Native Kinangop Grasslands…
….lost to potato cultivation
The Kinangop Plateau, home to the endemic Sharpe’s Longclaw and numerous other endemic forms of fauna and flora, is rapidly being converted from native tussock-grass dominated grasslands to sub-divided agricultural plots where – in particular – potatoes and cabbages are grown.
Prior to the early 1960s most of the land on the Plateau was unsettled and human population levels were very low. After Kenyan Independence in 1963, the incoming government of Jomo Kenyatta parcelled up the grasslands into large packets and encouraged smallholder agricultural and timber production. Many of the families who own the tussock grasslands that the Sharpe’s Longclaw breed on have held their land since this period, and as the families themselves have grown the land has been divided and sub-divided into ever-smaller plots.
Following the politically-inspired riots and sectarian violence of late 2005 many lowland farmers also moved up into the Kinangop Plateau and started to rent sub-plots from local land-owners, speeding up the conversion process even more.
Despite all the hard work done on these plots few edible crops can be grown here. The soil is not actually very productive, emerging potatoes etc are often hit by frosts which ‘burn’ new leaves and stunt growth, and crop pests are proliferating as more areas are converted (causing famers to spend increasing amounts on pesticides).
Many trees were originally planted to ‘dry out’ waterlogged areas of Kinangop (a Masai word which roughly translates as ‘flat, foggy ground’), but Kinangop is becoming an increasingly arid area (dependent as it is on rainwater from the nearby Aberdare Mountains much of which is being channeled away before it reaches the Plateau).
Eucalypts in particular grow extremely fast, and are the trees in the background of the photos above. Most species of eucalypt originate from areas of Australia where the climate is similarly hot and dry, and they have evolved to efficiently suck any available water out of the ground (and, incidentally, poison the soil immediately around them to stifle any competition). As more trees have been planted less and less water has become available for both animal and human use – they are literally sucking the ground dry.
As the planet warms (and for whatever reason you choose to believe, that is what’s happening) the problems of water shortage are only going to grow more serious. Crop-growing depends on water, and without it crops don’t grow. If revenue from crops drop the reaction will be to convert more and more land to try to grow more crops, and the cycle of ‘running ever faster just to stand still’ will speed up until the grasslands have been converted and the Sharpe’s Longclaw, Jackson’s Widowbird, wintering Pallid Harriers and many more threatened bird species will be lost.
Given that situation (and after four visits I’ve seen that this IS the situation), the only realistic hope for the birds here is replacing the revenue from crops with sustainable alternative income sources. The FoKP-run woolshop at Njabini is part of the answer – sheep do far less damage to the grasslands than outright conversion, and if there is an outlet for wool products more farmers will be willing to build up sheep flocks on their land instead of growing water-dependent crops.