Saving Special Places is delighted to host this guest blog from our colleagues Sarah Sanders, Lesley Safford and Helen Byron

Serah Munguti, Communications and Advocacy Manager, at our BirdLife Partner Nature Kenya , has been selected as one of three finalists for the Tusk Conservation Award in recognition of her ground-breaking work in the Tana River Delta. This prestigious award is given to an exceptional individual who is emerging as a leading conservationist in Africa. It recognises their outstanding contribution to, and considerable achievement, in working for the benefit of both wildlife and people. More about Tusk and the awards can be found here: Tusk - Investing in the Future of Africa. Protecting Wildlife, Supporting Communities, Promoting Education. And here's a short film of Serah talking about her work in the Tana River Delta.

Serah Munguti. Photo credit Tusk

Last night she was in Cape Town to attend the gala ceremony. In previous years the awards have been presented in London so it is the first time the event has ever been held in South Africa. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, former First Lady, Mrs Graca Machel, and former President F W de Klerk were there to present the awards on behalf of Tusk’s Royal Patron, HRH, the Duke of Cambridge.

Although Serah did not win the award, this is a remarkable achievement for Serah who was born in Makueni, one of the poorest and most drought prone counties in Kenya, where in 2017, over 60% of the population still live below the poverty line. She was brought up by her grandmother and mother, subsistence farmers, who grew maize and beans to sell on the local market to raise the funds to pay for Serah's school fees. At home there was no running water so it had to be collected from an outside well. There was no electricity so homework in the evenings was done under the light of a kerosene lamp. Her passion for conservation was kindled when she would occasionally visit her father who worked at a hotel in Amboseli National Park. Serah remembers being particularly fascinated by the herds of majestic elephants who would take their dust baths near the workers camp.

At a time when less than a quarter of girls in Kenya went to secondary school, Serah worked incredibly hard to pass her exams and went on to Moi University to complete a BSc in Wildlife Management. One of her most vivid memories of the course was the 'solo' camping weekend where she was dropped off at six on the Friday evening in the aptly named Hell's Gate National Park. She was left for 48 hours with nothing except a box of matches and a machete to fend for herself in the bush. She recalls it being an absolute adventure bordering on a nightmare as she barely slept and had to fight to keep her fire alight because it poured down with rain, a rare occurrence in this part of Kenya. She was visited by a hyena, which was not laughing, and she reckons she only survived because she managed to chase it away with one of her blazing logs.

Serah’s interest in conservation centres on the relationships between people and biodiversity, particularly the governance of natural resources. She empowers local conservation groups to claim rights to manage resources sustainably and advocates for changes to policies and plans to support them. Her ability to operate and connect with people in a vast array of situations from formal meetings with Government Ministers in Nairobi offices to local communities in remote areas is impressive.

After successfully winning a scholarship to study an MSc in water and coastal management at Cadiz University in Spain, Serah returned to NatureKenya. Since 2007 the main focus of her work has been in the Tana River Delta. This 130,000 hectare wetland is a key biodiversity area and Ramsar site which supports two endemic primates, the endangered Tana River Colobus and Tana River Crested Mangabey, 350 bird species and internationally important populations of 22 water birds. It also provides food, water, medicine and fuel to the poor communities living in the area.

Much has already been written about Tana on this blog here, here and here but when Serah started she was shocked by the injustice faced by local communities whose land was being taken away by the Government and licensed to international companies for large-scale agricultural conversion, mainly for biofuels.

Serah’s inspired and visionary leadership has led to the achievement of many milestones in the Delta, including:

Empowering communities to take the Kenyan Government to court over proposed large-scale agricultural developments. This resulted in a government moratorium on large-scale agricultural projects until a plan for the long-term sustainable management of the Delta was agreed by all stakeholders. At the same-time through a ‘hands-on’ learning by doing approach Serah’s work has supported farmers, fishermen, pastoralists and beekeepers to increase food security using methods that are in line with the Land Use Plan. By mid-2015 direct beneficiaries had earned more than Ksh. 16,132,354 from Income Generating Activities.

Creating a shared vision for the future of the Delta. Previous attempts to agree a shared vision had largely failed. But for the first time in Kenya, Serah brought civil society and the government together to participate in an innovative process to develop a strategic, multi-sectoral land-use plan for the entire Delta. 106 villages across the Delta were consulted and the final draft LUP and SEA documents were finalised and signed off by the County Governors in mid-2015. The plan balances agriculture and pastoralism across 60% of the delta, the remaining 40% is allocated to urban/new industrial development and conservation zones to protect ecosystem services. 

Resolving conflict within the project area. In 2012-2013 over 180 people died and more than 30,000 people were displaced by violence. Schools closed for a year. Serah facilitated a humanitarian appeal that enabled a ton of maize flour and 280 litres of cooking oil to be bought and distributed in displaced people’s camps in the Delta. The rest of the money was given to the Kenya Red Cross to provide humanitarian assistance to communities.

Her work continues to secure the long-term future of the Delta for wildlife and people. Lessons learnt from the implementation of the Tana LUP are already being used by the Government of Kenya’s Delta Development Board, which is overseeing replication of the LUP-SEA at five other sites, beginning with Yala Swamp, and including Lake Naivasha and Lake Turkana and the Nyando and Nzoia River Basins, where poverty levels are similar to, or worse than those at Tana. This will benefit ca. 1.12 million people.

The Delta is currently facing threats from the development of upstream dams. The UK government’s Darwin initiative has recently awarded the RSPB and NatureKenya funds for a four year project to support two County Governments and local communities to establish a 95,200 Ha multiple use, (biodiversity, fishing, livestock, crops) Community Conservation Area (CCA) encompassing the two main river channels of the Delta, encompassing the Tana Delta Biodiversity Hotspot.

A crucial theme running through this project is fair and equitable access to water. Nature Kenya will be engaging communities and government in an ecosystem-services-assessment to increase understanding of the benefits of maintaining water flows (among others)). They will also help the new CCA Management Committee to develop a management plan through community consultation which will ensure that, outside key biodiversity areas, ethnic groups have equitably access to natural resources, especially water, for example by specifying water-access routes for cattle.

Finally, by embedding the CCA in county governance, County Assemblies will begin to turn the LUP into practice for example they will create a registry of water abstracting land use that enables them to monitor/manage water usage and target county resources to support sustainable use, e.g. helping water-hungry communities develop/diversity livelihoods to reduce water use. All this will enable county governments to engage with developments upstream to ensure sufficient water flows through the Delta.

The Darwin project builds on funding provided by DFID through the Civil Society Challenge Fund (2011-2016) to develop the Land Use Plan.

Serah’s passion for conservation is very much driven by wanting to make the world a better place for Ian Kitonga, her teenage son. When he was eleven years old she took him to the Tana Delta and he loved it. Although there are many threats facing wildlife in Kenya and around the world, Serah’s work in the Tana gives us all hope for a better future with a better natural environment. As Serah would say, ‘We owe it to ourselves! We owe it to future generations!’


Sarah Sanders – Previously provided BirdLife partner development support to NatureKenya including the delivery of the DFID Tana project. She is an Equality and Diversity Champion for the RSPB.

Lesley Safford – Works in the Conservation Investment Team and helped to raise much of the money to enable this work in the Tana.

Helen Byron – Has a PhD in the Consideration of Biodiversity in Environment Assessment and provided the technical advice to the SEA and LUP process.

We continue to be inspired by Serah and her work to secure a sustainable future for the people and the wildlife of the Tana River Delta.