In the biologically diverse but overtaxed lands of the Taita Hills in southeast Kenya, a clothing company is offering relief to the people, flora and fauna.
Wildlife Works, an apparel business and self-proclaimed purveyor of “consumer powered conservation,” purchased a struggling cattle ranch in the region in 1998 and turned it into Rukinga Sanctuary, which serves as an 32,000-hectare wildlife corridor between Kenya’s Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks.
Taita Hills is one of the most threatened of all the sites in the Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot, having lost around 98 percent of its original forest cover. Taita Hills forest and Mt. Kasigau are home to six Critically Endangered species, while Rukinga Sanctuary provides habitat for 14 globally threatened bird species. The lands are also home to a wide range of other species, including cheetahs, lions, elephants, giraffes and hyenas.
Wildlife Works opened a small factory on the outskirts of the sanctuary, employing local residents in the manufacture of organic-cotton clothing that is sold in stores and online. The operation was able to boost production with the help of a $150,000 loan from Verde Ventures.
The company now employs some 100 men and women from the surrounding area in the factory or as rangers for the sanctuary.
The factory has given local communities a source of income that does not deplete the region’s natural resources, and an opportunity to see preservation of the local wildlife as beneficial. And a new project is now investing the community in rebuilding and protecting the region’s threatened ecosystem.
In response to the rapidly depleting forest in the area and the danger deforestation poses to the ecosystem, the people behind Wildlife Works drew up a plan to use organic greenhouses in the area to grow trees for a reforestation push that would rely on the efforts of residents, and would also provide them with trees for cash crops. The three-year plan calls for at least 20,000 trees to be planted. The project is supported by a grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.
Groups based in the surrounding towns and trained in organic farming are cultivating and planting seedlings. Participants include youth environmental clubs, women’s and church groups.
Mercy Joshua, 54, is a resident of the area who has joined in the effort. She has been working at one of the nurseries, and said the project has been welcomed by the community.
“Wildlife Works came and they told us how they could help us, and we thought that it was very good,” she said. “It is a good idea because we are preventing soil erosion for our farms. The community is very happy.
“We are really changing the environment. We have very big hope.”
According to the project’s organizers, the groups will have enough experience and knowledge by the end of the three years to carry on with the restoration of the forests with minimal assistance from donor funding.
“The plan in the community is to eventually start up a wood lot with the community members as stakeholders,” said Grace Kenana, programs coordinator for Wildlife Works. “This will be used to provide a source of income from sustainable harvesting of the trees, allowing the Kasigau forest to continue without exploitation.”