Being a person of very little spatial awareness, and lacking any sense of direction, right from our very first few trips into the forest I was hugely impressed by the knowledge of the staff and the ease with which they found their way around. Imagine my surprise then, when last week we found ourselves in a state of confusion, in seemingly unfamiliar territory. This is the sad fact of Shimoni East: it is changing so rapidly that a trail you have walked a dozen times can become almost unrecognisable in a matter of days.
The threats to the forest occur on several fronts. All along the coast land is being bought up by developers and cleared with plans to build hotels, some of which are already under construction. New sections of barbed wire fence are going up daily; some mark the edges of developers’ plots, and it would seem that others indicate locals staking a claim for possible retail space opposite. The most substantial fence currently cuts off the last few sections of most of our six surveying transects, and the three new roads (which may be for access or a preliminary to wider clearing) which have sprung up in the last couple of weeks also cut across the eastern end of several transects. Along the northern side of the forest, the greatest disturbance is the frequent appearance of new charcoal pits. These are illegal, of which the locals are well aware, but since the entire village uses charcoal for cooking, they feel they have no choice in order to survive. One of the main problems is that it is very inefficient: seventy percent of the energy is lost straight away in the process. Plus, everybody understands the fact that this is unsustainable, given the rate at which the forest is disappearing. Elsewhere throughout the forest trees are regularly disappearing as poles and timber for construction or firewood.
The implications of the shrinking of the forest on its wildlife are clear. The Colobus monkeys, for example, are almost exclusively arboreal; without sufficient high canopy they will be restricted in movement, and therefore food resources and resting places. As a general rule, the size of the forest determines the health of the Colobus community. It is possible that if developers leave the very tallest and largest trees, and build around them, the Colobus community will not be too badly affected. However, there is no guarantee that this will happen, and, in any case, the clearing of the smaller trees and undergrowth is disastrous for the biodiversity of the region. For example, the rare Zanj Elephant Shrew relies on undergrowth and leaf litter for foraging and nest building, and as this species is endemic to Kenyan coastal forest, this is one of the few areas of habitat still remaining. Essentially, the unsustainability of the forest use is such that eventually it will disappear, and there will be no wildlife at all. The locals who rely on the forest will then also lose their means for survival, so it really is a lose-lose situation.
GVI’s continual monitoring of the area provides more and more evidence for it being a biodiversity hotspot, and thus the more likely it becomes that Kenyan Wildlife Services will decide to protect the area. This would be a greatly positive step for the forest, but support needs to be given to the local communities who rely on their current use of the forest. This is why the work that GVI is doing in the forest and with the community is so valuable. By promoting sustainable development the community can find ways to utilise the forest for economic growth. One such area is ecotourism; we are working with Friends of Shimoni Forest in order to train guides and market tours of the forest. We have also helped establish a group of locals who are promoting use of an alternative charcoal press, which uses waste paper, food waste, forest debris and so forth to produce fuel blocks in a much more efficient process (for details on the press see these entries). Another initiative involves promoting group farming of the casuarinas tree to produce a sustainable and more efficient harvest of poles for construction.
When a tree falls in the forest perhaps it only makes a sound if someone is there to hear it. Luckily we are here and we are listening. The changes occurring in Shimoni East are observable on a daily basis, but hopefully the work we are doing will enable the local community to effect some positive change and allow the forest to become a sustainable resource and natural treasure.