Rescued antelopes and the rangers protecting one of Africa’s greatest water supplies
A bushbuck antelope nimbly struts along the forest floor, her slight pin-like legs elegantly darting amongst the leaf litter without a sound. Suddenly, something seemingly brushes past her. She stops, rapidly flares her nostrils to sniff the air and, in jittery movements, her dark beady eyes scan the area. Content, she cautiously continues forward for several steps until something begins to tighten around her waist. She lunges but is pulled back. Is it a leopard? No, things would already be over. As she struggles, the noose only tightens its grip, constricting her lower back and digging into her skin. An untraditional and indiscriminate form of hunting, the use of wire snares throughout the world’s wild jungles has emptied many of them of everything larger than a medium-sized bird.
Fortunately, in this story, the bushbuck was lucky. The rangers of the South-western Mau Forest Reserve found her, disassembled the snare and released her safely before she succumbed to thirst or any injuries.
Sadly, finding animals relatively unharmed such as this is a rarity. Most are often too injured or too ill to make a successful release possible. However, perhaps of greater concern in the Mau Forest – the largest intact montane forest in East Africa – is a much bigger threat; one that affects everything, from the insects on the ground to the local people in surrounding towns and villages. The illegal clearance of the Forest for agriculture, logging and charcoal production has reduced its area enormously. Between 1991 and 2011, the Mau Forest Complex lost a total of 107,000 hectares, approximately a quarter of what then remained. It is an issue that has even contributed to problems across Kenya’s borders, from Tanzania in the South all the way to Egypt in the North.
A fraction of what it once was, the Forest is still the largest water-catchment area in Kenya. Being so vast and full of vegetation, the Forest acts like a water-storage unit, accumulating moisture when the rains fall during the wet season and then slowly releasing it during drier spells. This water supplies 11 rivers and more than six million people within Kenya. In turn, these rivers feed into famous ecosystems such as the great Serengeti-Mara where the tourism industry abounds or Lake Victoria, which is one of the main sources of the Nile. With the Forest now seriously reduced in size, several of these rivers are already running dry, with many becoming seasonal only.
With so much at stake, protection by rangers and law enforcement is essential to ensure the longevity of the Forest and its wildlife. Protecting a 60,000-hectare portion known as the South-Western Mau Forest Reserve, what was desperately needed was equipment that would allow forest and wildlife rangers to carry out long-ranging, multi-day patrols in the Reserve.
The Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, established in 1988, is a non-profit charity that works in long-term partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to support the conservation of Kenya’s mountain forests and areas of important biodiversity. Since 2016, the organisation has, in partnership with other stakeholders, provided support to law-enforcement teams in the Reserve including the construction of security outposts, training courses about forest and wildlife crime, and systematic aerial surveillance operations to detect illegal activities from the air.
During aerial surveillance, locations are recorded, providing details for ground teams, who then make their way to investigate and confront the culprits. However, with illegal charcoal production, logging and snaring often occurring deep inside the Reserve, it can often take more than a day to reach these sites in remote, cold, and wet conditions. To make matters more difficult, networks of spies keep tabs on the rangers’ movements, giving perpetrators a warning about the teams’ locations and direction. Being able to access deeper areas over multi-day stints was therefore essential to throw off the informers and allow rangers to reach far-away places. With 15 rangers spread across three teams, the need for an assortment of gear to make this possible was paramount.
Thanks to generous ForRangers donors and fundraisers, new tents, comfy gum boots, sleeping bags, raincoats, water-proof gloves, camouflaged headgear and backpacks were all recently purchased.
Unfortunately, supply chain issues brought about by the Russia-Ukraine War and economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic both took their toll. Before the equipment could reach the teams, patrols during April and June saw only moderate success, resulting in the destruction of an illegal charcoal kiln and a makeshift illegal dwelling as well as an arrest.
However, once the quality equipment was obtained, the successes seen by the patrols from August 2022 onwards took off. The teams have been acting as an effective deterrent to bushmeat poachers in the area. Between August and December 2022, almost 40 illegal charcoal kilns were destroyed, as well as 10 snares removed, 12 people arrested, 70 bags of charcoal recovered, and four illegal forest structures destroyed. Several donkeys were also caught ‘red-hooved’ carrying large sacks of charcoal. In addition, the equipment has made it possible for rangers to carry out night-time sting operations. One illegal charcoal kiln was disrupted at 02:00 in one of the Forest Blocks.
The results demonstrated by the provision of key equipment such as this highlight just what can be achieved thanks to the support of people like you. The importance of this ecosystem to biodiversity and people alike, both nationally and internationally, cannot be understated. Thanks to you, we can continue to support projects like this, offering a future in which habitats, wildlife and the local communities that interact with them can thrive.