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The Land

Lie of the Land

Laikipia is a land of high plains and rolling hills straddling the Equator in Kenya between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Range on the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley. Lying in the rain shadow of Mount Kenya, the 9,500-km² plateau – despite its elevation (1,800–2,000 m above sea level) – receives much less rainfall than other parts of Africa of comparable altitude. As a result, most of Laikipia enjoys a cool, dry climate. To the north, the plateau drops away over the Laikipia Escarpment to the arid semi-deserts of northern Kenya.

Laikipia is one of only a few areas in East Africa, outside the region’s National Parks and Reserves, with sufficient natural habitat to support a full complement of large mammals – including elephants and lions. Wildlife can move freely across landholdings, private and communal, where people are an integral part of the landscape.

The varied nature of the landholdings reflects a complex history of human settlement and a steep rainfall gradient, with small-scale farmers tilling wetter areas in the south, commercial cattle ranches in the intermediate areas, and nomadic pastoralists in the dry north.

The natural vegetation is a mosaic of grassland, savannah (open woodland) and forest.

Land Use

Extensive ranches, of 3,000–125,000 acres apiece, cover much of Laikipia. On most private ranches, wildlife conservation and tourism activities are combined with raising livestock, mainly Boran crosses. These are humped cattle, originally from Ethiopia and descended mainly from the Asian zebu, which have been interbred with European and locally domesticated African cattle.

Land in the Mukogodo area of northern Laikipia is divided into ‘Group Ranches’ – community-owned private companies that allow people to maintain a traditional semi-nomadic system of cattle-, sheep- and goat-rearing. Some group ranches have set up conservancies dedicated to wildlife conservation through community-run tourism enterprises.

Laikipia’s only major towns with large residential areas are Nanyuki (population about 30,000) and Nyahururu (25,000). Smaller trading and administrative centres include Rumuruti (7,000).

Forests

Forests and woodlands of Olive and Pencil Cedar once covered much of Laikipia. We know this from pollen cores found in the area, dating back thousands of years – to a time when the region’s climate was much wetter than at present.

There are six protected upland dry forests in Laikipia. Of these, five – Rumuruti, Ewaso Narok, Marmanet, Shamanek and Lariak – are in the SW corner of the region, on the northern foothills of the Aberdare Range, north and NE of the town of Nyahururu. These are isolated, partially degraded fragments of a once vast, continuous expanse of forest bisected by the Ewaso Narok River. A sixth forest, Ngare Ndare, on the northern foothills of Mount Kenya in the east, is Laikipia’s best preserved upland dry forest, covering an area of 5,500 hectares.

A seventh forest, Mukogodo, in the remote northern reaches of Laikipia, differs in being a dry forest – rooted, not in volcanic soils, but on steep hillsides of granitic composition. Being relatively inaccessible, Mukogodo is the most pristine of Laikipia’s forest habitats. A strong sense of ownership among local people has contributed to keeping this dry forest intact.

All seven Laikipia forests are gazetted Forest Reserves. Each has a Community Forest Association, registered under the Kenya Forest Service and backed by various stakeholders and donors. The Associations are broad-based, representing all user groups, with interests ranging from beekeeping and water-use to tree planting and firewood-collection.

In the case of Ngare Ndare, the conservation effort has – with guidance from the Trust set up to manage this forest on behalf of the Kenya Forest Service – resulted in significantly increased tree cover.

Ngare Ndare Forest

Ngare Ndare is located in the transitional zone between the montane forest of Mount Kenya and the dry Olive and Pencil-Cedar forests and woodlands of the lower elevations. As such, it receives more rain than other, more typical upland dry forests, and is moister. An enchanting place, Ngare Ndare offers some of the most scenic forest hiking and camping opportunities available anywhere.

The dominant trees are African Olives and Pencil Cedars, but there are also some magnificent stands of Podo, Afrocarpus gracilior (formerly Podocarpus falcatus). Springs and underground aquifers in the forest feed several streams, making Ngare Ndare a significant rainfall catchment for rivers flowing north into the dry country and on towards Samburu and Isiolo.

Along these clear, fern-lined streams, Wild Date Palms, Phoenix reclinata, form huge, attractive clumps, seasonally providing fruit for many bats, other mammals and birds. Tall, statuesque Strangler Figs, Ficus thonningii, are equally bountiful. At times, the pale new leaves of Celtis africana – deciduous hardwood trees with sheer, straight trunks – give the forest an autumnal look. And the Cape Chestnuts, Calodendrum capense, when bedecked in exquisite pale pink flowers, are perhaps the most striking of all Laikipia’s forest trees. Fringing thickets of Teclea, Vepris simplicifolia, and other shrubby evergreens provide ample cover for buffaloes, Bushbuck, Bush Duikers and other forest animals.

Ngare Ndare is one of only a few remaining thoroughfares for elephants migrating seasonally between Mount Kenya’s forests and the distant northern rangelands of Samburu. Each year, hundreds of elephants ply the Elephant Corridor linking the Mount Kenya National Park with Ngare Ndare. Ancestral pathways elsewhere, in the neighbouring districts of Meru, to the east, have been blocked by settlements and farmlands.

Rumuruti, Ewaso Narok, Marmanet, Shamanek, Lariak Forests
These five isolated forests are all that is left of an immense block of forest that once covered much of SW Laikipia. The fragmentation of the forests, and their subsequent degradation, is the result of intensifying land pressures in this fertile corner of the region. The forests do however still boast impressive stands of very old Afrocarpus gracilior trees, some with girths exceeding five metres. There are some magnificent East African Greenheart trees, Warburgia ugandensis, the bark from which is widely used in traditional medicine, and whose leaves have a hot, peppery taste. In glades in the forests there are some striking highland Acacias, A. abyssinica. And gnarled Water Berry trees, Syzigium cordatum, stand guard like sentinels over the Ewaso Narok River, which – after plunging over the spectacular cascade of Thomson’s Falls – flows through two of the forests.

Mukogodo Forest

Mukogodo, spanning 30,000 hectares of rugged hillside terrain in NW Laikipia, is the largest and best preserved of all the region’s forests. That it has remained almost wholly intact is a tribute, not only to a relatively remote location and dry surroundings, but also to the astute custodianship of the Ndorobo hunter-gatherers who, for centuries, have been living in the forest.

This community has succeeded, in the absence of conservation interventions from without, in warding off loggers intent on plundering the area’s Pencil Cedar trees, and in regulating access by pastoralist communities to grazing in the forest during dry spells. The integrity of the forest has been widely respected as a result. And today, Mukogodo is extolled as a model of sustainable use, and of the capacity of local people to safeguard the forest resources on which they depend.

As well as impressive stands of Pencil Cedar and Olive, Mukogodo boasts some magnificent Crotons, C. megalocarpus, tall, graceful trees that are typical of dry forest habitats, having flattish, spreading crowns and layered silvery leaves. The nectar of the creamy-white Croton flowers attracts countless bees, providing local community groups with a rich source of honey. In the northern reaches of the forest, other plants – such as giant Euphorbia candelabrum trees and ‘Blue-Bark’ Commiphoras, C. baluensis – come into their own. Before the rains the Dombeya, D. rotundifolia, produces exquisite bunches of pale pink flowers resembling cherry blossoms.

After good rains, glades in the forest are carpeted with wildflowers, and for a few weeks the ‘Tissue Paper’ flower, Cycnium tubulosum, in particular, is ubiquitous, interspersed with clumps of the attractive white Gladiolus, G. ukambanensis, and other flowering lilies. Women enter the forest to gather the cucumber-like fruits of the creeper, Coccinea grandis. Turning orange when ripe, these fruits are a prized seasonal delicacy among local people, who are careful to discard the pith, which if eaten can cause severe stomach aches.

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