By Tony Wafula and Jesse Chenge
Chepkitale Forest is one of the oldest protected forests in Kenya, and is home to over 1,500 tree species, including endangered species like Juniperus procera, Olea chrysophylla and Vachellia xanthophloea.
Numerous species of birds and animals, such as the bateleur eagle, bushbuck and impala antelopes, can also be found in the forest. The elevation of the forest is around 1500m above sea level, and it receives an average of 1300mm of rainfall each year.
It is an enchanted place, filled with secrets of nature and the earth. Here, you’ll find towering trees, both living and dead, that spread across the forest floor like gentle giants.
As you wander through this enchanting landscape, you will come upon the remains of fallen tree species that are slowly decomposing. As you observe closely, you can see that mushrooms are thriving on these decaying trees, as if they are feeding off their remains. The area is known for its chilly climate conditions that cause visitors to shiver.
Chepkitale is located in Mt. Elgon, an important natural resource in western Kenya’s Bungoma County, and serves as one of the big water towers that feeds water along the Nile basin all the way to Egypt. Mt Elgon forest sits on 50,500 hectares of land, 17,000 hectares being part of Chepkitale area. This is also the ancestral land of the Ogiek have who have lived here for many years, governed and bound by their traditions.
Since the inception of bylaws to protect the forest, there is no deforestation that has happened. Emmanuel Kimtai, a member of this community said that the Ogiek elders came up with their own traditional bylaws which prevent the cutting of trees in the region.
Kimtai argues that trees are very important in their lives as they depend on them for food, medicinal value, production of honey and preventing soil erosion.
Kimtai says that the Ogiek community is not also not allowed to burn charcoal, adding that the smoke from the burning charcoal scares bees in the forest.
“The Ogiek depend on bees for honey production, some of the beekeeping is their major source of income therefore if the trees are cut it threatens to scare the bees,” Kimtai said.
He adds that women are only allowed to collect firewood from the fallen trees but not to cut fresh trees, noting that those who want to construct new houses use fallen trees.
George Wara, a Bungoma County forest conservator applauded the Ogiek Council of Elders for forming traditional bylaws and elaborate systems that have helped conserve the environment.
Initially, the government had evicted the Ogiek from the forest but last year the court upheld the eviction order allowing the Ogiek to settle back in the forest.
“These bylaws have really helped us conserve the forest on the upper side of the mountain, they are a very elaborate system of environmental conservation, if you go there you find indigenous trees that have fallen many years ago left and no one to harvest them,” Wara added.
Wara pointed out that the Ogiek have protected the forest compared to other communities who have caused massive destruction to the forest adding that on other parts of the forest, there is cultivation, illegal logging, charcoal burning and firewood harvesting which is a threat to the forest.