The Kenyan coast is home to award winning beaches, and is a favourite holiday destination for many Kenyan and international tourists, ranging from the vibrant beaches of Diani and Lamu to the largely untouched beaches of Msambweni. However, there is another unique and often unspoken beauty about the coast, this being the highly diverse and endemic coastal forests. So unique, they are recognised by conservationists worldwide and are listed in the top 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world by Conservation International. In addition, hidden within these forests is a vibrant history and culture, with small protected patches of sacred forests and hidden ruins of old Swahili towns.
So what makes these forests so unique? Well, approximately 50% of the plants, 60% of the birds and 65% of the mammals which rely on forests in Kenya and many of which are nationally threatened are found in these coastal forests. Not only do Conservation International recognise its importance but also Birdlife International, whom rank it as one of the most globally important areas for endemic birds. In fact, Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, which stretches north of Mombasa, starting from Kiliﬁ and running alongside Watamu coast, is recognised as the second most important site for the conservation of bird species on the African mainland, home to the endemic Clarke's Weaver, near endemic Sokoke Scops Owl, Amani sunbird and many others, all of which are globally threatened. In addition, 52 mammal species have been recorded, including the globally threatened Golden-rumped Elephant shrew (90% of the known population lives there). There are also elephants and buﬀalo living within the forest and more than 250 recorded butterﬂy species.
The Arabuko-Sokoke forest has yet more to oﬀer, once hidden away in these forests was a small Swahili town called Gedi (also known as Gede), dating back to the twelfth century. Being one of the most excavated sites by archaeologists along the coast, the ruins of mosques, palaces and houses have been rediscovered and the site is still seen as both sacred and spiritual to neighbouring communities.
This is not the only destination that both cultural richness and highly diverse nature can be observed. South of the Arabuko- Sokoke forest, Kaya forests can be found. These Kaya's, meaning 'home', are sacred forested areas, having great importance among the Mijikenda communities. So far, over 50 Kaya's have been identiﬁed within Kwale, Mombasa and Kiliﬁ counties. Within these forests, at one time in history, contained hidden fortiﬁed villages, where the Mijikenda tribes would take refuge from their enemies. They are also the resting places for the ancestors and some are still used for cultural practices and some communities still bury their dead within these forests.
These Kaya's also boost high biodiversity and endemism, home to more than half of Kenya's plants along the coast, many being endemic to these Kaya's. Furthermore, new species have been found, including plant species and a new moth species. These Kaya's, although small in size are home to over 80% of plant species that are threatened within Kenya, making them a haven for rare and endemic species. They have also been identiﬁed as globally important bird areas and over 10% of Kenya moth and butterﬂy species reside within these sacred forests.
However, these forests and ecosystems are under threat, due to deforestation, wood carving for tourism, charcoal production and conversion of land for development, particularly agriculture and tourism, often with plants being replaced with exotic species. So how can we combat this and help conserve these irreplaceable forests. Well, by simply supporting these projects by visiting will promote the conservation and preservation of these forests, by giving them an economic value. Arabuko- Sokoke forest, although is free to visit, tour guides are available to show you around. Another great eco-tourism venture to visit is Kaya Kinondo, based in Diani, is a great project which both protects and promotes cultural heritage and biodiversity, a tour around Kaya Kinondo only takes 1 hour. You could purchase a tree from Colobus Conservation, this tree will be planted to help restore the forest cover and you can be reassured that the tree will be indigenous and purchased from the communities, further supporting and encouraging the planting of indigenous trees. When purchasing wood carvings, ask what wood it is, make sure you aren't promoting the cutting and carving of indigenous species and hardwoods, ask for coconut, mango and neem, all species which are fast growing.
So when you visit the coast, enjoy the beauty of the beaches, take the opportunity to snorkel and observe the marine life but also spend some time visiting the other side and enjoy the variety of birdlife, the calmness of the forests and learn about the beautiful history hidden away within.