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From den of vice to joggers’ haven, Karura forest thrives5 minutes read

Within 10 years, Karura has gone from a dangerous no man’s land to one of Nairobi’s safest and most popular destinations

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“We would collect dead, dumped bodies. Some were decomposing… others were fresh,” said John Chege of his early days policing Nairobi’s Karura Forest, back when thieves and murderers outnumbered joggers and dog walkers in the woods.

Karura then was the stuff of urban legend, a fearsome place invoked to scare misbehaving children. Chege and his scouts, stumbling on corpses by day, kept white-knuckled vigils by night as they scanned the darkness for intruders.

“It was hell,” Chege told reporters of his hair-raising first months as Karura’s inaugural chief scout, back in 2009 when efforts began to reclaim the forest. “But today we celebrate because there is nothing of the sort.”

In the space of 10 years, Karura has gone from a dangerous no man’s land to one of Nairobi’s safest and most popular destinations, a verdant refuge in a city that has long carried the unfortunate moniker “Nairobbery”.

John Chege, chief scout, speaking during an interview in Karura forest. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
John Chege, chief scout, speaking during an interview in Karura forest. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Karura is also a symbol against land-grabbing, having been saved from developers to become the world’s second-largest forest that is fully within city limits, conservationists say.

Kenya’s forests are cleared at a rate of 5,000 hectares (12,300 acres) a year, the environment ministry said in 2018. But Karura has survived, even as green spaces are being swallowed by concrete in one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities.

From zero visitors in 2009, today Karura attracts up to 30,000 nature lovers a month, with 10-year commemorative events planned in October to mark its striking transformation and storied history.

For many years, hardly anyone came, said Karanja Njoroge, who chaired Friends of Karura Forest, a community group that co-manages the reserve, from 2011 to 2018.

Bad reputation –

Shaking its reputation was a challenge, even after an electric fence was raised around the perimeter.

“Karura Forest in 2009 was a place where no one would even want to be threatened to be taken. It meant either you were going to be killed, or that you were going to be punished,” Njoroge said.

Chege and his scouts, who were trained by the British army, could not convince nervous joggers they would be safe, and so ran alongside them in khaki fatigues.

“Perhaps a visitor wanted to run 10 kilometres? My guy was to run 10 kilometres,” he said.

Slowly, visitor numbers grew as the criminals were flushed out. A clubhouse, long abandoned because patrons kept getting mugged, reopened its doors. Women felt safe enough to run on their own, Chege said.

Local communities were vital in bolstering security. 

Chege, a former illegal logger, was recruited from Huruma, a slum on Karura’s northern fringe. The community used the forest for firewood, and as a rubbish tip and open toilet.

Today, they are its custodians, planting saplings, clearing weeds and policing its borders.

Karura narrowly escaped destruction in the late 1990s when, crawling with bandits and ravaged by logging, developers gifted parcels of the forest to politically connected elites.

Read: Gabon ready to receive funds to fight deforestation

The upland forest is a developers dream: 1,000 hectares of prime land, straddled by Nairobi’s most exclusive suburbs.

Wangari Maathai, the late founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize rallied church leaders, lawyers and students to Karura’s defence.

In January 1999, armed thugs attacked Maathai as she tried to plant seedlings in an act of protest, landing her in hospital.

A notice board is photographed in Karura forest, Nairobi. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
A notice board is photographed in Karura forest, Nairobi. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

The violence made international headlines and outraged a public tired of corrupt elites grabbing state land.

The protesters won the day: development was halted.

Green icon –

The forest still bears the scars of this violent past. Bald tracts of forest cleared for mansions abut thriving black wattle — a tree whose growth was spurred by fires from the days protesters burned tractors in defiance, Chege said.

But its tranquillity is not assured.

Other forests, such as Oloolua in Nairobi’s south, have suffered from rampant encroachment. Even the city’s iconic national wildlife park is being sliced through with a railway whose construction began last year in defiance of a court order.

Though Chege worries more about dogs off leashes these days than dealing with dead bodies, a road being widened on Karura’s eastern border has raised concerns.

Land grabs are not a distant threat. In July, a court ruled against a private company trying to claim 4.3 hectares of Karura.

“If everybody who wants to build keeps chipping away, there will be very little left,” Njoroge said.

Karura persists as a conservation triumph. Native trees are taking back the forest from species introduced by the British to fuel their railway to Uganda, notably eucalyptus trees.

A man jogs in Karura forest. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Before conservation efforts began, non-native trees, many of them invasive, made up 60 per cent of the forest. Eucalyptus, in particular, inhibit the growth of other plants and monopolise the water supply with their voracious thirst.

The forest contains rivers, waterfalls and caves used by anti-colonial rebels. Joggers encounter bushbucks, hornbills and Syke’s monkeys.

Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira Mathai, said her mother would be proud of what Karura has become, “and maybe even surprised at just how much people love it”.

“She had hoped her children’s children — my generation and our children — would enjoy this forest, and that’s what has come to pass,” Mathai told reporters.

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Conservation News

A Nation Making Huge Strides in Rebuilding

Rwanda is making significant progress in moving on from its ugly past

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Image credit: East African Legislative Assembly

In April 1994, ethnic tensions between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority boiled over, and what had been decades of mutual distrust ultimately escalated into a full-blown catastrophe. Over 800,000 Tutsi were murdered by Hutu militant groups, with many women raped, and hundreds of thousands of children rendered homeless.

The genocide, which stretched for three months, was met with a slow response from the international community, and many people were forced to flee into neighbouring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The events of that dark period in Rwandan history illustrated in movies like “Hotel Rwanda” and “Sometimes in April”, left a trail of effects, some of which included post-violence trauma, increased distrust, hate and proliferation of pregnancies as a result of rape.

Twenty-five years have passed, and it has been a long, tortuous road to healing for all Rwandans, but commendable efforts have been made. Reconciliation and rehabilitation centres abound in various parts of the country, and there has been significant investment in technology, making Rwanda one of the few shining lights in a continent plagued by poverty and corruption. It is also worthy of note that there is significant female representation in Rwanda’s legislative houses: for context, Rwanda has one of the world’s highest proportions of women in power as 61% of members of parliament and 50% of the cabinet are female.

One aspect of the reconciliation process that needs elaboration, though, is the social work profession. Established after the genocide, social work has been integral to Rwanda’s healing process, through homegrown solutions or indigenous models of development that address the many layers of social wounds. Social workers in Rwanda have been heavily involved in programmes such as community work, local collective action and the indigenous practice of girinka, which makes for the provision of one cow for every poor family. There are also initiatives, such as the Hope and Homes for Children, which cater to children who may have been abandoned as a result of parental trauma resulting from rape, family isolation, drug abuse, vulnerability and stigma towards children with disabilities.

Rwanda’s success story is one that many African nations can take a cue from. Who is to say that countries like Sierra Leone would not be a lot better off if there were more women in positions of power? What if there had been more concrete efforts to ensure reconciliation between the Igbo and the rest of Nigeria after the civil war? These are the unanswered questions, but it is beautiful watching Rwanda thrive after the horror show of 1994. 

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Business

DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides

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DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides
A bicycle carrier cycles with a load of about 300 kilograms of charcoal to sell in Goma, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo(Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

Lush rainforest covers millions of hectares of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a central part of Earth’s natural defence against global warming — but it is under severe threat from a perfect storm of mismanagement.

An array of global and local NGOs are in a tense fight to save the rainforest, which lost an area twice the size of Luxembourg last year alone, according to Global Forest Watch.

But the problems run right through DR Congo society — from the poor who rely on charcoal for fuel in a country with meagre supplies of other power, to the senior officials who profit from illegal logging.

“There are lawmakers and soldiers involved. They don’t pay taxes — it’s unfair competition,” says Felicien Liofo, head of a wood craftsmen’s association.

Local police say soldiers simply rip apart the fences around the forest and threaten to shoot anyone who tries to stop them.

– NGOs fight back 

The government faces a daunting challenge to protect the rainforest. 

Its 2002 forestry code imposed a moratorium on new concessions and regulated the number of trees that could be chopped down under existing permits, but officials complain of a lack of resources.

Felicien Malu, a provincial environment coordinator, has roughly 1,200 workers to cover a province twice the size of Portugal.

DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides
Joseph Bisole, 27, a former child soldier in the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, manufactures charcoal as part of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Ecomakala project to reduce illegal charcoal production, in Burungu, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on September 28, 2019. (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

But his staff, he says, are not paid and lack even the basic tools of their trade — boats, motorcycles or pickup trucks. 

“We can’t organise control missions because there are many rivers to cross and unpaved roads,” he says.

His predecessor in the job was suspended for embezzlement, underlining how corruption feeds the problem of deforestation.

NGOs have launched a multi-pronged attack against the plunder.

Greenpeace Africa and a coalition of eight NGOs from DRC and neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville have demanded a halt to all industrial activities in the millions of hectares of peatland shared by the two countries.

DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides
Two beneficiaries of a WWF (World Wildlife Fund) pilot project to produce domestic bio gas to combat illegal charcoal production look at their new gas cooker in their home in Sake, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on September 28, 2019. (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

The ancient wetlands store huge amounts of carbon, but companies are involved in oil exploration, logging and industrial agriculture in the area.

Global Witness investigated the illegal logging trade and earlier this year accused a general in the Congolese army of illegally reselling logging permits.

However, electricity in DRC is a rare luxury, meaning that most Congolese still rely on charcoal as their main fuel supply.

Making charcoal involves chopping down trees and slow-burning the wood in covered ovens — all of which comes at a steep price for the environment.

“I get through a $30 sackful every two months. That’s a fair chunk of what I earn,” says Solange Sekera while shopping at a market in the eastern city of Goma. “We have no other means of preparing meals.”

Our forests may disappear’ –

The charcoal trade — known locally as Makala — is worth millions of dollars and it is attracting armed groups to the Goma area, threatening Virunga natural park, a sanctuary for endangered mountain gorillas. 

More than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) to the west, the reliance on charcoal in Kinshasa is also causing severe problems.

Kinshasa residents consume five million tonnes of wood a year, according to French research group Cirad, and increasing urbanisation is just raising the pressure on the forests.

On the hillsides around the capital, there are scarcely any trees left.

NGOs and the government are once again trying to respond.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is trying to minimise the impact of charcoal burning by introducing “eco makala” ovens that burn the fuel more efficiently and so use less wood.

DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides
WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Ecomakala project managers visit a eucalyptus plantation partly intended to produce charcoal in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo on September 28, 2019. (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

And President Felix Tshisekedi is trying to boost electricity across the country to reduce demand for wood-based fuel.

He has championed hydroelectric power — and ground was broken in early October on a new dam in Goma.

NGOs and locals are not convinced of the viability of the project, but Tshisekedi is adamant: “Given the current rate of population growth and our energy needs, our forests may disappear by the year 2100,” he says.

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Conservation News

Tropical storm to hit Somalia

Somalia has been hit by floods since October 2019.

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Flooding in Belet Weyne Somalia Dr
Flooding in Belet Weyne Somalia. Photo Credit: OCHA

A tropical storm is currently brewing over the western part of the Indian Ocean and is moving westward towards Somalia. It is expected to make landfall on 7 December 2019. A forecast issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Somali Water and Land Information Management (SWALIM) on Tuesday has warned of heavy rainfall and strong winds over the north and central parts of the Horn of Africa country.

Rain in excess of 100mm is expected in the coastal areas of Saanag, Bari, Nugaal and Mudug regions. FAO has advised those in line of Tropical Storm 06A to take necessary precautions against flash floods and heavy rainfall in the coming days.

African Countries Affected by Floods
African Countries Affected by Floods-2019

Somalia has been hit by floods since October 2019. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 370,000 people have been displaced and even more are in dire need of relief and assistance.

“It is a race against time; but while we must work with authorities to meet today’s needs, it is urgent that we also focus on long-term, durable solutions. Given the increasing impact climate change is having on Somalia, the challenges are only likely to become more frequent and more severe,” said Justin Brady, Head of OCHA Somalia.

Hygiene Kits donated to families and children affected by floods in Somalia
Hygiene Kits donated to families and children affected by floods in Somalia. Credit_UNICEF

The Eastern and Central African regions have paid a heavy toll for global warming and are experiencing unusually heavy rainfall and floods: These, in turn, have caused flash floods, landslides, the destruction of properties and crops, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and fatalities in the hundreds.

OCHA places the number of those impacted by the adverse weather conditions at 2.5 million. Kenya has recorded the highest number of fatalities at 250 as a result of the floods, with the heaviest hit counties being Wajir and West Pokot.

A young boy navigates a flooded road in Somalia
A young boy navigates a flooded road in Somalia. Credit_UNICEF

Djibouti, on the other hand, is grappling with adverse weather conditions and flooding after two years’ worth of rain fell in a single day. Loss of life, property and/or displacements have been registered further afield in Tanzania, Burundi, CAR, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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