Kiunga Marine National Reserve

Part 2 of 3

Published 27 May 2017 Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper

Arriving at Mkokoni village by Kiunga Marina National Reserve
Saiiling to Mkokoni village by Kiunga Marina National Reserve Copyright Maya Mangat

A grand sweep of the bay edged by fascinating sand dunes tower the ocean’s chalk-white beach. We’re in sight of Kiwayu, one of the smaller islands opposite the KWS headquarters of Kiunga Marine National Reserve. It’s taken us two hours to sail here in a speedboat from Siyu on Pate island.

In the late afternoon, stepping ashore at Mkokoni village named after the mangrove trees  – it’s quaint lined with swaying coconut trees and makuti-thatched huts of the Bajuni. The men are out at sea with only the women, children and the elders.

Standing on the sand dune there’s just the ocean and the sky and turning around the sinking sun in the west over the largest tract of indigenous coastal forest, the Boni-Dodori. Since 2014, it’s listed as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area by Nature Kenya and Birdlife International because of its diversity – more than 276 listed species of birds and mammals including lions, African wild dogs, buffaloes and more. The little-visited forest is home of the little-known community, the Aweere ( Boni) who practice mostly subsistence farming.

Back at Mkokoni for dinner at a Bajuni home, the drought has been terrible with food in short supply. Instead of fresh fish and vegetables we settle for chapatis and eggs – also delicious – with the flavoured dalacini tea.

Ghost crabs runing around on the beach at Kiunga Marine National Reserve Copyright Maya Mangat
Ghost crabs runing around on the beach at Kiunga Marine National Reserve Copyright Maya Mangat

The walk back along the beach at night is out of a fairy tale – a sky ablaze with the Milky Way. On the powdered white beach we stroll barefoot with ghost crabs running around and up the dune to sleep the night away lulled by the waves.

The ambitious plan to drive to Kiunga village – 40 kilometers away on the Kenya-Somali border is abandoned – with a stop at Madina village of the Boni in the forest. Although assured that everything is safe, we have to hire five security personnel – each at Ksh 1,000 – to guard us. We leave it for another time.

Rare dugong - about 12 left in Kenya around Kiunga Marine National Reserve Copyright Maya Mangat
Rare dugong – about 12 left in Kenya around Kiunga Marine National Reserve Copyright Maya Mangat

At 6 a.m. it’s already red hot and the sun bright. Hassan Bwanamkuu the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) marine project officer – a young lad born in the village – shows us the dugong model in the resource centre. It’s one of the rarest marine mammals in the world – and Kiunga Marine Reserve – one of its last strong holds. About 12 survive in Kenyan waters. Recently one was caught in fishers net in Msambweni, South Coast that has everyone puzzled. This gentle creature hunted to near-extinction, spends its time grazing on the rich sea grass in shallow waters – making it an easy target.

Turtle Tale

Green turtle - Kiunga Marine National Reserve Copyright Maya Mangat
Green turtle – Kiunga Marine National Reserve Copyright Maya Mangat

“If you stay for a week, l guarantee you that you will see turtles hatching,” states Bwanamkuu. “It’s the turtle peak month for nesting between March and September.”

Since 1998, WWF’s marine conservation programme in Kiunga – has been on sea turtles – working with KWS and the community to patrol the beaches and the sea. Out of every thousand, one survives to adulthood – their lives fraught with danger.

As soon as they pop out of the eggs, little turtles have to make a dash for the sea before being gobbled up by crabs, birds and others. In modern times, the ancient mariner has to deal with climate change as sea currents get stronger and construction of ports, dredging and proposed coal plant.

Bwanamkuu tells of 24 turtle nesting beaches in Kiunga – an increase of 80 per cent since 1998. This season has 30 nests. The female comes to the beach to lay her first clutch and 15 days later returns to lay her second clutch.

All five species forage on the sea grasses and in the coral gardens in Kiunga but only three species nest here – the green, hawksbill and the Olive-Ridley. The loggerhead and leatherback only forage. Long-lived and criss-crossing the world’s oceans, the turtle has outlived the dinosaur but all are either near extinction or getting there.

Since 2009, WWF has tagged 15 female green turtles with satellite chips. When the female surfaces to breathe, the signal is picked up. This season, five females will be tagged – because it is only the female that returns to the same beach she was born to lay her eggs –genetic programmed since child birth – and the tags have proved that – including recording their migratory routes, their feeding grounds and more.

I’m getting ready to snorkel in the marine reserve which boasts the finest coral gardens on the Kenyan coast when our erstwhile Captain Lalli from the village of Kiunga alerts us to the outgoing tide – and we make haste to sail away to reach our next destination – the Sultanate of Pate.

Sail to Kiunga National Marine Reserve

Hire a speed boats – can cost anything upwards Ksh 10,000. Sailing in a local dhow is cheap. If you’re lucky and the wind blowing the right direction it can take about three hours or more.

Contact Kenya Wildlife Service ( for advice. Snorkel in Kiunga, camp or stay at the guest house – carry food and water – although you can eat local too.

The heat can be killing – so be prepared.

Or stay in luxury at the two lodges on Kiwayu.