By L. Njoroge - Entomologist at the National Museums of Kenya
The Aberdare Mountains and Mount Kenya have stood majestically in central Kenya for millennia. Their beauty attracts many hikers from all over the world. They also play an important role in providing water and electricity to many towns and cities in Kenya.
At the foot of these mountains is a perfectly kept secret unknown to many hikers and local folks. The pristine, ice-cold waters humming downstream under thick, mist washed canopies, are home to very rare creatures.
These creatures belong to a group of insects known as dragonflies. Dragonflies, together with their cousins the mayflies who share the same habitat, are the most ancient of all insects. Like the mythical dragons of the Far East, dragonflies are ferocious hunters and probably the most dreaded in the insect world. One of them is so rare that the only places in the whole world where it can be found, are the rivers in Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare Mountains.
Jewels, Longlegs, Sprites
In a recently concluded project funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), and facilitated by BirdLife International, three unique species were encountered and their names are as gorgeous as their looks - they are the Kenya/Montane Jewel (Platycypha amboniensis), Maathai Longleg (Notogomphus maathaiae) and the Giant Sprite (Pseudagrion bicoelurans). They are categorized as Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable respectively under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. What is strikingly common about the three, is the fact that they all are found in pristine forested rivers and streams in high altitude habitats.
Kenya/Montane Jewel, Maathai Longleg, Giant Sprite (left to right)
The Kenya/Montane Jewel is only found in the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya, specifically in Amboni River (Mweiga side of the Aberdares) as its scientific name ("amboniensis") implies. The Maathai Longleg, on the other hand, has a wider distribution throughout the Aberdares and Mau complex (both in Kenya), and Mt. Elgon on the border of Uganda and Kenya. The Maathai Longleg is a recently discovered forest dwelling insect, and named in honour of the late Nobel Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai for her love of forests. According to data from National Museums of Kenya (NMK) in Nairobi, the Giant Sprite has the widest distribution of all. It can be found in the Aberdares, Mt. Kenya, Mau complex, Mt Elgon, as well as in Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru (both in Tanzania).
Community calculating the Dragonflies Biotic Index © National Museums of Kenya
Small but brave
Dragonflies may seem to be insignificant, tiny creatures, but they contribute immensely to human and environmental wellbeing. They are experienced hunters, feeding on disease-causing mosquitoes in large numbers, thereby reducing the disease burden and general nuisance. Dragonflies also inform us about the level of pollution in our rivers and streams due to their sensitivity to polluted water bodies, by immediately ‘taking off’ when they encounter rubbish.
For this very reason, CEPF provided funding for dragonfly conservation and supported initiatives that involve dragonfly wellbeing in the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya. A simply calculated Dragonflies Biotic Index (DBI) was taught to local communities as part of the project’s activities. This index assesses the general health of a habitat using dragonflies, and has become increasingly important in identifying critical habitats for conservation. It can be assumed that the more dragonfly species are present in a habitat, the better the habitat’s health, and vice versa. The index can also be used to assess the impact of intervention measures, such as removal of invasive plant species.
As rare as dragonflies are, these creatures are not immune to the negative effects of human activities such as habitat destruction, use of agricultural pesticides, or overuse of river waters. Luckily, the rare dragonfly species mentioned above have their largest numbers within protected areas, thereby minimizing immediate threats to their existence. Nevertheless, to ensure that they are not 'forgotten', a multi-species action plan was developed, to guide their conservation. NMK also convinced local people to change their behaviour and reduce pollution in the rivers, and planted 500 indigenous trees - thus creating 10 hectares of improved habitat for the dragonflies.
BirdLife International runs the Regional Implementation Team (RIT) for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) investment in the Eastern Afromontane Hotspot (2012 -2019). The investment is now completed and the programme closes on 31 March 2020. See the interactive map of all projects implemented under the CEPF Eastern Afromontane Hotspot programme here.
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation. More information on the CEPF can be found at www.cepf.net.