By Sharon Atieno

Found in more than 25 African countries, sitatungas- rare swamp-dwelling antelopes-have a population of about 170,000 individuals globally. Of these, Kenya is home to only 473.

A sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii) is distinguished by its long, splayed hooves which are well-adapted for walking through muddy, vegetated swamplands.

Their shaggy, water-resistant coat which also helps them to adapt to aquatic environments, varies in colour among populations. It is generally greyish-brown in males and rufous-brown in females and juveniles.

The species is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix III and classified as Least Concern in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List (IUCN 2017). This is attributed to species poaching and loss of habitat.

This was the case in Kingwal wetland, Nandi County, where in previous years, the species came under tremendous threat due to poaching and wetland degradation.

Located 15km from Kapsabet town along Kapsabet-Eldoret road, Kingwal Wetland is divided into three zones. The upper (Kiptenden), lower (Kingwal bridge) and middle (Kaptel Kapsisiywo) zones. Covering about 250 acres,  the wetland is made up of forests, grassland and shrub vegetation. Some of the dominant vegetation include papyrus reeds, bulrushes, guinea grass, black speargrass and giant rats tail grass.

According to Emmanuel Kirwa, a member of Kingwal Water Resource Users Association (WRUA), the burn and slash technique used by farmers in the upper zone of the wetland results in uncontrollable fires which spread across the swamp ravaging the papyrus reeds. This destroys the habitat of the sitatungas and also results in the young ones being burnt as some of them are unable to escape.

Additionally, he notes that encroachment is rampant at the lower side of the wetland where some members of the community have planted crops such as maize and harvest grass from the wetland to feed their livestock.

Some of the community members were also poaching the sitatungas for meat, but government measures have led to reduced incidences.

Emmanuel Kirwa explaining the degradation happening in Kingwal wetland (behind him).

However, ongoing efforts to restore the wetland by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) working in partnership with the county government and the Kingwal WRUA have resulted in the restoration of parts of the wetland and an increased population of the rare antelope.

The population of the sitatungas has increased from less than 100 individuals to about 120, in a recent census conducted by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in partnership with FAO in the wetland.

“Unlike before when sitatungas would be seen by chance, sighting them has become more frequent. On an almost daily basis, you cannot miss seeing a sitatunga in the wetlands either early in the morning or in the evening,” admits Kirwa.

The WRUA has been conducting weekly sensitization and awareness creation campaigns in the three zones of Kingwal Wetland. Part of this campaign, according to Eunice Rop, chairperson of Kingwal WRUA, is calling upon the community to conserve the wetland by avoiding activities such as brick making, sand harvesting and cultivation, which are degrading the riparian land.

Working together with local administration from the national government such as chiefs and village elders, the WRUA educates the community on the negative impacts of cultivating wetlands and encourages them to venture into nature-based activities such as beekeeping and rearing fish in ponds.

Bee-keeping activities ongoing at the upper zone of Kingwal Wetland

Wilson Tenai, a bee-keeper in the upper zone of Kingwal wetland, used to graze his livestock in the swamp. After sensitization, he became more aware of the need to conserve the environment.

“I wanted to become a role model for others who use the wetland for cultivation and grazing,” Tenai says, adding that the venture has been a source of livelihood for him. After every three months, he harvests five to seven litres of honey which he sells at shs. 1,000 per litre.

Besides, he notes this activity has provided security to the wetland keeping away people who would cut the papyrus reeds and grass, as well as illegal poachers looking for wild meat.

The WRUA, Rop says, also involves the community in the growing of indigenous trees such as Elgon teak and crotons. Since 2019, they have been able to plant about 10,000 trees including bamboo which they grow in an effort to rehabilitate springs in the area.

These efforts are contributing to the global goal of restoring wetlands under the Ramsar International Convention, to which Kenya is a party. The country currently has six Ramsar sites designated as wetlands of international importance with a surface area of 265, 449 hectares. These include Lakes Nakuru, Nandi, Bogoria, Elementaita and  Naivasha as well as the Tana Delta wetlands.

Wetlands in Kenya account for 3-4% (14000Km2) of the land surface which fluctuates up to 6% during the rainy season, according to the National Environment Authority (NEMA). Recently, the country launched a Wetlands Restoration strategy with a call for more participation of local communities in conservation activities.

The restoration effort will contribute to the 15 billion tree-growing plan that the government has set to combat climate change in line with Kenya’s carbon reduction target.

Besides providing natural habitats for biodiversity such as sitatungas and other animals and plants, wetlands are among the most effective ecosystem for storing carbon.

Studies have shown that wetlands hold between 20-30% of the estimated 1500 billion tons of global soil carbon. The wetland vegetation takes up carbon from the atmosphere and converts it into plant biomass during photosynthesis. In many wetlands, water-logged soil conditions prevent the decomposition of the plant material thereby retaining carbon in the form of undecomposed organic matter.

Additionally, this ecosystem improves water quality by absorbing nutrients and toxic substances from in-flowing water, increases groundwater availability by impeding drainage which allows water to stay in one place long enough to maximize infiltration, prevents floods and controls soil erosion, and prevents saline water intrusion among others.