What you need to know:
- Tourism money deserts Baringo as lakes dry up and elephants flee
They cut down every tree in sight, burnt charcoal with abandon and made a living by selling firewood.
Now, mother nature has hit back and residents of Baringo are ruing the destruction of one of the area’s most important natural assets.
Lake Kamnarok, which was once home to more than 15,000 crocodiles, has dried up. All the hundreds of elephants that used to inhabit the nearby game reserve have fled from the area to the Rimoi Game Reserve in the neighbouring Keiyo district, dealing a crippling blow to the local tourism industry.
And the disruption in the local ecological balance has seen rivers dry up and led to the death of numerous animals.
The District Forest Officer, Daniel Too, describes the situation as grave, saying locals have resisted efforts to prevent illegal logging. He says 10 vehicles were impounded at police checkpoints in the area ferrying tree products last month.
Morop, Seretunin and Pemwai forests, which have streams that feed Kirandich dam and Lake Kamnarok, are the most affected.
“If the illegal logging continues at this rate, we shall soon lose all the water catchments, which will subsequently lead to the drying up of Kirandich dam as well,” warned Mr Too.
Officials say people residing in the Tugen hills in the area still rely on charcoal burning, a trend which has worsened the situation. In the nearby Marakwet hills, where Embobut forest used to be, the situation is the same, with trees disappearing at a fast rate.
The government tried to evict squatters there last month, but their MP, Mrs Linah Jebii Kilimo, intervened and urged the squatters to stay put.
Mrs Kilimo’s intervention was not taken kindly by the people living in the Kerio Valley downstream, who blame the Embobut forest squatters for the dry river beds and their dying cattle.
The Kerio Valley residents have now threatened to march uphill to forcibly evict the squatters from the forest, if the police are unable to do so. But local leaders have urged the government to step in to avert a confrontation.
The outgoing Baringo district environment officer, Juma Masakha, blames the environmental disaster on human activity in the reserve and the nearby Tugen and Embobut hills.
“The only lasting solution is to evict people living near the reserve,” he says.
Lack of vegetation on the hills means all the soil has been carried down to the lake, filling it up gradually.
“De-silting the lake would be too expensive for the council. It is a pity that the people are now pleading for help from the government, yet they are the ones who brought this disaster upon themselves,” says Mr Masakha, who has been transferred to Trans Nzoia.
The dried-up lake represents dramatic evidence of the environmental catastrophe that has unfolded. Lake Kamnarok was the centrepiece attraction of Lake Kamnarok Game Reserve, which lies about 50 km from Kabarnet town.
It is an expansive 87 square-kilometre piece of land that used to draw plenty of tourists. The lake itself measures about one square kilometre. When we visited the game reserve last week, we drove right to the middle of what used to be a lake. And all we found was a barren, broken piece of caked earth, a few emaciated cattle and goats, and several crocodile carcasses.
A small boy tending goats showed us some bushes on the other side of the lake and indicated that there were more crocodile carcasses there.
No tourist was in sight, meaning Baringo Municipal Council, trustees of the Lake Kamnarok Game Reserve, no longer receives the about Sh3 million it earned from the reserve every month.
The lake was gazetted in June 1983 by the ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. It used to support thousands of crocodiles, elephants and 14 other species of mammals. The lake is now dead.
Locals say they are stunned by the development. A woman who said she ordinarily fetched water from the edge of the lake now has to walk with a water container and dig into the soil, upon which water seeps through and she fetches enough to fill her container. Legend has it that the lake last dried up in 1904.
The lack of rain in Baringo has reduced residents to a life of searching for wild fruit, and hoping that the relief food truck makes more trips to the vast Kerio Valley.
The wild fruit will not last for long; the skies are still a clear blue and despair is setting in. A few residents claim they know one or two people who have died of hunger.
“The fruit season is coming to an end, and we wonder what our people will eat in the next one month,” says the Kolowa ward civic leader, Mr Francis Kositet.
The elderly are most affected by the drought as they cannot walk long distances to search for the wild fruit. Children have been pulled out of school to help in the search for wild fruit, and to help walk the emaciated cattle through the dry river beds and the badly eroded terrain in search of water and pasture.
The Baringo County Council clerk, Mr Nicholas Kalela, says that all the tourists who used to visit the Lake Kamnarok Game Reserve now flock to the neighbouring Rimoi Game Reserve in Keiyo District, which still has some water and food for the elephants.