Standard Media (Kenya)

By Caroline Chebet
A decades-old tree hangs precariously on the edge as flames consume its roots, slowly smoking life out the home of hundreds of birds at Lake Kamnarok National Reserve in Baringo County. Just around the tottering giant, are humongous trees reduced to smouldering logs as the fire reduces further ton heaps of ash. Again, they were also attacked from the roots with the birds facing a similar fate. Distant cries of eagles hovering above the wafting smoke punctuate the rather eerie atmosphere. The eagles are effortlessly possibly raising an alarm or warning the chicks to get out the nests spewed all over before the raging fire engulfs them. The Lake Kamnarok Game Reserve inferno is far from the normal forest fire. It is part of a serious encroachment, grabbing, clearing and securing of thousands of the vast virgin wildlife reserve by illegal encroachers. The encroachers are setting fire on the roots of giant trees to slowly fell them without struggling to chop them down.

Here, hundreds of illegal encroachers have camped, preparing chunks of the vast 87.3 kilometre-square game reserve for planting as they drive out wild animals. They have set on fire and felled trees, and occupied riparian land while pushing anything out of their way. “It is like a gold rush. Everyone seems to be clearing as much as they can own. Look at the trees; the nests all spewed all over; the fire gutting down the bushes and no government official is yet to utter a word,” a local, lament Joshua Lokuol. Heaps of dry elephant poop and giant footprints cannot scare away the invaders. Instead, these signs of life encourage the encroachers to clear more of the land and drive them out. Gazelles too haven’t been spared. One has to just aim, shoot, collect, de-skin roast and belch happily after a long day of land preparation. “It is like they want to drive out the wild animals completely to Rimoi National Reserve. That is why they are setting fire on more patches whenever fresh animal footprints are seen. Sadly, this is a breeding ground, and an extended ecosystem to the neighbouring Rimoi,” Lokuol says.

Lokuol is part of the community that donated land to the government for the game reserve which was gazetted in 1983. The area was a breeding ground for elephants traversing Rimoi-Kamnarok Ecosystem. “Just there where they have just started clearing was part of my land which I donated. It was a community land and we all agreed to donate the land for purposes of conservation of our elephants. That time, everyone who had land was allocated land elsewhere, outside the reserve,” he says. The reserve, he says was a no-farming zone but only for day-time grazing. “Things went smoothly. We could graze our cattle during the day. This reserve was a resting place where tens of elephants spent their nights. Things however changed in the 1990s when illegal encroachers started constructing houses,” Lokuol says. Lokuol, was also part of the committee tasked to ensure everyone owned land outside the protected area after 1983 gazettement. “Everyone had land outside the gazetted area and no one was a squatter. These people living here are all encroaching because everyone was allocated land outside,” he said. Musa Simukwo, a local resident too, is baffled at the turn of events that has led to wanton destruction of forests within the vast game reserve; activities that have failed to be controlled.

“River Kerio that drains water to Lake Kamnarok is dry as a result affecting the lake. The remaining patch of the lake is muddy due to siltation as a result of erosion which has been caused by the destruction of vegetation cover,” says Simukwo. The destruction, he says, has also fuelled human-wildlife conflicts in the area; something which he says might become almost impossible to control. “This is a breeding ground for elephants and people have already cleared and planted crops right inside the game reserve. Two weeks ago, enraged elephants almost trampled someone in the forest after he destroyed the site where they often spend their nights,” Simukwo said. On the Eastern side of the vast game reserve, the second largest home of crocodiles in Africa has been reduced to mere grazing field with thousands of the giant reptiles struggling for survival in the small muddy patch. Lake Kamnarok, an oxbow lake, that initially hosted estimated 20,000 crocodiles, second most populous after Lake Chad in on its deathbed. The lake is a shadow of its former self-a vast green plain with patches of water at a far distance. Numerous water birds are baffled at the turn of events. The elegant ducks that once dotted the lake all effortlessly try to glide on drying mud.

“It is sad. This lake might finally dry if nothing is done to save it,” Paul Simukwo, a local said. At the drying lake too, is a beehive of activity-encroachers demarcating and fencing off the vast park, cows grazing, locals washing by the shores with boats that were once used by fishermen for company It is a picture of mismanagement; even the once egregious hyacinth that once ravaged acres of the lake has dried up providing a cushion of sorts on the cracked river bed. On one section of the lake, heavy posts of hardwood have been put up to secure chunks of land. The posts run through from the lake deep into the forest that hosts a variety of both seedlings and decades-old trees. “The posts were put up almost three weeks ago and run for kilometres through the lake and the forest. Seems someone is trying to grab it against all odds,” Simukwo says. Reuben Chepkonga, the secretary of Lake Kamnarok Land Rights Advocacy Group says the government is to blame for the failure to define the boundaries of Lake Kamnarok, compensate those living inside the reserve or give them alternative land and also relocate schools. “We registered our advocacy in 2000 after we realised that our fathers who were said to have donated the land did not sign any documents with the government to create the reserve. We are only fighting for our land rights because there are four schools inside the reserve,” he says.

He said failure to compensate those who were living inside the reserve has stalled development in the area. “It has been 37 years of conflict in the area. We are in a critical stage that urgently needs to be addressed,” he says. The North Rift Tourism Coordinator, William Kisop, says the Rimoi-Kamnarok ecosystem is an ancient corridor for elephants stretching from South Turkana, through Nasalot National Reserve in West Pokot and finally to Kamnarok. “Rimoi-Kamnarok ecosystem is a very ancient corridor and one of the largest remaining elephant ranges in the country. Elephants traversing these corridors are estimated to be over 1,000. These two reserves play a key role in the conservation of elephants,” he explains. He added that the population of elephants and wildlife in the two reserves was stable. He said there are deliberate efforts to open up the North Rift Tourism circuit with Kerio Valley, which lies between the two reserves as the key ecological stretch. “We are only appealing to the communities to up conservation and honour the wishes of those who donated land for conservation,” Kimosop pleads. The game reserve has over the years, turned a political tinderbox with frightening eventualities if mishandled. Game reserves are managed by the County governments with the help of Kenya Wildlife Service.

In 2014, former Baringo County governor Benjamin Cheboi formed a task force to look into the boundary issue of the game reserve with a view to fencing it off to keep out encroachers. The Task Force was mandated to collate findings and submit a report to the Cheboi with detailed recommendations on boundary, compensation and resettlement of affected households in the Reserve. The report was done but has never been tabled in the County Assembly as it was expected with the 2017 political temperatures said to have derailed it. “The report was supposed to be tabled before 2017 but due to political temperatures, Cheboi said the report that would be done after elections,” says Baringo County director of Environment Evans Kandie. Cheboi, however, failed to retain the seat in the 2017 general elections, leaving it to the current Governor Stanley Kiptis to handle the matter, which still, is yet to be discussed.

Kandie also says the report was supposed to be handed over to Governor Kiptis but had to be first tabled in the County Assembly and then taken back to the National Government for a decision on issues of boundaries. “The chairman of the task force recently met with the governor and the report will soon be tabled. The case will hopefully be addressed by April this year,” Kandie says. He, however, confirms that massive degradation has taken place, a situation which has affected the lake and survival of crocodiles and wildlife within the game reserve. “The situation is not good because elephants are being poisoned; and the silt as a result of erosion following felling of trees, degrading the lake. “There are plans to de-silt the lake involving local bodies including NEMA, KWS and KFS,” he says. He further blames the fuelling of conflicts to a local Non-governmental Organisation saying it has been spiralled cases of encroachment of the game reserve. As this happens, how many more birds will have to die? How many more crocs will have to perish? How many more elephants must find themselves homeless?And, how many more trees must teeter on the brink?