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Hiking in the Hills of Taita

 

Part 1 of 2

An ancient massif of endemic plants and animals

Published: Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 13 January 2018

Above: Taita apalis – criticaly endangered – fewer than 200 survive today in fragmented forests of the Taita Hills in an area of five square kilometers (copyright Luca Borghesio)

The mist swirls and whirls, white and dense, hiding and revealing the valleys and peaks of the hills. We’re on a climb to reach the top of the ancient bare rock that tops the forest of Yale in the Taita Hills.

Indigenous plant of the mountains - Lobelia gibberoa on Yale hilltop that is part of Taita Hills. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Indigenous plant of the mountains – Lobelia gibberoa on Yale hilltop that is part of Taita Hills. Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s surreal in the old forest full of indigenous plants like Lobelia gibberoa (not to be confused with Giant lobelia found only on Mt Kenya, Aberdares and Elgon), towering tree ferns and the elegant palm that’s a signature of the Taita Hills, Phoenix reclinata. Not being a botanist, l’ve browsed through the Journal of East African Natural History – Volume 102 published in 2013 that’s on the plants of the Taita Hills that are the northern extreme of the Eastern Arc Mountains which stretch into Tanzania. These ancient hills date 290 million years – older than the age of the dinosaur.

Taita Hills - northern extreme of Eastern Arc Mountains Copyright Rupi Mangat

Taita Hills – northern extreme of Eastern Arc Mountains Copyright Rupi Mangat

Jutting out of the arid plains of Taita-Taveta alongside the Nairobi-Mombasa road at Voi, the hills catch the first moisture-laden winds swept off the Indian Ocean. Cloaked in mist for most of the morning and evening, the high forests isolated over millennia harbour flora and fauna that’s unique to them.

It’s no surprise then that the Eastern Arc Mountains are famed as one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world while Taita Hills is the sole home of endemics that are now fighting for survival. In the last two centuries, 98 per cent of the indigenous forests have been cleared for agriculture and forest plantations complete with invasive exotic trees that allow nothing else to survive in them.

I’m hiking with Evanson Jardel Wangusha, a guide with Dawida Biodiversity Conservation group (DABICO) the local partner of Nature Kenya, the country oldest natural history society established in 1909.

Natural forest in Taita Hills Copyright Rupi Mangat

Natural forest in Taita Hills Copyright Rupi Mangat

A tiny bird chirps in the undergrowth of the natural forest by a stream gurgling down the slope under the canopy of towering tree ferns.

“It’s the Evergreen forest warbler,” states Jardel. Although widespread, it’s a bird of moist forests in the hills – with Taita Hills is a stronghold for them.

From the rich tapestry of the indigenous forest, we enter the forest plantation of tall eucalyptus trees. The contrast between the two forest patches is stark.

There’s no jigsaw of shrubs or vines under the canopy – only the leaf litter of the exotic eucalyptus that allows nothing to grow under it.  It’s empty save for kids on holidays walking through it to collect fire wood from the higher slopes.

A little climb up and we’re back into a natural glade on a steep slope by the rock face of Yale. “About two years ago,” tells Dr Luca Borghesio, “we began to remove the exotic trees here because nothing lives in them. It is to allow for natural regeneration.”

Taita Hills - northern extreme of Eastern Arc Mountains Copyright Rupi Mangat

Taita Hills – northern extreme of Eastern Arc Mountains and one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots globally recognized for being the home of endemic flora and fauna. Copyright Rupi Mangat

His concern is over the one bird that is only found in the Taita Hills and declining rapidly, Taita apalis of which fewer than 200 survive today. The idea is to restore selected sites of exotic forest plantations with natural regrowth of plants in the high peaks which will increase the habitat of the rare bird that’s racing towards extinction.

Critically endangered bird Taita apalis adult. Copyright Luca Borghesio

Critically endangered bird Taita apalis adult. Copyright Luca Borghesio

With Borghesio are his team mates – Lawrence Wagura and Maina Gichia – all associated with the National Museums of Kenya. Lawrence is on charge of restoration sites working with the local community while Maina searches for nests during the one breeding season of Taita apalis that is between November and February.

As they vanish into the thickets to search for nests and install camera traps by them, Jadel and l look at the peak of Yale. It’s now shrouded in mist and signals our time to decent.

Still on the high peak beautiful butterflies flit like confetti from the sky on the wild flowers.

Vivid blue and laced in black wing, it’s another Taita endemic that’s endangered – Blue-banded swallowtail  (Papilio desmondi teita). In 1991, in a research article there was concern over the rapid disappearance of this beautiful butterfly and many other endemic species of the Taita Hills. The research continues that further degradation in the forests of Taita Hills should be stopped.

Fact File

Contact Nature Kenya for guides to the hills – naturekenya.org

Tarmac road from Nairobi to Voi and Wundanyi in Taita Hills – 360km southeast of Nairobi and 190 northeast of Mombasa.

Taita Hills has three massifs – Dawida, Mbololo and Sagalla. Dawida has the forests of Vuria, Msindunyi, Ngangao, Yale.

Drive the historical First World War now tarmac road via Maktau through Tsavo West National Park into Voyager Ziwani Tented Camp. Take road via Loitokoikitok to Amboseli National Park and Emali or Namanga back to Nairobi.

Nice, inexpensive hotels in Wundanyi from where you can drive up to most forests and hike further in beautiful natural mist mountains.

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