By Stanley Magut
Sitatunga, a rare swamp-dwelling antelope is almost is being driven to extinction in Kenya because of encroachment of the last swamps where its found.
The Kenya Wildlife Service says the Sitatungas are now only found in Saiwa Swamp in Western Kenya, Lake Victoria and in Nandi County.
Kingwal Swamp in Nandi County is one of the last major natural habitats where the animals are still found.
However, more Sitatunga antelopes are found in Mutwot, Kapchumba, Kimondi, Kibabet and North Nandi forest wetland swamps in the region.
The county KWS chief warden Joel Kanda said Kenya has about 150 Sitatungas with most of them at Kingwal swamp.
"We cannot say there exact number at the moment but we estimate them to be about 150. This is a treasured rare species whose existence should be jealously enhanced through concerted conservation efforts that will increase their number," Kanda said.
Nandi County has now embarked on a programme to ensure that they protect the species in order to multiply them.
Sitatunga occur in tall and dense vegetation of perennial and seasonal swamps, marshy clearings within forests, riverine thickets, and mangrove swamps.
The county chief officer in charge of environment, lands and natural resources David Kosgey says a research and specific conservation strategy project will be launched soon.
"There is a strategic plan on the conservation of the sitatunga species waiting launching and once we launched, we will be able to carry out a research on this type of animal," Kosgey said.
The research will focus on the specific behaviour, habitat among other things about the species in order to understand and able to conserve it.
"It is through such study that will guide us on how to conserve the animal after first understanding it so that we can employ certain specific measures which will bore fruits," Kosgey said.
Dr John Chumo, the county executive in charge of environment, said the local community will be involved in the study which will be carried by National Environmental Management Authority, KWS and the county government.
"Members of the public will actually be engaged in the project in order for them to be able to understand the importance of saving the species," Chumo said.
"Once they are sensitised they will feel part of it and human encroachment as one of the threats to its existence will be curbed since we will jointly ensure that the animal grows in number," Chumo added.
Loss of habitat is actually the main threat to Sitatunga. The ever-increasing loss of wetlands has cut off former routes of dispersal and many populations are becoming isolated. Sitatunga are vulnerable to long-term changes in water level because it alters vegetation structure.
Kingwal Swamp is among the few remaining natural habitats in the world which harbours the species and Chumo said the county is sitting on a goldmine.
"The resources are there and we will mobilise them in a bid to conserve the species," he said.
"People around here have realised that the animal is rare in the world and are beginning to appreciate it and that is why it is increasing each year. They normally tell us that they see them with their young ones," KWS's Kanda says.
Kanda also said the male species have been fighting for territories and have been seen moving further the swamp to establish new territories.
He says the community has accepted the Kingwal Swamp as a conservation area for the marshland antelope, also known as marshbuck.
"Residents here have agreed not to encroach the area since they have regarded it as a conservation area to enable the animals to reproduce and multiply," he adds.
The local community has even elected their own officials to oversee and make sure that no one interferes with the species habitat and their breeding.
Kanda says this has been very fruitful and KWS has been assisting them on conservation strategies.
"It was a positive move for them to think of such an idea of electing their own officials and we have been guiding them and providing strategies on how to conserve the species," Kanda says.
John Kipchumba, who lives near the Kingwal swamp, said the Sitatungas come out the swamp around evening. He has been telling other locals residents not to kill them.
"It is source of our pride and we have been sensitising the residents not to kill them whenever they come out. It will be a fruitful idea if the stakeholders are planning to work together in conserving the species," he said.
Kipchumba says the community will work together with Nema and KWS to map the wetland in the area to the boundaries and fence the swamp.
However, the county government says it does not have enough money to put up an electric fence.
Encroachment of wetland by the community is another bottleneck.
"When the wetlands tend to shrink, the animal may run away or perish due to unfavorable habitat. They need an expansive area where human activities will not interfere with their breeding," Kanda said.
He also cites climate change as a threat saying the drying of rivers and swamps may affect the habitat.
"Climate change is real though not experienced here. But we must conserve the environment since their growth depends on several environmental factors," Kanda said.
Chumo says the conservation strategy will ensure the Sitatunga population increases.
He said this also will enable the county to practise eco-tourism as a source of revenue.
"When we fence and conserve their habitat, they will increase in number and we will receive more local tourists who pay a fee to view the animals and enjoy other activities within the conservancy," Chumo said.
It will also ensure that human-animal conflict is managed and there will be no sneaking of the animal or residents trespassing.