Shadrack Omuka meets the Maasai women using photography as a way to preserve Kenya's Loita forest.
Since time immemorial Loita forest in southern Kenya, has been under the strict protection of the people who live in and around it. As forests across the world are destroyed through logging and encroachment, residents of Loita village in south west Kenya have taken it upon themselves to defend their forest.
Loita forest, dubbed ‘entim e Naimina Enkiyio’ (forest of the lost girl) by local people, is estimated to cover over 330 square kilometres and is one of the last remnants of closed canopy indigenous forest in Kenya. It also hosts the threatened bird species such as the grey-crested helmet-shrike and brown-headed apalis.
‘Loita forest supports an estimated 50 species of mammals including elephants, buffalo, hippo, antelopes and the predators,’ says Rudolf Makhanu, a Project Coordinator with Nature Kenya.
Local people say that no tree has ever been cut down for human use. They are only used if they fall by themselves and elders have given permission. The community has set up a range of schemes to protect the forest, including the Ten Boma Initiative where volunteers divide themselves into groups of ten and patrol an area of the forest to protect it from loggers and poachers. Despite numerous challenges, including poor infrastructure, poverty and a high rate of illiteracy villagers have stood firm their effort to protect the land.
One of the more unusual forest protection activities carried out by local people is photography. Iloitai Maasai women have been using cameras to curb illegal logging and poaching in the Loita forest, which is of great cultural significance to the Iloitai, one of 15 ‘sub-tribes’ of the Maasai community in southern Kenya.
The women are part of a conservation group called Nkonyek Oolkimpa and have been supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Lensational, the Ilkerin Loita Integral Programme (ILIP) and other non-profit organizations to undertake photography lessons. They take daily photos and videos of any unusual incidents happening around the forest and send them to a command centre, operated by an on-duty security officer within the forest, for action to be taken by elders, security officers of the Kenya Forest Service.
‘Every day we walk around the forest looking for any damage and if we find any we take photos and send them to the security office for action to be taken and that is how we’ve been protecting this forest for the last four years,’ says Naipanoi Kasana, a member of the group.
A single photo can explain many details of an incident. ‘We have been trained how to read a photo and be able to explain it,’ explains Noor Kenta, a forest ranger in Loita. ‘When we get a picture from our ladies we observe it and we take action by rushing to the scene. Photos are now one of our important tools and equipment just like other gear we normally use.’
The idea of using photography in conservation was introduced to the Loita area in 2018 and it has become one of the vital tool in protecting this forest.
‘After getting some information about elephant poaching in the area, back in 2016, we asked ourselves what we could do to support the community,’ says IFAW communication officer Clare Starling. ‘After some consultation we decided to give the community support to curb the vice by training people on security matters.’
Rocky road ahead
In recent years IFAW has been working together with people from Loita village to support local, community appointed rangers to protect wildlife and avoid ‘human-wildlife conflict’, for example wild animals killing domestic ones, destroying crops or injuring humans.
‘We will also [be] continuing working there on joint security operations, training community rangers and to support and facilitate community wildlife crime monitors through practical security skills and mentorship in collaborations with Kenya Wildlife Service,’ expounded Starling.
Saitoti Melonyie, one of the Friends of Loita Forest, and an elder of the Iloitai community applauded the women. ‘As you can see the forest is intact. If a single tree has fallen down here – maybe because it is too old, or it has been affected by the diseases, or by wind – our ladies will be the first people to see it and immediately they will take photos and they will let us know what is happening. I can say that photography has really assisted the community in conserving this forest,’ says Melonyie.
Though the Loita community has managed to retain the forest intact for centuries, there are developments that may derail their conservation efforts. Kenya’s forest land has been degraded by a huge margin. The country’s forest cover has dropped from 30 per cent in 1963 to the current 7.2 per cent.
Kenya’s National Highway Authority (KeNHA) is planning to build a road that passes through the forest, despite protests from local people. The community wrote to the government ministries for transport and the environment citing various environmental concerns.
Loita people request KeNHA to listen and not to impose on us a road that will not have any economic value to the community but destroys our environment which we’ve sacrificed to protect for centuries,’ the letter said. In this pastoralist community, people travel with their livestock from one area to another but have to plan how the forest should be protected on their absence.
Fanuel Mosago Narok, Narok County director for the National Environmental Management Authority, said that his organization has visited the area and noted that there had been nopublic participation in the road proposal: ‘The proposed road has not acquired necessary approval and so far no public consultation has been done.’
Loita’s forest protectors have a lot of work on their hands but they are committed to keeping the forest safe for future generations.