Monday, February 27, 2017

The Sacred Forest of the Lost Child

Fisi camp has gone mobile everyone.  Olivia and I recently took a vacation from Maasai Mara (as if this is ever something that is needed) and travelled east up to the edge of the Nguruman escarpment until we reached Naimina Enkiyio Forest.  This forest is named after a young Maasai girl who was taking care of her family’s cattle.  As legend has it, some of the calves wandered off into the forest so the girl pursued them to return the vagrants to the herd. The calves returned home without her.  Family members and a host of Moran (the warrior class of Maasai society) entered the forest to search for her, but she was never seen again.  Naimina Enkiyio is an incredibly sacred cultural site to the Maasai, in sight of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the Mountain of God (an active volcano in Tanzania).   No permanent structures are permitted to be built in the forest, cattle only graze in the forest during droughts when there are no alternatives, and the forest is protected not by law but by the forest Maasai communities who guard its few traversable entrances with great pride.  The communities themselves are some of, if not the most, traditional Maasai societies remaining in Kenya today.  Many rituals and customs long forgotten, are still practiced today as they were hundreds of years ago.  As you can imagine, it is a very special place to many and we felt incredibly honored to be permitted, as complete outsiders, to experience this magical and enchanted forest.

Spider monkeys and gibbons make swinging through canopies a beautiful form of art, almost a graceful dance, the black-and-white guereza on the other hand, dives through the canopy with reckless abandon.  They are incredibly athletic and coordinated however, as they often fully release themselves from branches remaining in freefall for several meters, but almost never missing their mark on the completion of their leap.

In terms of ecology, Naimina Enkiyio is an old-growth cloud forest dominated by cedar and podocarpus trees booming to 40m in height, with the occasional strangler fig thrown in.  The original expanse remains intact and the forest has never been logged in the history of mankind, existing as it has eons ago.  Resting between 2,400-2,800m in elevation, clouds will often work their way down the steep valleys shrouded with swamps, along the steep ravines, and over the sandstone-crested ridges called kiwanjo in kiswahili, while mosses, orchids, and lichens dangle tree branches and carpet rocks throughout the forest.  Water is abundant and can be sipped straight out of the multitude of streams and brooks that crisscross Naimina Enkiyio like a spiderweb.  It goes without saying, this pristine environment supports, not only a wide variety of flora, but fauna as well.  Naimina Enkiyio is teeming with hosts of avian species, including silvery-cheeked hornbill, Hartlaub’s turaco, Narina trogon, African crowned eagle, Ayer’s hawk-eagle, Olive pigeon, white-headed wood hoopoe, tropical boubou, and eastern double-collared sunbird, just to name a few.  Scores of leopards and several prides of lions prowl along the forest floor, hunting cape buffalo and the always abundant bushbuck.  Porcupine, serval cats, and zorilla emerge from their dens as the sun sets.  Our fisi friends are present here too, although they are significantly larger and much shaggier due to the frigid montane climate, with temperatures dipping to 2°C at certain times of the year.  My favorite and perhaps one of the most charismatic animals of the forest are the black-and-white guerezas, a quite stunning species of colobus monkey that inhabits this remote region.  They cause quite a ruckus in the early morning with their daily territorial calls each troop unleashes to demonstrate their size and fitness to neighboring troops.

A young male leopard resting on the edge of a kiwanjo at the onset of dusk.  He had likely never seen a car in his life before, since the primary means of transport in the forest is on foot.  Correspondingly, he was a quite curious feline and couldn’t figure out what to make of this strange animal with four wheels and two luminous orbs in front.

Naimina Enkiyio although spectacular and magnificent in its own right, is only unique due to the surrounding community of Maasai that defend its borders.  This is the real reason for the topic of my blogpost today.  Many conservationists will tell you there are three main pillars of conservation: the flora and fauna themselves, the ecosystems and resources they utilize to subsist, and the financial means required to protect the former two pillars (i.e. fences, ranger salaries, removal of invasive species, etc.).  However, from my personal experience, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain a successful conservation project sans the fourth pillar of conservation: the local peoples.  Often times they have vast, innate knowledge of the surrounding environment they live in, how it has changed overtime, and what strategies could be employed to conserve the environment – whether this be a reversion to traditional practices or implementation of novel ones.  Naimina Enkiyio Forest has persisted, where other pristine environments have faltered at the exploitive hands of humanity, in a large part because of its protective communities. 

Mzei Ole Kuluo (left) and Mzei OlTukai (right) standing on the precipice of Olendipipi, The End of the World, at the conclusion of our day’s trekking.  Not pictured is Libon Parmuat, a doctor of sorts in his community, who also spent the week guiding us around with the Wazee.  The forest has been these three elders’ homes since they were born and their intricate knowledge of it is boundless.

A few years ago, a wonderful couple, who consider Naimina Enkiyio a very special place, recognized this wealth of local knowledge and sought to unify the forest communities to ensure Naimina Enkiyio’s further persistence.  Named after a revered medicinal tree which grows in the forest, the Orkonyil Association was conceived to provide sustainable alternative livelihoods and protect the forest.  The alternative incomes currently being implemented are permaculture, sustainable livestock grazing, and beekeeping.  Pooled income from the Association are used to create infrastructure beneficial to the communities.  For example, electricity has recently been brought to the forest communities through Orkonyil, as well as machinery to create compressed bricks for building houses and water tanks.  Some funds will also be used for anti-poaching and anti-logging operations.  Eventually, once these alternative livelihoods are in place, a small ecotourism outfit run completely through Orkonyil will supplement income to the Association.  Keeping ecotourism as a small portion of the Associations financial portfolio will prevent complete dependence on ecotourism should it falter and proliferation of roads and other tourism structures that would leave the forest vulnerable to general degradation, logging, and poaching.  Naimina Enkiyio is an absolutely amazing and fascinating biome of humanity, wildlife, and environment.  In my opinion, it seems to be in pretty safe hands under the watchful management of the Orkonyil Association.  On behalf of Serena Fisi Camp, I would like to thank all of the forest communities, their leadership, and the creators of the Orkonyil Association for allowing us to enter their secluded and pristine paradise, experience their culture and traditional way of life, providing us with some of the most hosp

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