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Pokomo sacred sites, a new opportunity for conservation work in Tana River County

 

Five counties make up Kenya’s incredible coastline: Kwale, Kilifi, Mombasa, Lamu, and Tana River County. Sadly, what often comes to mind when thinking about Tana River County is hostile climatic conditions, hunger, conflict, insecurity, and human suffering. But spend time in Tana River County and you will be amazed by the opportunities that exist.

The river

Tana River County takes its name from the River Tana, which is the longest river in Kenya and flows right through the County. The river is a lifeline to the Pokomo community, the major ethnic group in the County, and other neighbouring communities. People often say that the River Tana reminds them of the Nile in Egypt!

Sacred sites

The landscape in Tana River County is a mosaic of riparian forests, dry woodlands and savannah habitats within which there are eight sites that are considered to be sacred by the Pokomo community. These sites are called: Kimbu, Lalafitu, Mkomani/Maramba, Nkanu, Baguo, Bubwayo, Banatiro wetland and Lemu wetland and have a cumulative area of about 12,000 ha. They hold great cultural and spiritual significance for the Pokomo community as they are believed to be the places where the spirits of their ancestors reside. Community members, particularly women, visit these sites to worship and pray.

Wildlife

The sacred sites are also home to a wealth of biodiversity including the Tana River Mangabey, which is only found in the lower Tana River region, and the red colobus monkey. The sites also form part of the Tana Delta Important Bird Area; an area identified using an internationally agreed set of criteria as being globally important for the conservation of bird populations. Incredibly, there are more than 200 species of bird found in the region!

Eastern black and white colobus, or Guereza (Colobus guereza). Usually seen in the tops of trees. Kenya. © Martin Harvey / WWFEastern black and white colobus. Usually seen in the tops of trees. Kenya. © Martin Harvey / WWF

Tradition

In addition to respecting the sacred sites because of their cultural importance, the Pokomo community relies on the sites as a source of traditional medicine, honey, and wood for fuel and building. Governance systems based on tradition and customs, which have been passed through generations and are upheld by elders in the community, have helped to ensure sustainable use of these resources. Encouragingly, recent reforming of land law in Kenya has strengthened the recognition of and support for sacred natural sites and associated customary community self-governance systems.

Pokomo women rituals. © John BettPokomo women rituals. © John Bett

Threats

Unfortunately, at the same time, external pressures on these sacred sites, and the ecosystems that they are situated in, are growing and eroding customary governance systems. Illegal logging, over-grazing, agricultural expansion and unplanned settlements, all exacerbated by the impacts of changes in climate, pose significant threats to the sacred sites and the people that depend on them.

Our work

We’re working closely with National Museums of Kenya, the Ndera Community Conservancy and the County Government of Tana River, to support the Pokomo community to revive and strengthen their customary governance systems, regenerate their network of sacred natural sites, and use the new Kenyan laws to legally secure their role in management of the sacred sites. We’ll also be calling for these sites to be nationally recognised for their importance as well as declared as ‘No-Go’ areas for economic development or other activities which could undermine their sacredness or community governance systems.

Whatch this space!

WWF’s Coastal Kenya Programme is kindly supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and Size of Wales. We are very grateful for the continued support.

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