Nanyuki, Kenya — A raging fire – suspected to have been started by arsonists – has now burned over 4,000 hectares (15 square miles) of Mount Kenya forest and is threatening the Mount Kenya ecology and some 882 rare plant species, unique to the area, government officials here say. Today the fire was brought under control by the Kenya Wildlife Service, forest guards, the Kenya Army, and the local community.
The fire came weeks after the new government of President Mwai Kibaki announced tough measures to stop illegal logging, encroachment of the forest by neighbouring communities, and growing of narcotics inside the forest.
“We suspect that this is the work of arsonists and saboteurs,” says Professor Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan assistant minister for environment, natural resources and wildlife conservation, and founder of the Greenbelt treeplanting movement. “But we will not relent on our campaign to save the Kenyan forests from imminent destruction.”
The government has in the last few weeks fired senior forestry department officers in the region for condoning wanton destruction of the forest, classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some locals interviewed said the fires could have been started to keep the forest officers “busy” while the illegal loggers ferry their loot. The fire also came on the heels of a government announcement that it had closed six forests around the Mount Kenya region for five years and suspended a senior forest officer in the area over corruption.
But what began as a small bushfire on Monday has now reached dangerous heights and has destroyed thousands of indigenous trees of the aloe species and a large part of the Mount Kenya National Park, which is home to thousands of animals.
“The fire has razed sections of Ontulili forest planted with cedar, podo and olea trees and the neighboring grassland,” says Paul Karanja, the acting provincial forest officer.
Blaming saboteurs for the outbreak, Karanja said the fires were lit in different sections of the forest as his officers attempted to put out the one in Ontulili.
“As we were fighting the outbreak in Ontulili forest, we saw another fire from the neighboring Nanyuki forest, and as we rushed there, another broke out in the neighborhood frustrating us further,” said Karanja.
Efforts by the Kenya Wildlife Service personnel to put off the fire collapsed this week due to lack of fire fighting machines and adequate personnel.
“We have appealed to the army to come and save Mount Kenya, but they have also faced some handicaps,” says Maathai. Attempts by the army officers to extinguish the blaze last Friday night failed when their vehicle broke down in the forest.
Maathai blames the arsonists for the fires and says they are trying to sabotage the new government’s efforts in the conservation of natural resources. She said people living near the forest could have started the fire so that they could get plots to cultivate.
Experts in Nairobi say that the Mount Kenya inferno cannot be extinguished manually, and that only well equipped airplanes can effectively contain the raging fire – if it does not die out naturally.
“We are appealing to international community to help us,” says Bongo Woodley, the Mount Kenya senior warden. “The troops deployed to contain the fire are helpless.”
A vast area of Mount Kenya Forest Reserve, about 2,200 square kilometers (849 square miles), is under Kenya Wildlife Service jurisdiction which has mandate to protect the wildlife, especially the threatened 882 plant species unique to Mount Kenya. Besides the rare plant species, the Mount Kenya forest is inhabited by about 2,000 elephants and other wildlife species that include the bongo, black rhino, duiker, buffalo, and the giant forest hog.
Mount Kenya has been in the news after aerial surveys revealed massive destruction of the ecosystem. An aerial survey carried by warden Woodley and United Nations official Christian Lambrechts in 1999 revealed massive destruction of the forest and presence of thousands of charcoal kilns.
Shortly after the December general elections in which power passed from long time President Daniel Arap Moi to President Kibaki, the new government fired forest officers in the area and announced measures to restore Mount Kenya’s ecosystem including the closure of six forests.
Although Mount Kenya is a key component of the Kenyan economy, feeding the Tana and Athi rivers – the country’s biggest rivers with hydropower stations and many irrigation operations dotting their courses – the previous Moi government condoned its destruction and at one point threatened to set aside parts of the forest to settle landless Kenyans.
During Moi’s reign marijuana fields flourished in the bush and were linked to politically connected individuals who would harvest it and then transport it to the coast where it is refined into hashish. A recent visit to the forest by the new Minister for Environment Dr. Newton Kulundu, revealed thousands of acres of cannabis sativa, marijuana, known locally as bhang.
“The Mount Kenya forest – declared a world heritage of unique animal and wildlife biodiversity – is more distressed than statistics reveal,” said Dr. Kulundu after the tour. “If we don’t act fast, we will be the generation that will witness the destruction of Mount Kenya forest.”
The minister and his delegation, which included Maathai, uprooted and burned the bhang in large piles during their visit. He gave forest officers in the area 30 days to uproot the prohibited drug and replant the area with trees “or else you also face the sack,” said Dr. Kulundu.
Whether these new tough measures have any link to the Mount Kenya fire is a matter of speculation. But officers on the ground, and government officials think the new measures and the fires are inter-linked.
At the moment the fire is burning on steep valleys making access difficult for the firefighters.
“We believe the arsonists are operating from within the forests,” says Karanja, the forest officer. There is fear that the outbreaks could cause a major human-wildlife conflict since the animals are running away from their habitat. “We are fearing that the fire might spread to natural forests and plantations higher in the mountain. This can be a national disaster,” Karanja said.
The government has warned the arsonists that it is closing in on them, and that they will face the full force of the law if they are caught.