Forest is an important land cover element in East Africa for many reasons. It provides timber, acts as water storage, provides medical plants and food for local people, and is a home for many wild animals upon which tourism is dependent.
Situating in the middle of the Tsavo plains in SE-Kenya, Taita Hills is the northernmost part of the Eastern Arc Mountains. The mountains rise from a level of 600-900 m a.s.l to a maximum elevation of 2208 m a.s.l. at the Vuria peak. The mean annual rainfall ranges from 500 mm on the lowlands to 1500 mm in upper mountainous zone. A great number of ecological regions are based mainly on the relief and climatic conditions in the area.
The population of the whole Taita-Taveta district has grown from 90 000 in the 1960s to over 300 000 to date. The spatial distribution of population follows climatic and other ecological conditions. The densest population is in the mountains and in urban agglomerations in the lowlands.
The land use is dominated by intensive agriculture in the mountains, while extensive agriculture and grazing are dominant land use types on the foothills and plains. Scarcity of arable land and other natural resources has forced the local communities to use natural resources more intensively or move to urban centres or to lower zones where the land is still partly demarcated.
The indigenous cloud forests of the Taita Hills, which are of great importance for conservation, have suffered substantial loss and degradation since the early 1960s. To date, about 400 ha of original closed canopy forest is retained in a scatter of three larger remnants, Chawia, Ngangao and Mbololo, and nine tiny remnants embedded in a mosaic of human settlements, small-holder cultivation plots, agroforestry and exotic plantations. The forest patches outside the indigenous forest remnants are typically of exotic species, like pine, cypress, eucalyptus and grevillea. The hills were forested only a few hundred years ago above the elevation of 1400 meters on the southern and eastern slopes. Today, only 1% of the area of closed canopy forest remains.
The forests are important to local people in many ways. They prevent soil erosion, act as water storage, and provide medical plants, fuelwood, timber and shade. They are also sacred places. The forests are also potential attractions for ecotourism involving local communities.
The forests are important for many forest-dependent animal species, in particular indigenous birds and amphibians. The ongoing fragmentation of the main forest blocks causes significant subdivision of large, continuous populations into small, isolated subpopulations that become highly vulnerable to stochastic demographic and genetic effects. Ultimately, these spatially-structured bird and amphibian populations suffer an increasing risk of extinction. Besides, also the livelihoods of local communities are becoming threatened by the effects of forest loss.
In the Taita Hills the following reasons for forest loss are stated: encroachment, overextraction of firewood and building materials, poor enforcement of government policies and regulations, lack of awareness among the communities living adjacent to forests, fires (both deliberate and accidental) and colonization by the suppressive and fast growing exotic tree species. Due to the clearance of the forest and intensive agriculture the area suffers from soil erosion. The trend in the Taita Hills is similar to other mountainous area in East Africa.
Taita Hills has been studied by Kenyan and international organizations through decades.
University of Helsinki started research in the area in 1989 concentrating on land use issues and especially changes. In the 2000’s the main tools besides interviews and participatory research methods have been remote sensing data and geographic information systems.
National Musems of Kenya, University of Antwerp and University of Ghent have been studying the population dynamics of bird and amphibian populations in the fragmented forests during the 2000’s.
West Chester University and USDA from US have been studying forest health in the larger forest remnants.
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute investigates the land use and livelihoods in the Taita Hills.
East African Wildlife Society works on rehabilation of the closed canopy forests by indigenous tree seedlings.
The research and development is funded by Academy of Finland, Conservation International and other national and international research funders.