Approximately fifteen minutes from the Nairobi Central Business District lies the Karura Forest Reserve; a forest that has quickly become a nature gem and one of the most visited places in Nairobi. The value nature enthusiasts derive from this forest wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the resilience of the Late Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai, and concerned residents neighbouring the forest who formed the Friends of Karura (FKF), a Community Forest Association.
As early as the 1900’s large parts of the forest were annexed by the British colonial government as sources of timber and firewood for the Uganda Railway. In 1932, Karura was gazetted as a forest reserve by the colonial government. At the time, the natural forest was thick with indigenous trees which take long to grow and mature. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a quality that augured well with the railway operators. Soon after, the indigenous trees, Muthiga, Mukinduri and Muhugu and were cut down in favour of exotic trees especially the Eucalyptus species and others because they matured faster.
“Three quarters of the forest was replanted. If you take a walk today, you’ll be awed by the size, beauty and majesty of the Jacaranda trees from that time.” Explains Winnie Kiiru, Chair of the Friends of Karura Forest.
Since 1932, Karura has been affected by five excisions. Currently, it covers 1041.3 hectares and is divided into two blocks: The main Karura block and the Sigiria block.
In 1964, the forest became a Central Government Forest Reserve managed by the then Forest Department. Unfortunately, due to lack of resources and political will to protect Karura Forest, it soon became a hot spot for land grabbers and parts of it de-gazetted and allocated for housing projects. By the time the Late Maathai and community members were showing up in 1999 to fight against further destruction of the forest, it had long lost its lustre. It had become synonymous with crime as criminals used the forest as their hideout.
Inspired by the actions of Maathai and seeing the dilapidated state of the forest, a group of individuals banded together to form the Friends of Karura Forest in 2009 with Prof Wangari and Alice Macaire as its patrons. The Association in partnership with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) has turned around the fortunes of Karura forest to what it is today.
“Very little of what you see now existed in 2009. But what was most important was there. And that is the community. The first thing FKF did was secure the forest by putting up a fifteen kilometre electric fence with support from the EABL Foundation. The second thing was to work with the community to preserve the forest.
Ten years later, the results speak for themselves. FKF and KFS have managed to make the forest safe and secure. This has in turn made it attractive for Nairobians to come and enjoy the forest in all its glory. Karura has over 40,000 visitors every month walking, running, or biking on its fifty kilometre tracks and trails, or picnicking among its towering trees. They have paved 1.5 kilometre circuit for mobility-challenged visitors and increased the indigenous tree cover from 25 percent to 40 percent.
Karura Forest is also a plastic-free public space. No plastic is allowed within it.
The forest has also become a major education and research centre.
But it hasn’t been all smooth-sailing. There are invasive species that need continuous controlling and The Karura River is highly polluted. FKF also had to battle for its land. It was only recently that all titles deeds were revoked by the National Land commission. Future plans? “Our immediate future plan is to build a bridge across Limuru road that will link the main Karura block and Sigiria Block to allow people to explore Sigiria. With 40,000 people, the Karura block can get a bit over crowded.” She says.