The 400,000 hectares Mau Complex which is as large as Mt Kenya and the Aberdares forests combined is a natural resource of national importance.
It provides critical ecological services in terms of water storage, river flow regulation, floods mitigation, recharge of ground water, reduced soil erosion and siltation.
The largest montane forest in East Africa, further purifies water, conserve biodiversity and micro climate regulation.
Apart from contributing to River Nile Basin water resources, it supports tourism, energy, agriculture and industries in Rift Valley and Western Kenya.
Despite its huge importance, the complex has for long been under threat from widespread encroachment that according to the latest report, led to loss of more than 28 per cent of the forest cover over the last 15 years.
In Maasai Mau section alone, more than 17, 000 hectares have been illegally allocated over the last two decades. The continued degradation is now threatening the spectacular annual migration of wildebeests.
Environmentalists say destruction of the forest has reduced the ability of the Mau ecosystem to absorb or reduce the impact of climate change, making people vulnerable to the changing weather patterns.
The destruction is also threatening East African Community regional integration prospects with Tanzania protesting that tourism activities in the Serengeti National Reserve, which shares the same ecosystem with Masai Mara National Reserve is on the verge of collapsing.
“Tanzania is particularly concerned about the destruction of Mara River catchment area. It has on many forums protested to Kenya about the destruction which has severely strained the diplomatic relationship,” says Nick Murero, the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem Coordinator for Lake Victoria Basin.
Communities living downstream and their livestock are also affected by low volumes of water in rivers emanating from Mau.
Enkare Narok River which passes through Narok and which locals depend on to draw water for domestic use also emanates from the forest.
Others that are on verge of drying up and whose water quality has been compromised are Entoroboni, Sikinder and Olokurto.
Murero says Lake Victoria receives 60 per cent of its water from the forest, adding that the dwindling water flow is negatively affecting livelihoods of people who depend on it for farming, tourism and electricity production.
Apart from Lake Victoria, Tanzania depends on Lake Natron whose source is the forest. The lake is a breeding ground for migratory birds, both regional and intercontinental. Flamingos which are a major tourist attraction in Lakes Nakuru and Elementaita breed in the salty lake.
Christian Lambretchs, a former policy and programmes officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) says between 2001 and 2010, three sectors of Kenya’s economy — agriculture, tourism and energy — were annually losing about Sh3 billion because of Mau destruction.
“Although the forest was earning the government billions of shillings in revenue, agriculture — mainly tea production, tourism and energy was losing about Sh3 billion,” he says.
He adds that the loss, though being assessed, is now higher because of wanton destruction especially in the Maasai Mau section.
Lambretchs, who is also the Rhino Arc Foundation chief executive says pressure on the section that is under the management of Narok County government was shocking because of massive encroachment for logging, settlement, charcoal production and cattle grazing.
According to Kenya Forest Network, Narok supplies more than 30 million bags of charcoal to Nairobi, its environs and Nakuru annually.
The forest produces about two million cedar posts for commercial purposes annually.
Because of destruction, wheat farmers are now harvesting an average of seven bags per acre down from 30 bags almost two decades ago.
He says Rhino Arc has raised enough funds and finalised plans to fence South West Mau section where about 2,000 settlers were kicked out in 2009.
“The section has now regenerated. Rivers and streams are flowing. To stop future destruction, just like what we did in the Aberdares, we will fence it,” he says.
After the ongoing exercise to clear Maasai Mau of illegal settlements, Kenya Water Towers Agency, says it will deploy drones to monitor encroachment.
“The drones will help the joint security force that is tasked with protecting the forest and dealing with fresh encroachment,” says Dr Isaac Kalua, the agency chairman.
The joint security force comprises regular police, Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU) of Administration Police, Kenya Forest Service, Kenya Wildlife Service and Narok County government rangers.
Nyayo Tea Zones has started planting tea on the settlement and forest boundaries cut- line to deter future encroachment.