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Day 9 (July 4, 2011): Tree Poachers

July 4, 2011

Deforestation is a huge problem in Africa. Firewood, a prime commodity, is used mainly to make charcoal, the primary fuel used for cooking. In an effort to curb deforestation in Kenya, it is illegal to cut down trees. Only trees which are already dead may be collected for charcoal or firewood use. Unfortunately, as we at Olorgesailie have seen, the problem isn’t so easy to solve.

Early last week, on the way to BOK-2, Alison, the excavation crew, and I came across local tree poachers burning a giant old tree by the river. They were trying to burn a hole at the base of the trunk so that the tree would die, tip over, and they could then cut it up “legally,” cleverly bypassing the law. Our crew immediately poured water on the tree and put out the fire.

image of a giant tree chopped down and laying on its side and chopped branches piled next to the trunk
The giant tree by the river, axed by tree poachers
This was a rude awakening to our field season and since then, the issue of illegal tree poaching has been on everyone’s mind. Over the years we have noticed a drop in the number of trees in the area, and the scientists and local Kenyans on our excavation team are equally concerned about the conservation of biodiversity at Olorgesailie[.

Then today, we got a big shock. Katie was supervising the excavation at BOK-2, and on their way back from the site, they noticed a new obstruction in their normal path, a pile of branches and stones. It wasn’t until they approached the river that they saw the reason. The giant old tree by the river, which has provided shade and shelter for many decades, had been axed. It lay on the ground, broken at the trunk, its beige inner wood exposed. Dozens of large branches were scattered around, also freshly chopped. There was no doubt, this was the work of tree poachers.

Off in the distance, the sound of “chop, chop, chop” could be heard, echoing off the ravines, as the poachers continued their illegal work. What is being done to prevent these problems? This is a local issue, so there’s only so much we as visitors can do other than record events and report to the proper authorities. It turns out that the Olorgesailie area is the focus of a new conservation effort, and this new project operated by local landowners will help stem the tide of illegal tree cutting. I’ll write more about this local effort in the days to come.