The Lirhanda Hill in Kakamega Forest has its own microclimate, which differs from that of the surrounding woodland, towering as it does above the forest canopy

Story and photos by Julia Fulcher

The Kakamega Forest hosts an assortment of inhabitants that intrigue, inform or amuse visitors to the forest. I have observed this during my frequent stays at Rondo over the years.

Having spent the morning gorging themselves on the fine foliage in the trees and now feeling quite replete, it was playtime for several Black-and-white colobus monkeys which scampered down the trees to romp on Rondo’s lawns, with Blue monkeys not far behind.

A pair of young males jumped and cavorted, baring their teeth in a mock fight. Yet others chased each other back and forth. I had witnessed this playful behaviour frequently on previous visits. However, on this occasion, after a little leaf-pulling in a nearby bush, a female Colobus with a wee white baby clinging onto her front, landed on the lawn to join in the frolicking. With the baby still clutching tightly to her fur, she romped and rolled with a couple of young Colobus, just metres from the verandah where we sat. This was unusual behaviour, for mothers of young babies are typically careful, concealing their precious cargo by turning their backs. Not this Colobus!

It soon became apparent by her lack of care for her charge that she was a young “child-minder”! On witnessing this spectacle, the horrified Colobus mother rushed to the rescue and snatched her baby from the youngster, quickly scampering back up into the safety of the trees with her precious offspring. We have previously observed that the mother allows others to mind her baby, thus giving her a bit of a break, but no doubt this youngster won’t be given the job for a while to come!

On a subsequent occasion, I was to be treated to another first. As we sat in the gardens at Rondo, a number of Colobus, some with young, raced across the grass to the brick path and began to chew the brick path – what I call a “brick lick”! They get minerals from this exercise. This is a common occurrence, but what was new and delightful to watch was a young white baby which, after some craning of his head, detached himself from his mother, stood on wobbly legs then took off to explore the immediate environs.

The surprise was that, rather than walk, he hopped off with great gusto to see the sights, though he never ventured too far. The females did not appear overly concerned, though they kept an eye on him; I believe this meant they felt secure. Equally surprising was that previously I had spotted young ones exploring only in the relative safety of the trees, not in an exposed place on Rondo’s lawns. And all this took place right under the nose (well, the beak!) of the African Crowned Eagle in her lofty perch nearby, as she watched diligently over her white chick, just days before its first flight!

Early in the year, I enjoyed a hike with friends up Lirhanda Hill, also nick-named “Bald Peter”. It is thus named as its crown is mostly devoid of trees. The walk is a favourite for guests to Rondo Retreat due to its proximity and because of the panoramic views it affords over the forest canopy. On a clear day, Mt. Elgon can be seen to the North-West and the Nandi Hills to the East. Sunrises and sunsets can be particularly spectacular. The Lirhanda Hill, interestingly, has its own microclimate, which differs from that of the surrounding forest, towering as it does above the forest canopy to a height of 1,770 metres. The few scraggly trees and bushes that adorn the hill are only found at the summit, due to the condition of the soil, the more extreme temperature and the wind. As such the vegetation and wildlife species also vary. A tall grass, ideal for thatching traditional mud hut roofs, is still harvested here.

The Protea, a scraggly looking bush, dots the hill. At a glance, it bears a rather nondescript white flower, but on closer inspection, it is absolutely beautiful. I came to learn from my walking companion who grew up in South Africa that this is the national flower of that country. Lirhanda Hill sports the Protea gaguedi, Protea madiensis and Combretum molle, which is found only here. Other trees, much sought after for their medicinal properties and therefore highly endangered, include the Terminalia molle and Apodytes dimidiata. The Papilio rex butterfly can only be found on this hill in Kakamega Forest. Other creatures that frequent or call Lirhanda Hill home include the Western-banded Snake Eagle and Sabine’s Spinetail. The Gold cobra, a rare species and only found in Kakamega in Kenya and the Kaimosi blind snake, an endemic species, reside on the hill.

The Blue and Red duikers and Bushbuck, though few and rarely seen, feed on the grass. It should be noted that the integrity of the hill needs to be preserved. This is not the case when cows are left to wander at will, contrary to forest regulations, to the hilltop where guava seeds in their droppings grow into guava trees that threaten to overrun the hilltop. Measures must be taken to avoid this catastrophe and to maintain the sanctity of Bald Peter.

Another matter of grave concern in the area is that the road through the Kakamega Forest is becoming a highway. Previously it was a narrow track, overarched with trees, providing shade, shelter and a bridge for the forest residents, whether monkeys or snakes, to move safely across the road. But no longer! With no understanding of the safety of the fauna, the road has been widened and trees cut down on both sides, leaving the residents to dice with death as they endeavour to cross. Road carnage is sadly on the increase. A walk along the road, now very dusty when the rain takes a pause, revealed an almost obliterated creature that had been steam-rolled. All that remained were scattered tufts of fur and the hide ground into the road. Benjamin Okalo, an expert on this forest, identified it as a Honeybadger.

This small forest resident with a large attitude is known to be one of the most aggressive of the animals and if cornered, will attack and bite. Though it feeds on rodents, squirrels and the young of small animals, its favourite food is honey, hence its name. To find this fare, it teams up with the Honey Guide. The bird attracts the badger’s attention with its noisy call, flitting towards the hive with the badger in hot pursuit. The badger, on reaching the hive, emits a foul odour, thus driving the bees away. It then scoops the honey from the hive, happily devouring it and leaving the larvae for its accomplice. The Honey Guide feasts once the badger has left. This symbiotic relationship proves the point that it takes two to tango!

In the same way, there needs to be more of a symbiotic relationship between the various stakeholders and those who impact the forest in any way. There seems to be a serious lack of communication or cooperation between the Kenya National Highways Authority, Kenya Forest Service and Kenya Wildlife Service with devastating results for the forest and its inhabitants.

To preserve this national heritage, some simple steps can be taken to mitigate the damage caused by vehicles racing through the forest, kicking up clouds of dust. These might be as rudimentary as putting in speed bumps (with signs) to slow traffic and save lives! Ideally, it would be preferable for all if traffic through the forest was seriously curtailed, particularly heavy trucks. How we long to see the political will to preserve the magic, mystery and majesty of this marvellous but besieged rain forest – Kenya’s one and only – for posterity.