Kakamega Forest Reserve: The Living Pleistocene Remnant

Kakamega Forest is the only remnant on Kenya of the once great tropical rainforest that stretched across Central Africa. During the long Pleistocene period great climatic changes occurred throughout the world where dense rain forests stretched from West Africa, across Central Africa and into the highland areas on the west and eastern walls of the Great Rift Valley.

In 1923, gold was discovered in parts of the forest and the colonial government declared the area to be a ‘County Council Forest’ and all settlers in the forest were evicted. Ten years later, the forest was gazetted as a government forest reserve and has been a protected area of Kenya since its vital role in the eco-system was first recognised in 1933 covering an area of 240 sq km at an altitude of 1,500 – 1,700m. The mining of gold came to a temporary halt in 1939 following the emergence of the Second World War.

Continuous collection of large quantities of dead and live fuel wood hastened the decline of the forest and led to the establishment of two Nature reserves (Yala and Isecheno) which were officially created in 1967 and later an additional two in the north (Buyangu and Kisere) were created in 1985.

The dominant tribe living immediately around the forest today is the Luhya (a word meaning ‘on higher ground’ – so called because they first occupied the highlands to the north of Kisumu). The Luhya are one of Kenya’s major tribes and also extend across the western border into Uganda. The Luhya consist of many clans, amongst which are well-known are the Tiriki and Isukha.

Udo Bandas at Kakamega Forest National Reserve

By the beginning of the present century, various Luhya clans has established themselves around Kakamega forest and it is said that at that time, households of the Tiriki clan has two farms, one within the forest and the other one outside. Amongst the Tiriki, one of the rites of passage male circumcision is still carried out at certain sacred sites within the forest.  In the Isukha clan, bullfights were staged to honour the burial of a brave warrior, the fight being held on his grave and accompanied by much horn blowing and beer drinking.

The sheer size and grandeur of these rainforest trees, some over 100 years old, is impressive. The reserve is twice the size of Nairobi National Park with 380 species of plants spread in swamps, riverine and hardwood forest areas, glades and the shallow forest around the edge of the reserve. The trees create a complete environment for birds, insects, butterflies and wildlife, which are plentiful in this area. The unique diversity of flora and fauna in the forest derives from the great equatorial belt of species rich Guineo-Congolian forests, further enriched by contact with the montane forest of the rift escarpment.

The avifauna of the forest is considered important in continental terms, not solely as the eastern-most outlier of the West African forest biota.  Of the 330 species so far recorded in the area, almost half are considered to be purely forest species and of these 84 species are probably of West African origin. The turacos are perhaps the most outstanding and magnificent birds to spot including the Great Blue Turaco; others are the endangered African-Grey Parrot, Yellow-crested Woodpecker and Black-billed Turaco which are feared to be losing ground due to habitat degradation. The most obvious and nosiest species is the Black and White Casqued Hornbill with its squawking calls at dawn and dusk and its ponderous flight across the tree tops.

Eastern Grey Plantain Eater

 Other locally threatened bird’s species are; Red-breasted Owlet, Turner’s Eremomela, Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch, White-breasted Negrofinch, Sabine’s Spinetail, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye, and the Blue-headed Bee-eater. Other interesting spotting in the forest include; the African Black Duck, Equatorial Akalat, Brown-chested Alethe, Bristlebill, Chiffchaff, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Red-headed Malimbe, Harlequin Quail, Button Quail, Pygmy Kingfisher, Giant Kingfisher, Narina Trogon, Crested Guinea Fowl, birds of prey such as the African Crowned Eagle, Martial Eagle, Bateleur, Honey Buzzard, Augur Buzzard, Banded Snake Eagle amongst others. The more interesting West African forest species include; the Brown-eared Woodpecker, Brown Illadopsis, Blue-headed Bee-eater, Jameson’s Wattle-eye, Shrike Flycatcher and the Dusky Tit.

All nine African butterfly families are represented in the forest and species diversity is high with over 400 species recorded. The best time for butterfly watching is August and September when the heavy rains are over.  You might be lucky to see the Black-tipped Diadem which is said to be the most beautiful butterfly in the forest.

The forest is very different from savannah parks, and to enjoy and spot smaller mammals can be best done on foot. As you transverse along the forest trails you might spot Olive Baboons, Blue Duiker, Red Duiker, Bush buck, the Giant Water Shrew which is a rare aquatic mammal that can only been seen in Kakamega Forest, the Sun Squirrel, the Giant Forest Squirrel, Brush-tailed Porcupine, amongst other species.

Kakamega forest is home to seven species of primates including; Red-tailed Monkey, the Blue Monkey; the de Brazzas Monkey and the well-known Black and White Colobus Monkey.  An interesting nocturnal primate is the slow-moving Potto, a thicket arboreal primate with a remarkably short tail. 

If you are luck you might see some nocturnal species that include; the Bush Pig, Clawless Otter if walking along a riverside trail, the Scaly-tailed Flying Squirrel, the Tree Pangolin, Aardvark, Hedgehog, Hammer-headed Fruit bat, Lesser Leaf-nosed Bat, Yellow-bellied Bat and so much more.

Some of the most scenic spots in the forest are the Buyangu Hill, Lirhanda Hilll, Isiukhu Falls and the Yala Falls. The Buyangu hill is a short sharp climb to a rocky summit from where you can see the whole forest to the south. The Lirhanda Hill just north of the Yala River and a rather stiffer climb offers an unbroken view of the whole forest from north to south, Nandi Hills to the east and parts of the neighbouring South Nandi forest to the south. The Isiukhu Falls are within easy reach of the KWS station at Buyangu and provide a pleasant spot for a picnic. Yala Falls at the extreme south eastern side of the forest offer a spectacular waterfall of about 20 metres high.

The forest includes some of Africa’s greatest hard and soft woods including; the Elgon teak, red and white stink woods and several varieties of Croton and Aniageria Altisima. Superb orchids sit amongst branches of the larger trees and wild mushrooms can be found at the base of old fallen trees. Walking beneath the lush forest canopy is quite an experience as the deep shade is pierced by flashes of colour, birds chirping, the scent of wood, flower, moss and fresh crisp air engulfing your lungs. The best time to visit is during the rainy season, April to July, when the flowers are at their most beautiful. Contact us via tours@beadsafariscollection.co.ke or Call, Text or Whatsapp +254 732 281 432 to book for a tour to the remarkable Kakamega Forest Reserve.