Until three years ago, Kamnarok National Reserve in Kerio Valley was home to more than 15,000 crocodiles. It attracted tourists, with its famed bird watching sites. Elephants quenched their thirst there.
Now the lake is slowly but surely getting consigned to the dustbin of history; it’s drying up — fast.
Situated approximately 30 kilometres north-west of Kabarnet Town, the Kamnarok reserve is home to elephants, buffalos, bush pigs, and dik diks.
But the whereabouts of the crocodiles remains unknown. The once a vibrant water body is now a murky ground with big cracks.
For years the lake has been a treasured water source for the local community and their livestock. It was also the watering point for wild animals in the neighbouring Rimoi Game Reserve in Keiyo District, especially during dry seasons.
According to National Environmental Management Authority (Nema), the lake is recognised by the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international repute.
Residents say the drying up of the lake is a bad omen because the region’s economic activities gravitate around cattle keeping; the unreliable rainfall cannot sustain subsistence farming in the semi-arid region.
Councillor Zephania Chepkonga of Kabutie Ward where the lake falls under says area pastoralists are pondering over the next water source.
“I wonder where I’ll water my cattle now that this lake has eventually dried up” Martin Chemalin says.
The ox-bow lake was in the news headlines in March 2006 when three adult elephants got stuck near its centre as they attempted to reach out for the receding water to drink. One died four days later while two others were rescued by KWS.
Human activities and fast dehydration of Kerio River, the lake’s main source of water, may have led to its drying up. Baringo district national management environment officer Juma Masakha says illegal cutting of trees had accelerated soil erosion, which caused heavy siltation.
“The poor farming methods in the lake basin have caused heavy siltation, so the lake could not to hold any water,” he says.
Baringo game warden Christine Boit also says: “Massive environmental degradation resulting from poor conservation methods and human activities upstream along the Kerio Valley are to blame for the lake’s siltation.”
Indeed, there’s massive and unbridled felling of trees to satisfy the huge demand for charcoal. From a certain height, one could see smoke billowing from charcoal burning sites that litter the expansive valley. Bags of charcoal for sale are a common sights in the valley roads.
Former Baringo county council clerk Peter Keitany, who has since been transferred to Turkana, blames the lakes disappearance on Kiptilit Gulley, which used to serve as the lake’s outlet.
“The outlet caved in due to soil erosion, so water drained into River Kerio, which took away water from the lake.”
Plans to restore the lake have been derailed by a protracted decade-long land dispute between the county council of Baringo and the people of Barwessa Division. Donors insist that people living in the reserve must move out.
“The dispute discouraged donors who had shown interest in saving the lake” Mr Keitany said.
Residents whose lands were annexed into the 107 km sq reserve want to be paid. But the council is reluctant to acknowledge their claim to ownership, insisting that it’s a gazetted national reserve.
Last year, KWS director Julius Kipngetich visited the area to spearhead negotiations between the feuding parties. The meeting, which was held inside the reserve, was stormy.
In a signed memorandum read out by their group secretary Reuben Chepkonga, residents demanded to know whether the proper procedure was followed when the reserve was gazetted in 1983.
They further went ahead to spell out the preconditions they wanted the council and KWS to meet for them to consider relinquishing their lands.
Top on the list was amendment of the reserve boundary to reduce its size, alternative settlement and a Memorandum of Understanding.
Responding to the statement, Mr Kipngetich said that the land was not the concern of KWS and that the major interest was the wildlife in the reserve. The director further told to residents that their land was not taken away, but only given to the council as a trustee.
“So there is no reason for claiming compensation. Who has taken your land?” he asked. He directed the council to act according to the gazettement to save the reserve from extinction.
“My office has set aside money for the development of this reserve. We shall also mobilise for more funding for the reserve. But all this depends on your willingness to cooperate,” Mr Kipngetich said.
He further challenged them to emulate the example of their neighbours in Rimoi Game Reserve who, he said, were reaping the benefits of tourism after giving out their land to the county council of Keiyo.
Noting that there was ignorance about the benefits of tourism, the director pledged to sponsor community tours so that residents could to see for themselves how others living near such reserves benefited.
“My office will take 60 people from each of the three locations (Kabutiei, Lawan and Kerio Kaboskei) to Maasai Mara and Samburu national reserves,” he said.
Previous council efforts on conservation of the lake were thwarted.
“We had, for instance, built gabions across the Kiptilit gulley, but they intentionally removed the wire mesh and used it to hang beehives,” Mr Keitany said.
Now that the lake has dried up, its repercussions are being felt. Human-wildlife conflict has heightened. And there are reports of elephants and monkeys attacking people. In May 2006, two men were killed by a rogue elephant.