The Birds and People of Kakamega Forest
Kenya's only rainforest
A few meters from a dusty path that leads towards Kakamega Forest in western Kenya lies a medium sized house whose rusty iron sheet roof glints softly in the late afternoon rain. A stone throw away from the craggy house stands an Elgon Teak tree, regal and replete in its natural splendor. Resting his head on the rugged bark of the tree is mzee Mumia, a seventy-seven year old man who has lived next to the forest for all his life. He is gazing expressionlessly at the African Grey Parrot that can be seen flying gently towards some nearby shrubs.
This famous African Parrot is close to becoming locally extinct. Only about ten of them are thought to be still in the forest. Incidentally, this forest is its last refuge in Kenya, meaning that Kenya is dangerously close to becoming a ‘parrot-less’ country. This would be a big shame because African Grey Parrots are a rare combination of both brains and beauty. The beauty aspect of the parrots is always evident whenever one is spotted, perched in the cool branches of the forest or flying in the equally cool atmosphere above those branches.
The 240 km sq Kakamega Forest is the eastern most relic of the great Guineo-Congolian forest, which stretches across central Africa. It is the only equatorial rainforest in Kenya and hosts the witty African Grey Parrot plus over three hundred bird species that nest in the over 380 tree species of the forest. The birds that nest in these trees are a diverse mix of central African lowland species and highland species.
Villagers in Kakamega are immensely proud of the African Grey Parrot. Mzee Mumia says that this parrot is like a member of his Luhya community, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya. Numbering about 5.3 million people or 14 per cent of Kenya's total population of 38 million, many Luhyas today are remnants of several federations of the Wanga Kingdom, the most powerful centralised kingdom that ever existed in Kenya's entire history before the advent of British colonialism in the early 1900s.
Mzee Mumia is named after Mumia, the most famous king of this kingdom. He says that the African Grey Parrot is the megaphone of nature as it imitates the streams that meander through the trees and monkeys that jump from tree to tree. 'But nowadays, people have become so selfish that they want the parrot to imitate them in their homes instead of imitating nature!'
The other bird species in the forest include the Great Blue Turaco, Grey-throated Barbets, Double-toothed Barbet, Yellow-crested woodpecker, White-tailed Ant Thrush, Turner's Eremomela and Chapins' Flycatcher. Also flying and nesting in this wet forest are canaries, sunbirds, weavers, waxbills, sparrows, Bulbuls, Swallows and many more.
Some of the birds in the forest, like the Great Blue Turaco, are quite easy to spot. This bird is in John Keats words, ‘a thing of beauty that is a joy forever.’ Its red bill leaves one convinced that it is the main inspiration behind lipstick. Also conspicuous are its blue and yellow feathers that appear beautifully misty whenever the regular raindrops gently interrupt its flight. With a length of 70 – 75 centimeters long, it is the largest Turaco.
Other bird species in the forest like the Turner’s Eremomela are quite difficult to spot. This is very small warbler that is only 8 – 9 centimeters. The general scarcity of this tiny bird has already earned it a place on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It was pushed onto this list by increasing habitat loss that is fuelled by increased encroachment into the forest through farming and grazing.
Mzee Mumia’s five sons are all farmers who often graze their cows in the forest. Okoti, the oldest of the five, explains this grazing recourse to the forest, ‘the birds and monkeys cannot finish all this grass and shrubs in the forest!’ He however condemns the tree felling and charcoal burning that is also contributing greatly to the habitat loss of the birds. However, Kunyobo, his younger brother differs with his brother on this one, ‘we use wood from this forest to build our houses and use the charcoal to cook our food. Aren’t food and shelter basic needs without which we can’t live?’
The Turner’s Eremomela bird would agree with the young man’s observation. It would agree that it too needs the shelter and food that the trees provide. Due to habitat loss, it is becoming more and more difficult to hear the bird’s high-pitched voice chirping away in the forest.
Kakamega forest has 194 forest-dependent bird species. Such birds depend on the forest for their very survival. Luckily, this bird-rich forest still has many birds that are not endangered. The African Barbets can still be found in plenty in the forest, pecking away at the many fruits in the forest.
One of the larger members of the African Barbets is the Double-toothed barbet. It is a cheeky, cheery and serene bird. With its gleaming red underside, it seems to be forever celebrating Valentine’s day. Harder to spot but equally beautiful is the Yellow-billed Barbet. It seems to prefer the denser parts of the forest. When it does make an appearance, it doesn’t disappoint. Its yellow bill and partially yellow underside are a sight to behold – they match perfectly. Another yellow-named Barbet is the Yellow-spotted Barbet, a bird whose natural coat of yellow spots is duly complemented by its red forehead.
For generations, Kakamega Forest has provided refuge for birds like the African Barbets and for members of the local Luhya community who depend on the forest for both timber and non-timber products. Conscious of this vital role that the forest is playing, local conservation activists are now on the forefront of sustainably unveiling the treasures of the forest to both tourists and local people alike. Many of these local conservationists belong to the Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP), the official Site Support Group of the forest.
According to a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Kakamega Forest has two major encroached areas with settlements covering a total of approximately 573 hectares. Groups like KEEP are now sensitizing the community on the need to regard the forest as a sanctuary of nature that should be protected at all costs. To their credit, the local conservationists are helping the local people to realize that their own better livelihoods are entwined with better protection of the forest birds and animals.
Apart from adults, more than 10,000 children have also received environmental education from KEEP. Ongachi, a twelve year old recipient of this environmental education had some witty thoughts about the birds and people of the forest, ‘every morning I wake up to the sound of birds, which means that without the birds, there would be no morning.’
One morning, Shailesh Patel, a professional bird watching guide from Nairobi woke up to the twin chirps of the White-tailed ant thrush and the Yellow-crested wood pecker. It was already light enough to spot the White-tailed ant thrush balancing on a nearby ant column. But the wood pecker was nowhere to be seen despite its crystal clear sounds.
But in his mind, Shailesh could already see the sharp bill and calm eyes of the woodpecker, not to mention the yellow crest that gave it its name. He had seen this crest heaving back and forth countless times, as the bird pecked away at the rough barks of trees. It was always as if the bird was swaying to some unseen natural orchestra.
The birds of Kakamega forest are at the epicenter of the music of the forest. The Barbets twirl to the tap tap tap of the woodpeckers. The alert eyes of the Harrier Hawk and Lanner Falcon dance excitedly as they scan the lush canopies for some unguarded nests. The Pink-backed Pelican, White Stork and Black-headed Heron seem to gyrate to the silent melody of the forest streams. The Common Quail otherwise known as isindu in the Luhya language is a local delicacy. Tiny and pretty, it ‘fly-dances’ as it flees gracefully from local hunters. The gleeful cum woeful soprano of the Turner’s Eremomela fits in perfectly, like a dovetail joint, with the cheeky chirp of the lemon dove.
Litungu, a traditional seven-stringed instrument of the Luhya people has a distinct rich sound that seems to draw from the lush musical pitches of the ancients. The harmony inherent in the seven strings of this traditional lyre seems to be a vindication of the traditional harmony between the people and birds of Kakamega Forest.
Mzee Mumia, the old neighbor of the forest is still leaning on the Elgon Teak tree as he observes in his deep voice, ‘we have eaten the common quail for generations but its beautiful presence remains undiminished. We don’t even eat the Turner’s Eremomela yet its very existence in our forest is now threatened.’ The old man pauses fleetingly before concluding, ‘it’s all about harmony. Nature’s harmony must not be stilled.’
To paraphrase the words of Ongachi, the twelve year old boy, ‘the songs of the birds must keep preceding the light of dawn, or mornings will start illuminating a troubled forest, a troubled people and diminishing birds.’