Kenya: Biodiversity initiatives provide habitat for birdlife and other species

One of the main threats to Kenya's delicate biodiversity is deforestation. Since 2000, Unilever Tea Kenya’s tree planting initiatives have been helping to protect biodiversity in areas such as the threatened Mau Forest.

Colobus monkeyForest conservation at Unilever Tea Kenya

The rich volcanic soils, cool air and moist tropical climate of Kenya's Kericho district in the Great Rift Valley – home to Unilever's Kericho tea estate – create the perfect environment for growing tea. The area is part of the Mau Forest, Kenya's largest water catchment area, which is under threat from human activity and Unilever is working to protect this important natural resource.

Forests, wetland and windbreaks consisting of indigenous and exotic trees cover over 10% of the Kericho tea estate. The forests provide a sanctuary for Colobus, Vervet and Red Tailed monkeys, while the rivers support African clawed otters. We launched the Trees 2000 project to mark the millennium and it has contributed around 850 000 trees to Kenya's landscape. Seven tree nurseries were established to grow indigenous seedlings for planting around the estate and surrounding community. The aim is to increase biodiversity and complement existing conservation and environmental protection programmes designed in partnership with colleagues from Unilever's Sustainable Agriculture Programme.

Men planting treesBirdlife & biodiversity

Wild birds are an important indicator of the health of natural habitats. In 2009, a report commissioned by Unilever Tea Kenya (UTK) and published by the National Museums of Kenya confirmed the value of indigenous tree planting for the estate's biodiversity.

The "Avifaunal Assessment Report" identified nearly 200 species of birds thriving in Kericho's forests, including threatened species such as the Semi-Collard Flycatcher (right) and the Pallid Harrier (below). Many of these birds could not survive without the indigenous trees found on the estate.

The report's other key findings were:

  • The number of bird species recorded at Kericho was higher than previous studies in the adjacent Maasai Mau forest

  • Retained forest and riparian strips provide an important habitat, together with tea bushes and eucalyptus trees

  • Several rare bird species of national and global importance are found, and are being conserved, on UTK property

  • The majority are forest dependent and insectivorous birds.

Pallid HarrierScientists from the National Museums of Kenya commented: "Overall, the retention of non-tea habitat (especially indigenous riparian strips and forest blocks) under the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative at Kericho Estate can be said to be a key addition to the natural environment, providing important additional habitat for forest-dependent biodiversity. Through this, a wide range of plant and animal species are sustained, which contributes to maintaining the natural balance across this extensive landscape that includes the vast Mau".

The report is available to download in related links.

Semi-Collared FlycatcherWhy are trees so important?

Tea bushes require regular rainfall of 1200-2000 mm evenly distributed throughout the year if they are to produce their best leaves. Deforestation is a serious threat because Kenya's forests have been one of the key factors in ensuring that rainfall patterns remain stable. 

Nationwide, it is estimated that Kenya needs to plant 100 million trees a year to restore lost and declining forests. As well as improving water catchments, they provide habitats for birds and insects, shade for animals and recreation and medicines for local people. For example Warburgia ugandensis is used to treat chest pains and coughs and Syzygium treats diabetes and high blood pressure.

Preserving the Mau Forest

Around three million people depend on the Mau Forest for their livelihoods, putting it under enormous strain from deforestation due to the needs of agriculture and settlement. Every year, Unilever contributes around 240 000 Kenyan shillings (around €2 800) to Friends of the Mau Watershed (FOMAWA), an environmental charity set up to tackle the rapid depletion of the Mau Forest. The funds support a field worker whose job is to promote tree planting in schools and farms and create awareness of the need to protect indigenous forests.

Since 2003, we have been a member of WWF's East Africa Corporate Club, a partnership of regional companies that seek to encourage sustainable development through conservation. Activities include rehabilitating degraded forest areas, supporting communities to establish tree nurseries and raising environmental awareness. "The Club targets farmer-friendly conservation projects that provide alternative sources of income to ease pressure on the Mau Forest," explains Dr Kwame Koranteng, WWF's regional representative.