Home > Communities & conservation > Integrated Conservation Research at Sabaki – the results are in!

It’s been 4 months since I departed Sabaki with armloads of data and a head-full of how to get at the core of conservation issues at this charismatic, unique, and under-valued estuary. Now, it’s more clear than ever, Sabaki River Mouth is a vital shared resource for people and waterbirds. Research to quantify the actual economic, social, and ecological value of wetlands enables us, as conservationists, to put conservation issues on the map of politicians, policy-makers, and civil society.

White-faced Whistling Ducks coming in to roost on the Sabaki River - photo Kate England

White-faced Whistling Ducks coming in to roost on the Sabaki River - photo Kate England

The illegal land-grabbing which occurred in 2010 at Sabaki (see previous blogs) and the proposed biofuel developments in neighboring Important Bird Areas (IBAs, Dakatcha Woodlands and Tana River Delta – see blog below) highlight the imminent need for policy-informing research and progressive conservation of these and other Kenyan IBAs. Nearby IBAs, Arabuko-Sokoke and Mida Creek, have been host of highly successful community-integrated conservation programs (ASSETS, the Mida Creek Boardwalk) – and more good news – Stipulations in Kenya’s new constitution (ratified 2010) include the need to redress unfair land allocations. Now, more than ever, is there promise for community-based conservation initiatives on the Kenyan coast.

Local guide Michael Kadenge carrying the scope along the banks of Sabaki at high-tide - photo Beccy Johnson
Local guide Michael Kadenge carrying the scope along the banks of Sabaki at high-tide – photo Beccy Johnson

As a master’s student from the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), I worked in partnership with A Rocha Kenya, the (52-member strong) Sabaki River Estuary Youth Group (SREYG), the local community, tourists and visiting students at Sabaki to collect baseline data on estuary use, ecotourism potential and threats to Sabaki’s waterbirds. My dedicated and highly driven research assistants included active SREYG members Joseph Mangi and Michael Kadenge. Further support was provided by the village mzee Sammy, Samuel Mweni, and Patrick Charo. Two volunteers (Gus Keys and Beccy Johnson) joined us for the final week of field-work, helping to collect data and taking plenty of beautiful photos (seen here!).  I spent ten wonderful (and action-packed) weeks at Sabaki River Mouth surveying waterbird/human use of the estuary and mapping the intertidal area.

Household surveys showed that the livelihoods of local people are heavily dependent upon natural resources from the estuary and adjacent bush & sand dunes. Natural resources constituted a mean 70% of household income in the village, of which 80 to 96% of resources were collected inside the boundaries of the IBA. Even further still, households interviewed cited that areas for livestock watering, fishing, and water collection are unavailable outside of the estuary. No households in Sabaki receive financial or social support from the Kenyan government, so the estuary’s resources provide a safety net against shocks and stresses to more than 2000 people in the Coast Province!

Conducting household surveys in Sabaki Village - photo Beccy Johnson
Conducting household surveys in Sabaki Village – photo Beccy Johnson

The intertidal areas, which are used for tourism, fishing, and livestock watering, are also important for huge populations of roosting terns and gulls and massive flocks of Palaearctic migrant waders. Protecting the area from land-grabbing and converting the area into a community-run reserve would achieve the end of securing livelihood resources and securing important habitats for migratory waterbirds. However, in order for conservation to operate successfully in a community-based manner, the community must realize benefits of conservation, lest they lose the will and trust needed to carry on community-based ventures.

A Rocha Kenya waterbird counts at Sabaki - photo Kate England

A Rocha Kenya and SREYG waterbird counts at Sabaki - photo Kate England

Our tourist interviews showed that a whopping 96.8% of tourists were willing to pay entry fees to visit the estuary. We also asked tourists how much they would be willing to pay to visit the estuary. By counting visitors every day for a month, we were able to calculate an average 5 foreign and 5 Kenyan tourists visit the estuary per day, and huge numbers of students from Voi, Nairobi, Mombasa, and other cities visit the estuary. Overall, 837 visitors came to the estuary during the month of October 2010. Based on these numbers, we calculated a rough estimate of the unrealized potential revenue from  ecotourism – which equates to $7500 USD per year. If improvements in infrastructure were made (the most preffered by visitors being implementation of a boardwalk and bird hide), aggregate willingness to pay would increase to $11 500 USD per year.

When local household heads were asked if they would like to see increased tourism and regulation of resource extraction activities, more than 90% of household responded positively on both issues. This unrealized revenue from ecotourism could substitute income which may be impacted by restricting activities (e.g. fishing) in the estuary. Further still, this unrealized revenue could contribute to the costs of provisioning piped water to the community. This venture would reduce the time and effort women in the community spend fetching water (currently they travel approx 4 km or more each day to fetch water), allowing them much more time to develop micro-enterprises, participate in education, or partake in other income-generating activities. Provision of piped water would also allow herders to water cattle outside of the intertidal area, where cattle represent a significant source of disturbance to waterbirds and churn up the intertidal substrate through trampling.

Local women carrying water from the dunes at Sabaki - photo Kate England
Local women carrying water from the dunes at Sabaki – photo Kate England

Experiments to determine the impacts of disturbance on waterbirds in the estuary highlighted the relative effects of disturbance on fourteen focal waterbird species (of the 71 waterbird species observed in surveys). Of these species, flamingos showed the highest vulnerability to disturbance. Both species which occur in the estuary, Greater and Lesser Flamingos, are subject to chasing when tourists pay local people to chase the birds into flight for photographs. Because these species are of economic value for tourism, conservation initiatives should aim at preventing flamingo-chasing and mitigating the effects of disturbance on these (and other vulnerable) species.

Greater Flamingos feeding in the Sabaki River - photo Gus Keys
Greater Flamingos feeding in the Sabaki River – photo Gus Keys

By gazetting the area as a community reserve, the community can inherit custodianship over the IBA and its precious resources. Regulating harmful activities in the IBA will help sustain biodiversity resources for local people, students, tourists, and biodiversity. Now, we’ve got the numbers to prove it…. the next step will be to attain the capacity and funding to get community-based conservation off the ground at Sabaki! Onward and upward…

2 Comments, RSS

  • Jimmy

    says on:
    April 19, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    A very interesting read and I hope the lessons learnt can be implemented ASAP

  • Nick Ashley

    says on:
    April 27, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Colin, really interesting work. And as mentioned before, it may be possible to develop some training / exposure with some of the big corporations in Kenya around these issues. Good for their CSR programmes and potentially great education.

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