Category Archives: Dakatcha Woodlands

Dakatcha Clarke’s Weaver Search

The past week has seen a team of intrepid bird-watchers and guides scouring the Dakatcha Forest for the endangered and elusive Clarke’s Weaver.  This bird is a great unknown, without any information recorded on its breeding habits, habitat or breeding season, so finding it presented a great challenge!

I was representing A Rocha on the trip, after over-stretched leader Colin was forced to withdraw due to meetings and lack of vehicle (another story entirely!) so I was the highest ranking (and only) A Rocha member present.  The team was led by Fleur Ng’weno, a veteran and well-known birder from Nairobi, accompanied by myself and half a dozen local guides and birdwatchers.

We set off Monday afternoon from Malindi, after stocking up on provisions and gear, to Marafa, at the edge of the Dakatcha Woodland to meet the District Officer and let him know what we were up to, as well as visiting the local Woodland Support Group, volunteers supporting conservation of the forest and wildlife.  We continued on to Adu, a village on the far northern edge of the woodland, home to many of our party.  Near the town, we found an ideal campsite and pitched tents in a hurry to beat the sunset.  After dinner, everyone was eager to turn in early, in anticipation of a pre-dawn start the next day.

The Dakatcha Woodland is a unique area of forest populated mostly by majestic Brachystegia trees and an abundance of grasses and shrubs and is home to many rare birds and animals, and made a stunning place to camp, surrounded by owls, nightjars and frogs.

Tuesday morning, and the 8-strong group was setting off at 5.30am after hot chai and buttered bread, optimistic and excited about discovering the first known breeding site of the Clarke’s Weaver.  However, it was not be, though we did record many bird species, as well as some unidentified flowers and shrubs.  After a morning of walking, we returned to camp for lunch, then repeated the exercise in the afternoon, with a similar result.

The next 3 days looked much the same.  Though we searched different habitats, areas of the forest and farmland, from before dawn till after dark, the Clarke’s Weavers continued to escape us.  On previous surveys, a few birds have been spotted flying overhead, but this month not a single one was seen, a bit disappointing.

However, we did have some exciting finds.  5 new species were added to the list for Dakatcha, including the Spotted Thick-Knee and the Booted Eagle, which felt like a bit of a consolation prize!  The local guides (and myself!) also received some very valuable training from Fleur, and had plenty of time to appreciate the beauty of such a timeless forest.

Of great concern to the area is the highly destructive industry of charcoal.  Charcoal production and use is extremely inefficient, polluting and requires the cutting of ancient and precious trees for burning.  We saw a worrying number of charcoal kilns and timber harvesting sites deep in the woodland, far from any settlement.  Up to 7 lorries filled with charcoal are leaving the area each day, destined for Mombasa and Nairobi, taking invaluable material from the ecosystem and habitats from the wildlife.  If Clarke’s Weaver breeding sites are discovered, it will go a long way to protecting the area, as sanctuaries for the birds can be installed and monitored.

Friday, the final day of the search, and we had moved camp to a site in which a possible Clarke’s Weaver nest has been sighted in the past for one final look.  All week we had avoided the rain, with only a few showers while we had ben driving, but during our last effort, the forest decided to send us off with a drenching.  Half an hour into our walk, we were soaked to the bone, and dashed back to the car trying to shield binoculars and notebooks from the rain with our bodies, to little avail.

So, we left the forest wet, tired and Clarke’s Weaver-less, but still happy to have added new birds to the list, trained guides and witnessed some amazing countryside, and eager to renew the search!

Sam Oldland (A Rocha Kenya volunteer)

Dakatcha Woodlands under threat of ‘eco-(un)friendly’ jatropha biodiesel project

The Dakatcha Woodlands form one of the 61 internationally important sites in Kenya for bird conservation (and therefore by assumption other biodiversity as well) – known as an ‘IBA’ (Important Bird Area).

a view of the Brachystegia woodland in Marafa – a few years ago before it was hit with charcoaling

It is the only other place on the planet that Clarke’s Weaver Ploceus golandii can be found apart from Arabuko-Sokoke Forest 30kms to the south and it also holds several other Threatened species such as Sokoke Pipit and more recently we discovered a population of Sokoke Scops Owls Otus irenae there. We have been working with NatureKenya to have the woodlands protected, to encourage the local community to stop cutting trees for charcoal and timber and instead to use it sustainably.

Endemic Clarke’s Weaver Ploceus golandii (by Steve Garvie)

NatureKenya has been doing a great work with local groups of young people to encourage them to take up birding and other conservation activities. This is one of the groups with Dominic Mumbu, the NK manager 4th from the left.

This year, however, an even more devastating threat is looming – one that is masquerading as an ‘eco-friendly project’… for bio-diesel. The Malindi County Council has welcomed a proposal by an investor, Kenya Jatropha Energy Limited, to clear large tracts of land for growing Jatropha curcas.  This South American bush has been aggressively promoted in Kenya for the ‘biodiesel’ extracted from the oil in its seeds. It is now being tried in localities that range from rainfall-rich Western Kenya to desert-like Magadi area. Yet little is currently known of the plant’s suitability, its yield under different conditions, and the market capacity. Talking to Ann and Ian Robertson in Malindi – Ian being an experienced farmer and agriculturalist and Ann one of East Africa’s leading botanists – who have planted some jatropha in their garden out of interest, they report that the yield from jatropha is hugely unpredictable, some years it can be good and others it can be dire – and with no apparent reason. As a result it is highly unlikely to be suitable crop to grow on a large commercial scale and much better to be grown by small holders who can exploit the good years and get something out of it and make ends meet on the bad years with the other crops they are growing.

The jatropha / biodiesel issue is going to be one of the hottest debates going in East Africa environmentally in the next few years. A lot of businessmen are likely to jump on the band wagon where they can see big funding coming from the West to fund what some see as effectively covering up the West’s guilt complex for the vast amounts of carbon pollution it is producing – i.e. “give money to developing countries to produce biodiesel so that we can maintain our lifestyles and claim to have reduced carbon emissions – oh, and shame about that priceless forest or wetland that was cleared to grow an alien monoculture, but it’s all for the greater benefit of the planet…”

Anyway – this debate could go on quite a long time here! The point is Dakatcha Woodlands really are under threat of disappearing under an alien monoculture – and thus causing probably at least one species to go extinct.

As A Rocha Kenya we are committed to finding lasting, long-term solutions for conserving such habitats and sites whilst at the same time ensuring that local communities can improve their lifestyles and living standards but reduce their ecological footprint. We have already started working with churches in the Dakatcha Woodlands to introduce them to Conservation Agriculture, a form of farming that hugely improves productivity whilst conserving the soil and in fact improving the soil such that farms become more productive over the years and not less (as they do using the traditional farming methods). This is just one way of seeking to improve the lot of the local communities while teaching them the importance of caring for the environment – God’s creation.


Conservation Agriculture training by Paul Simpson in Marafa, Nov ’08 for church leaders

We’ve employed Gabriel Katana to work alongside the NatureKenya manager in Dakatcha and to also follow up on the Conservation Agriculture workshops we’ve held with church leaders there.

Katana – our right hand man in Dakatcha and doing a great job.
He’s also assisting in bird surveys and done some excellent work on finding how far the Sokoke Scops Owl is found as well as looking out for Clarke’s Weavers and keeping an eye open for where they might breed. The area is quite large however and currently he’s trying to do all this on just a bicycle or sometimes borrowing the piki (motorbike) that the NK manager uses. For him to be really effective we desperately need a piki for him – and then funds to cover its running. Katana’s salary has kindly been covered by a church in the UK, but any assistance towards purchasing a piki would be hugely appreciated.

More to follow…

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Invaders from the North

At a few minutes past midnight on Tuesday morning Mwamba was taken over by a Finish invasion. 16 students, their teachers and driver arrived from the University of Helsinki. They’re travelling each day to Arabuko Sokoke, Mida Creek and as far as Dakatcha Woodlands to study the local geography and botany.

Unfortunately, on the way here their car broke down outside Tsavo Park and they were delayed by several hours. It was a strange experience to go to bed only to be woken up a short while later by Laurence, our night watchman. Then we got busy serving up meat, rice and salad to a dining room full of travellers who were very tired but still hungry at midnight!

We’ll continue in the Mwamba tradition of welcoming guests from all over the world next week when a similar sized group arrives from the USA.

Conservation Agriculture workshop for pastors in Dakatcha Woodlands IBA – home to endemic Clarke’s Weaver

Can you support a farmer and cover her/his costs at a Conservation Agriculture workshop? (for only $30 per farmer!). Read on…

Conservation Agriculture (CA) is a method of farming that is being taken up more and more widely in Africa with over 120,000 farmers in Zamibia alone having adopted this practice. It has been shown to significantly increase productivity on farms and is often taught in church circles as ‘Farming God’s Way’ (FGW). Why? Well because the basic concept of CA / FGW is to mimic the way that a forest grows (“God’s farm”) and thus produce the rich soils which you find in a forest (any farmer given the choice between a plot that has been farmed for 5 years and one that has just been cleared of forest would choose the newly cleared one since it will be way more fertile). There are cases where under the conventional methods, a farmer was getting 3 bags of maize from his acre and after using CA was getting 15 bags!

How do you do this? There are 3 main principles – NO ploughing (“plowing” for our American readers!),  lots of mulch (dead organic matter covering the soil surface), and rotate your crops. If you think of how “God farms his forest”, then there is no ploughing, there’s plenty of leaf litter etc on the soil surface (“God’s blanket” for the soil) and there is high diversity of trees and plants.

Taking these basic principles and building them on top of biblical teaching on how God cares for his Earth and has given it to us to look after and use wisely, it is a wonderfully effective way of encouraging rural farmers who are also Christians (probably 70% of the population in Dakatcha) to look after their farm and be able to get a good crop out of it.  Being built on biblical teaching means that church members are very quick in accepting the teaching and linking it in to biodiversity conservation – caring for God’s world – such as planting trees etc means that it becomes a very potent tool for conservation.

Conservation Agriculture plot being prepared

A CA plot being prepared near Watamu – careful measurement of where holes are dug is important.

Back in March, A Rocha Kenya ran a one-day workshop for 25 pastors in the Dakatcha Woodlands with Paul Simpson, a pastor and farmer from South Africa, giving the main teaching. This was received very positively and we are about to run a follow-up workshop going to much greater depth and lasting for 3 days for 30 farmers, pastors and church leaders. Dominic Mumbu of NatureKenya is working very closely with us on this and organising it on the ground.

Dakatcha is where we suspect the endemic Clarke’s Weaver to breed (found only in neighbouring Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and here) – a handsom black & yellow weaver found only in Brachystegia woodlands… and yet these woodlands are under serious threat of destruction due to logging and charcoal burning.

Clarke’s Weaver by Steve Garvie

Clarke’s Weaver (by Steve Garvie)

Charcoal kiln in Dakatcha Woodlands Charcoal burning in Dakatcha Woodlands IBA

It’s a very exciting venture – to be teaching people very practical and tangible ways of being able to help themselves out of poverty whilst at the same time conserving what is a particularly special part of the planet. Farming God’s Way gives people the possibility of using their land wisely and maximising what they can get out of it whilst allowing them to preserve the rest of the surrounding habitat.

Church member enjoying her Conservation Agriculture

…a cheerful farmer tilling her CA plot after a previous training at a Gede church

For this workshop to succeed, we need to cover the costs of the workshop participants – at $30 per person (includes all food, accommodation and materials). If you feel able to help support what I believe is an exciting project with huge potential to help both conserve biodiversity and raise the standard of living of poor rural farmers – then thank you and please do!