Arabuko-Sokoke on Unesco waiting list

Friday January 28 2022
Arabuko-Sokoke forest

Farmers catch butterflies at the Arabuko-Sokoke forest in Kilifi. The forest has a variety of endemic species of birds and animals. PHOTO | BRIAN OKINDA


Kenya is working towards having the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest in the Coastal County of Kilifi, inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage List. It is currently on the Unesco Tentative List.

The 39,100-hectare forest at Arabuko — located, between the North Coast tourism hubs of Kilifi and Malindi 110km north of Mombasa—is rich in species diversity and endemism, and important for the conservation of birds, butterflies, reptiles, plants and wildlife.

It is the largest surviving fragment of rainforests that once covered much of East Africa’s Coast and whose remnants make up the East African Coastal Forests. Similar fragments are the Usambara Forest and Pugu Hills in Tanzania.

Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve and National Park, as well as Shimba Hills National Reserve are the largest coastal forests in the region, listed as one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots.

National Museums of Kenya officials say Arabuko, which has since been put in the Unesco Tentative List, has been facing challenges getting resources for preparing the required dossier and that there is a restriction that any one country can only present one item per year.

Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia, the NMK Director-General, told The EastAfrican that while the institution has started to prepare the dossier for nomination, it quite an enormous amount of paperwork, as opposed to the dossier for cultural sites. It will also cost between $100,000 and $300,000 to prepare.


Kenya has only seven natural and cultural sites on the Unesco World Heritage List, while some countries with similar attractions have between 20 and 50.

Should it be inscribed, Arabuko would join; Lamu Stone Town, Fort Jesus, Mt Kenya Forest, The Rift Valley lakes of Nakuru, Bogoria and Elementaita Sibiloi, the Turkana National Park, Thimlich Ohinga in Migori, and the Kaya Forests — the sacred forests at the Coast used by the Mijikenda.

Natural and cultural sites once listed, cease to be the property of the host country to become global property, benefiting from funding from Unesco and other donors. Kenya gains financially and technically through programmes in education and conservation, publicity and international assistance.

Research scientist, Hosea Wanderi, who is also the Wander leader of the Kenyan Focal Point on the 1972 World Heritage Convention says tentative listing does not mean that the site has been accepted. Unesco experts verify information submitted, note challenges and determine whether local communities have been consulted.

The application is then sent to the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property at the Unesco Heritage Centre, which once satisfied will send to the Unesco Heritage Committee, which decides whether to inscribe, defer or reject.

Arabuko is rich in rare wildlife. Six endemic East African coast butterflies are present, as are three rare, near-endemic mammals: the Golden-romped Elephant Shrew (found only in Sokoke and Zanzibar) and the distinctive Sokoke bushy-tailed Mongoose, a population of the African Elephant and the African Golden Cat, both of which are uncommon in Kenya. The Green Keel-bellied Lizard is an unusual reptile, and the forest is exceptionally rich in amphibians, including coastal endemics like Bunty’s Dwarf Toad.

Herds of the African elephant

Herds of the African elephant abound at Arabuko. PHOTO | POOL

Dr Kibunjia says these qualities qualify Arabuko to be inscribed in the World Heritage List as it shares features with other forests in Tanzania.

Tanzania is home to Ngorongoro Conservation area, Ruins of Kilwa and Kisiwani; the Serengeti National Park; Selous Game Reserve; Kilimanjaro National Park; The Stone Town of Zanzibar; and the Kondoa Rock Art Site.

In 2018, Selous — that was on the World Heritage List in 1982 in recognition of its outstanding value as one of the largest remaining wilderness areas in Africa — was downgraded to the endangered list because the government did not convince the committee that the hydropower dam under construction at Stiegler’s Gorge will not endanger its universal value.

Downgraded the same year was Kenya’s Lake Turkana National Parks (listed in 1997) because of the disruptive effect of Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam on the flow and ecosystem of Lake Turkana downstream, and the Kuraz Sugar Development Project, which poses a further threat to the site.

Kenya has submitted its Tentative Lists, properties that it considers to be cultural or natural heritage of outstanding universal value and therefore suitable for inscription on the World Heritage List. They include Aberdare Mountains; African Great Rift Valley - Hell’s Gate National Park; the African Great Rift Valley - Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site; the African Great Rift Valley - The Masai Mara; African Great Rift Valley - Marakwet Escarpment Furrow Irrigation System; Kakamega Tropical Rainforest; Meru Conservation Area; Mfangano-Rusinga Island Complex; Tana Delta and Forests Complex; Tsavo Parks and Chyulu Hills Complex; and now the Eastern Arc Coastal Forests — Arabuko -Sokoke Forest and Shimba Hills National Reserve.

A status appeal for the 39,100-hectare forest between Kilifi and Malindi is awaiting verification by experts

Arabuko-Sokoke was designated a Crown Forest in 1932 and gazetted in 1943.