By Harvey Croze

Half past four in the morning. Normally the quietest time of day in suburban Nairobi. And there it is again: the unmistakable guttural waking call of a male colobus monkey. Rawr-rawr-rawr… But we are not in Kakamega Forest or the Aberdare Range — we’re six kilometres from the capital’s central business district.

The black-and-white proclaiming his territory in the pre-dawn could also be celebrating the restitution of his new home (see companion article), the 1,000-hectare Karura Forest Reserve, one of the few forests in the world fully within a major city limits and a shining example of successful community-based participatory forest management.

In seven years, since the formation of the Friends of Karura (FKF), the forest has become one of Nairobi’s most popular places to escape the mayhem of city life. It currently ranks number four of over 100 TripAdvisor attractions in Kenya; 70 per cent of its visitors are Kenyan citizens.

There are numerous attractions: a 20-metre waterfall, prehistoric caves, a lily-strewn lake, bird-rich wetlands and five rocky streams, antelopes and butterflies to watch in pristine forest patches, bamboo groves and grassy glades, 50 kilometres of maintained trails for walking-jogging-biking, an education centre, four picnic areas, two event grounds, a tennis court, an obstacle course and a world class café. But the main attraction for many is the recovering upland forest ecosystem itself.

At the turn of the 20th century the Gikuyu inhabitants were shoo’d out of Karura Forest by the colonial British government as it earmarked patches of the vast sclerophyllous forest covering the lower slopes of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares ranges to feed the newly-laid Uganda Railway.

By the time Karura was gazetted as a Forest Reserve in 1932, only three-quarters of its nominal 1,042.3-hectare surface was covered with indigenous tree species. The rest was a patchwork of exotic plantations, a commonwealth forestry collection of Eucalyptus and Araucaria from Australia and Cyprus from the Indian subcontinent.

For the following half century, Karura loomed on the northern Nairobi slopes as a place of foreboding, briefly visited to buy seedlings from the still-splendid nursery. The forest was popular with poachers cutting Muhugu (Brachylaena) for the wood carving cottage industry.

A few intrepid Nairobi-ites would walk their dogs, often armed with a golf club or sidearm, but generally Karura was taboo to the public. There was a clandestine chang’aa (illegal liquor) distillery on the shores of today’s Lily Lake, a religious sect occupying the Karura River caves for several years, and undesirables using the forest cover to raid upmarket houses and then to hide and divide up the loot.

Even the chief forester was mugged on one of his patrols. By the mid-eighties, with skyrocketing demand for housing, developers had marked out nearly one-third of the forest into choice plots, and a complicit bureaucracy was handing out title deeds like party favours. Karura seemed doomed.

What happened next has become a proud moment in Kenya’s recent history, contributing to the anointing of Kenya’s first Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. Her heroic stand against land-grabbing and illegal development in northern Karura in January 1999 put a stop to the rape of Karura by turning the spotlight of public opinion on it, as she and her grassroots Green Belt Movement had done successfully with Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi.


In the years that followed the forest had a breather. The only irritations were dumping of garbage [and the occasional body] along the numerous porous entry points, the snaring of small mammals by interlopers from the surrounding informal settlements, uncontrolled tree-harvesting and wood-gathering, and lopping off Cyprus tree tops around Christmas time. A decade after Wangari made her stand, other stakeholders took up the cause.

Kenya’s 2005 Forests Act made visionary provision for the establishment of Community Forest Associations (CFA) for each forest in the republic. In 2009, a group of Karura Forest neighbours joined forces to establish and launch the Friends of Karura Forest CFA.

Since then, with unprecedented support from local corporations and communities and under the aegis of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) five-year Strategic Plan, FKF and KFS have worked together within the terms of a carefully negotiated joint management plan for Karura to ensure sustainable husbanding of the precious water catchment and to conserve it for future generations. The overarching objective has been to restore Karura to a functioning natural ecosystem and replace the nearly 75 per cent of exotic plantation tree cover with 100 per cent indigenous species.

The results speak for themselves: Karura has been transformed from a place of crime and danger to be avoided, into one of the best-loved recreational destinations for Nairobians and foreign visitors. From virtually zero in 2009, Karura now welcomes an average of 16,000 visitors a month.

The forest is fenced, patrolled, maintained and signposted; infrastructure is improving all the time; and numerous activities are taking place in the forest every day, ranging from visits by parties of urban schoolchildren learning about their natural heritage to lavish wedding receptions in the setting sun. As of today, reforestation has brought indigenous tree cover to 33 per cent, up from 25 per cent in 2009.

The thrust of the initial five-year joint management plan was security and infrastructure. The first key step was to fence the forest completely. The 20-odd kilometre forest perimeter was by good fortune already half fenced with walls and wires protecting the neighbouring properties of the Muthaiga, Gigiri, Wispers and Runda estates.

Funding for the remaining 10 kilometres of top-grade electric fencing was raised from East African Breweries, a donation that set a wonderful precedent for the next few years — virtually all capital improvement in the forest was initially undertaken with CSR (corporate social responsibility) donations from Kenya corporations, organisations and individuals.

Vivo Energy (formerly Shell) generously offered its lease for the six-hectare sports and event area and the buildings for KFEET (the Karura Forest Environment Education Trust), a joint venture between Vivo, KFS, FKF, Green Belt and the Oshwal community. The only external funding came from the British Army to train and discipline the newly-hired Forest Scouts (recruited from the neighbouring informal settlements — ‘poachers into game wardens’), and the UN Office in Nairobi and ICRAF for clearing exotics and augmenting the fence along their common boundary with the forest.

Keeping the trails clear of Lantana and broken trees, collecting litter and emptying some 30 bins (including newly-designed monkey-proof ones), repairing infrastructure (tracks, bridges, access steps, signage), clearing the electric fence of weeds, patrolling to ensure the safety of visitors, walking with groups of school kids and overseeing tree-planting — these are routine tasks FKF staff carry out 365 days of the year.

More than 40 people are permanently employed to keep the forest in good shape for visitors, and members of the surrounding informal settlements earn in total nearly KES 1.3 million ($13,000) every month as Scouts, tree-carers or casual labourers to clear invasive Lantana shrubs and Mauritius thorn creeper (Caesalpinia) and to help maintain newly-planted indigenous treelings. This is paid for with closely audited funds from gate-takings, event fees and donations for tree planting.