Tree Keepers

Fighting to save Kenya’s last tropical rainforest.

STEPPING GENTLY THROUGH the palatial, jewel-green Kakamega, Kenya’s last tropical rainforest, Abraham Shiramba has his ears tuned to distant birdsong. His eyes scan the forest that he knows like a member of his own family. The 40-year-old learned the ins and outs of this jungle, which once stretched across Central Africa, through years of avid reading and exploration.

Now, he’s passing on his knowledge to younger generations. As the environmental educator and chairperson of Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP), a local community-based conservation group, Shiramba spends his days bringing schoolchildren from across Kenya into the Kakamega, where he teaches them about the different layers of the forest, from the humus that makes up the forest soil, to the canopy, which reaches as high as 50 meters.

In the bright morning light, he plucks creamy, finger-shaped berries from a shrub and has me taste a couple. They’re astringent, dry, reminiscent of juniper — but the taste improves upon chewing, softening and warming somehow. “How does it feel?” he asks me after a few moments, as he would one of his students. “This is Piper capense, very good for the lungs, for asthma.” (Piper capense, also called African long pepper, is a relative of black pepper.)

While Shiramba’s work is all about reverence for the rainforest, the pressures of extreme poverty, environmental change, and development have amplified a collective shift in how local communities perceive and value the jungle around them.

Eighty-three-year-old Anastancia Nanguri, from the local Luhya community, has witnessed this shift over her lifetime. It used to be that certain trees were revered in every village, serving as the site where many of their customs and traditions, such as ritual circumcision, were carried out, Nanguri says. She lives with three generations of her family in a village called Shinyalu near the Kakamega, on a patch of land that has been in her family since pre-colonial times. The forest provided everything from clean water, to shade, to food and medicinal plants.

a man contemplating a tropical forest

Abraham Shiramba spends his days bringing schoolchildren from across Kenya into the Kakamega, the country’s last tropical rainforest. The forest, which once stretched across much of Central Africa, now covers less than 100 square miles, but Shiramba is committed to protecting what is left.

a person holding a bundle of sticks in a tropical wood

Harvesting trees from the Kakamega once required consultation with elders, but now much of the forest has been logged for fuel.

a man reading a horticultural text

Shiramba learned the ins and outs of this jungle — which is home to more than 400 butterfly species, upwards of 380 plant species, and over 300 bird species — through years of avid reading and on-the-ground exploration.

Back when she was young, people recognized that “every tree had a purpose,” she says. Harvesting trees from the Kakamega required consultation with Luhya elders, who would approve or deny each request — for a fence, for a new house — on a case-by-case basis. But the British introduced Luhya communities to a completely different system, one dictated by the insatiable hunger of the free market. This new market-based culture, along with necessity — Kakamega is among the poorest counties in Kenya — normalized rampant tree-cutting.

Today, the Kakamega, which is located in western Kenya in one of the country’s most densely populated rural areas, has been reduced to less than 100 square miles. Vast tracts of Indigenous African cherry, various strangler figs, and other Indigenous trees are being logged at a dizzying pace, some to make way for housing and sugarcane farms, but the majority for jiko (the Kiswahili term for charcoal), the main source of household fuel for many remote Kenyan communities. In 2020 alone, Kenya lost an estimated 3,545 hectares of primary forest.

The situation is about to get worse: In July, Kenyan President William Ruto announced that he was lifting a six-year ban on timber logging, purportedly to offer employment opportunities to destitute youth, particularly those from forest-adjacent communities. Rather ironically, at the same time, Ruto says he plans to combat climate change by planting 15 billion trees by 2032, nearly all of which is expected to be large-scale monocrops.

Nanguri sees some hope in people’s renewed interest in the intrinsic value of forests — how, slowly, some in her community are once again recognizing that trees offer shade, windbreaks, and beauty. But monocrop plantings often offer only superficial forest cover. The exotic species frequently used in replanting efforts — for example, eucalyptus in Kenya — often fail to provide the type of food and shelter that birds and animals need. Nanguri prays that Kakamega’s few remaining local old-growth trees are saved so that not all of the forest’s “original trees” are lost. “Otherwise, they’ll be gone soon, and future generations will never know that they even existed,” she says.

Her son, Pius Khalumi, watches carefully over the old-growth trees on his own property, varieties such as camel’s foot tree (Piliostigma thonningii) and Msenefu (Croton megalocarpus). “It’s important for us to find a system and reinstate a sense of ownership [of the forest],” he tells me. “Exotic trees don’t last long; they’re prone to diseases and pests.” Khalumi believes that local communities must feel invested in the conservation of indigenous trees to truly ensure the Kakamega’s survival.

a person contemplating a tropical wood

Pius Khalumi watches carefully over the old-growth trees on his property. “It’s important for us to find a system and reinstate a sense of ownership [of the forest],” he says.

Locals like Shiramba and Khalumi are committed to fostering that sense of investment, to protecting this last tract of Kenyan tropical rainforest, which is home to more than 400 butterfly species, upwards of 380 plant species, and over 300 bird species. Working with KEEP and other community groups, they harvest medicine from the forest, encourage traditional bee-keeping to provide income from honey, and pass on knowledge to the younger generations in the hope that they too will learn to love and revere the forest.

Back at the forest, Shiramba beckons me. “Shh, look!” It’s a great blue turaco, its plumage a flit of gray-blue amongst the light and shadows, hopping from one branch to another some 20 meters above. Shiramba knows better than most how encroachment harms the forest and its inhabitants. But it’s moments like this that fill him with a sense of joy and curiosity, and even hope that the Kakamega may persist.

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