33 year-old Bakari M. Chongwa has been appointed the Senior Warden of Aberdare National Park. Energetic, intelligent, educated and well seasoned after 7 years of park management experience, Bakari represents the modern face of conservation management in Kenya.
Now three months into his new appointment, Bakari is getting to grips with the vast challenge of managing a 2,000km2 ecosystem known as the Aberdare Conservation Area (ACA), comprising the 767km2 Aberdare National Park and, in collaboration with the Kenya Forest Service, its surrounding forest reserves. The ecosystem teems with wildlife and is one of Kenya’s 5 key water towers, the source of 4 of Kenya’s 7 major rivers.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Bakari at his office in the Aberdare National Park Hq. in Mweiga. The cheerful father of two exudes confidence and is clearly at home in his new surroundings.
A cheerful Bakari at Aberdare Park Hq. in Mweiga
What is your background?
I come from a farming community in Mazeras, Kwale District in the Coast Province. Originally though, my ancestors were pastoralists, and a little bit of that culture still remains with us. Growing up, I naturally spent a great deal of time in nature.
How did you get involved in conservation?
I got into conservation quite by accident! In high school I wanted to join the Air Force. In my final year, with 2 close friends from school, I paid a visit to an Air Force General to get some advice on how to join. The discipline of the Armed forces held a great attraction for me. I also consulted the school administrator on the same issue. Both advised me to attend university first, and then apply to join. My mother also impressed upon me the importance of a college education.
When selecting the degree course options, I opted for and was accepted into the Range Management course, which covered topics such as livestock production, wildlife and forestry. This exposed me to conservation and was a perfect academic grounding for what I do now. My two friends opted to join the Air Force. One remains there and is now a Major. The other subsequently left the Air Force and joined KWS as a pilot. As KWS is a paramilitary uniformed and disciplined organization, it seems I’ve come full circle.
Describe your career in KWS
I joined KWS in 2001 as a Management Trainee and attended the intensive 6 month officer’s training course at Manyani Field Training School. Subsequently, I have worked in Tsavo West, Kakamega, Meru and Amboseli National Parks before my current posting. Kakamega has been my longest posting to date (3 years), and while there I was able to host an Open Week, where the local communities in the area were encouraged to visit the park and learn more about it. This provided a platform to engage with them to explore ecotourism initiatives. I also initiated a bird monitoring programme, something I was able to replicate in Meru.
What is your management style?
I believe that more can be achieved when the energies of the entire team are effectively harmonized into a common goal. My style is to foster an environment where this is done.
What are some of the key management issues for the Aberdares?
I feel very privileged to be selected to manage the Aberdares and recognize the conservation challenges that we face. Among the major issues are:
Intensive research is required to determine their actual population and ensure their security from threats such as snares, poaching and excessive predation, particularly from hyena. A larger force of rhino surveillance rangers is required, as well as cameras, binoculars, night vision equipment and computers for field research data analysis. We are grateful for the vehicle donated by Rhino Ark for rhino surveillance, and we continue to seek more support.
There is need for a more proactive management approach for this beautiful and highly endangered species. We currently receive support for bongo surveillance programme through funding by various donors such as Rhino Ark, UNDP and others, but much more needs to be done.
We have upgraded our research office at King’ong’o, Nyeri and now have 4 researchers. We are establishing labs for ecology, veterinary, herbarium (vegetation) and a Geographical Information System (GIS). This will form the basis for detailed research on other species. Resource limitations have meant that not enough attention is paid to other species, including birds – the ACA is an Important Bird Area, and is home to species such as the Jackson’s Francolin.
At present our park marketing strategy does not exploit the diversity of attractions in the park which has so much more to offer that the commonly known game viewing wildlife such as elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard. Most people do not know that the third highest mountain peak in Kenya is in the Aberdares -Ol Doinyo Lesatima is 4,001 metres above sea level and is and excellent destination for hikers. There park has numerous waterfalls, interesting plants, some of which are insectivorous!, and the beautiful sykes monkey among others.
Sykes monkey in bamboo forest
What are some of your key priorities?
- Integrating the wise use of the limited resources we have
- Improving tourism
- Propagating intact management concepts
- Enhancing the ecological/environmental management component through vegetation surveys and wildlife census
- Improving park operations and infrastructure development, including park roads, signage and ranger housing
- Improving wildlife security
- Community education and ecotourism initiatives
Recreationally, what do you enjoy most in the Aberdares?
The Chania falls in the moorland area are very scenic. Spending time there is a therapeutic experience and I highly recommend it.