November 5 1999

Destruction of Kenyan forest threatens environmental catastrophe


ONE of Kenya's best-known and most beautiful indigenous forests, the Mount Kenya Forest Reserve, is in danger of being wiped out by illegal logging, marijuana cultivation, charcoal burning and agricultural encroachment in a process that could lead to environmental catastrophe, a report has concluded.

The Kenya Wildlife Service carried out a study on the basis of 53 hours of low-level overflights covering the entire forest area to give a complete picture of the destruction to the forest canopy.

The findings showed that more than 14,600 indigenous trees, mostly camphor, cedar and tropical olive, had been illegally felled. Some of the trees can take 400 years to reach full height. Up to 90 per cent of the forest canopy had been wiped out in an area of 32,000 acres.

In addition, about 800 acres had been cleared for marijuana cultivation, while large tracts of forest had been completely destroyed by charcoal kilns, fires, livestock-grazing and encroachment by agricultural plots. Bongo Woodley, senior warden of the Mount Kenya National Park, who carried out the flights between February and June this year, said that the real damage to the forest was likely to be far greater than that shown in the report.

He said: "Even at low altitude, there is only a certain amount that you can see from the air. When you go in at ground level, you can see there is a great deal more going on."

A drive through the forest on the northwestern slopes of Mount Kenya proved his point. Loggers' tractors had smashed great gashes through the undergrowth; every few yards a giant stump of a recently felled tree, or the trunk itself lying ready to be dragged away, could be seen. The muffled whine of chainsaws was almost constant.

Mount Kenya is home to nearly 900 plant species. It also provides habitat for six species of large mammal internationally recognised as being of conservation interest: the elephant, leopard, giant forest hog, bongo antelope and black-fronted duiker.

In 1997, Mount Kenya National Park and its surrounding forests were listed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco, in recognition of "one of the most impressive landscapes of eastern Africa with its rugged glacier-covered summits, Afro-alpine moorlands and diverse forests, which illustrate outstanding ecological processes".

The destruction of the forest is also likely to have severe wider environmental and economic consequences. Mount Kenya is one of the country's five major water catchment areas, providing irrigation, water supply and hydroelectric power to much of the northeast and east of Kenya. The forest not only attracts heavy rainfall in a largely arid region, it also stores water, releasing it gradually in streams and rivers to ensure a year-round supply.

Even more alarming is the fact that the destruction of the Mount Kenya forest is only part of the picture. Indigenous forest covers only about 2 per cent of Kenya's land area - about 5 million acres. Nehemiah Rotich, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, said this is being destroyed at the rate of about 20,000 acres a year.

"This is illegal destruction with disastrous consequences," Mr Rotich said.

The report calls for a ban on indigenous logging and a revision of forestry policy, with a radical replanting programme to attempt to reverse some of the damage. It also calls for special assistance for the population in forested areas, recognising that much of the problem is due to a cycle of poverty.
Mount Kenya National Park website and Unesco World Heritage list

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