New insights on forests islands in the desert

By Dr. Aida Cuní Sanchez – TBA alumna, Kirindy 2005


Northern Kenya conjures up images of deserts, nomadic camel pastoralists and, unfortunately, the devastating effects of recurrent droughts. However, there are a few forest islands located on top of high hills and mountains. These forests survive because of the mist they trap from the clouds, which is why they are called cloud forests.

Cloud forests are of particular interest, for their species richness and endemism. For example, three chameleons are endemic to three of these forests in northern Kenya: Trioceros marsabitensis, T. narraioca and Kinyongia asheorum, which inhabit Mt Marsabit, Mt Kulal and Mt Nyiro forests respectively. These cloud forests also provide a habitat for several endangered species of plants and animals, such as the tree Prunus africana, Grevy’s zebra and elephants.

Filming in the forest of Mt. Kulal

Most importantly, cloud forests are vital because of their high water yield. In the African drylands, this water yield is crucial to surrounding communities, particularly during droughts. In spite of their important role, little is known about how these forests function, and how sensitive they might be to overexploitation and climate change. So, for the past two years, I have made these fascinating ecosystems the focus of my research.

I became interested in cloud forests during a field trip to Mt. Marsabit and was amazed to see such an incredibly green forest in the middle of the desert. Curiosity pushed me to learn more about cloud forests, and soon I realised how fragile and endangered they were. It’s for this reason that I decided to focus my studies on this type of particularly understudied ecosystem. Soon I realised that if nothing was done, my research would be like studying the mammoths, everybody likes them, but they are long gone. I then started raising awareness about these incredible ecosystems, and the importance of preserving them.

In order to understand these unique ecosystems, and provide key information for evidence-based management plans, I used a novel interdisciplinary approach which combines methods from both natural and social sciences, and which involves local communities and their leaders from the beginning. I have been assessing local community’s use and dependency on cloud forests (for firewood, water, medicine) and finding out their views about potential interventions. I have also been evaluating the impacts of current use and the feedback between different parts of the ecosystem (e.g. how tree cutting affects fog trapping by tree branches). My work is building  a better understanding of the cloud forests on which  evidence-based management decisions can be made, so that not only the existence but also the long-term use of the forest and its populations’ livelihoods can be ensured.

The endemic chameleon of Mt Kulal, Trioceros narraioca

Communication with stakeholders has been at the heart of my research and lots of time was invested in discussing results with local communities and their leaders. I also involved and shared my findings with key environmental organisations in Kenya such as Kenya Water Towers Agency, National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and Water Resource Management Authority (WRMA). Sharing my passion and enthusiasm with the next generation has seen me teach children in primary schools in the area about the importance of cloud forests and produced two non-academic reports, freely available online. I have also written and published a number of papers about my work.

Meeting the elders in South Horr (near Mt. Nyiro)

Teaching at SKM primary school in Marsabit town

My experience and findings show convincing evidence that more people should know about these incredible ecosystems and their peoples because ‘We can only protect what we know exists’. As a result, I have sourced for funds to make a film about these forests islands, and found support thanks to the Scientific Exploration Society. The funding made it possible for me to go back and climb all these mountains again, this time with my partner and lots of filming equipment.

More information on my project can be found at , including the non-academic reports and a beautiful short film, a glimpse to these incredible forests and my future documentary…

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