Rukinga, the home of Wildlife Works in Kenya, has seen many human-influenced changes to its landscape. Once a pristine wilderness with a small hunter-gatherer population, the last century or so has been witness to a depletion of natural resources due to an increase in population and the transformation into a cattle ranch. Now, Wildlife Works is working with the people of Rukinga to restore the land to its former glory as a paradise for a huge range of fauna and flora.
The end of the 19th century saw the construction of the Mombasa-Uganda railway, which runs within a kilometre of the north-eastern boundary of the wildlife sanctuary. Throughout the construction, an abundance of resources, such as trees was stripped away from the land to fuel the construction of the “Iron Snake”, which is what the locals called the railway at the time. Due to its new-found accessibility, the land was then used as prime hunting ground for many years, dramatically reducing the wildlife in the area. After its hunting heyday, the land was left more open to cattle herders before being converted into Rukinga Ranch in 1972.
As well as losing the majority of the wildlife, the failing cattle ranch slowly lost a good share of trees to charcoal production, and parts of the land were severely degraded by overgrazing until Wildlife Works took over in 1998. For more than a decade, Wildlife Works has been steadily restoring this cattle ranch back into a haven for wildlife. Cleaning up and regenerating Rukinga is part of the key to the balance of the area, as it is one of the ranches that make up the Kasigau Corridor, a crucial wildlife corridor between two of Kenya’s National Parks: Tsavo East and Tsavo West.
The first steps in the restoration process were to remove the cattle enclosures, unwanted fences, the cattle dips, and decaying water butts that were dotted throughout the 80,000 acres of Rukinga. Also, the massive amounts of rubbish, such as old tires, unused piping and metal barrels, that appeared everywhere needed to be removed. Along with cleaning up the wildlife sanctuary, Wildlife Works and the local community are working to reforest the degraded areas of Rukinga by planting indigenous hardwood trees. The team has now decided to take their regenerating efforts one step further from planting indigenous trees to removing invasive plant species.
First, in the metaphorical cross-hairs, is Opuntia engelmannii – a spiky cactus introduced from Mexico and the southern states by colonists.
Opuntia was planted on many ranches and farms in Kenya to create dense hedgerows which were sometimes used to protect cattle from predators. It was also used around the outside of houses for ornamental purposes, as well as to help prevent unwanted visitors at your window! It was popular because it grows quickly, is resilient, and is fairly efficient as a barrier due to its one-inch-long spines growing from its pads. After spreading from the Marungu Hills at the north-east of the ranch, the cactus is now growing all over Rukinga which prevents indigenous shrubs from growing.
There are several stages in the removal of Opuntia engelmannii, which grow in clusters. First, the plants are cut down and then cut into smaller pieces, after which herbicide is carefully applied to the stumps.
The shredded remains of the plant are placed in a hole two feet deep and buried. Opuntia, however, continues to fight every step along the way, and the properties that made Opuntia useful on farms are some of the reasons why it is so incredibly difficult to prevent it from propagating – let alone removing it completely! So, the biggest issue with Opuntia is its incredible ability to grow back after being cut down, and not just from the roots, but also from pads that may have dropped or have been removed from the plant. This means that when cutting down the cactus, you have to be very meticulous and pick up every piece of the plant, as well as very efficient at painting herbicide on every part of the remaining root.
As mentioned earlier, Opuntia grows quickly, which is why we have taken the GPS coordinates of each cluster, and they are checked on a regular basis to ensure we are curbing any regrowth. This may sound extreme, but it is necessary if we are to ensure it is removed from the wildlife sanctuary.
At the moment, the road seems long when it comes to envisioning an Opuntia-free Rukinga. We are constantly trying new methods of removing it as environmentally-friendly and efficiently as possible. In the meantime, we are finding methods in which to use the Opuntia that we are cutting down in various ways that help to restore the sanctuary and benefit the community at the same time. But that’s another story…