Highland Grassland Conservation.
Other than the community being members of FoKP, the Resource Centre in North Kinangop also hosts bandas and a camping site. This is a great initiative and promotes indigenous ecotourism. For anyone who wants to add lifers or complete their bird list with Sharpe’s Longclaw, Aberdare Cisticola (Cisticola aberdare) or Lesser Jacana (Microparra capensis), or maybe see plenty of the Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus) and Steppe/common Buzzard (Buteo vulpinus) present within Kinangop Plateau area, this is a good place to stay.