A leopard has been spotted in the dense Arabuko Sokoke forest in Kilifi County after decades, conservationists have said.
They suspect it strayed from Tsavo National Park, raising concerns over human-wildlife conflict in Kilifi.
The leopard was captured by camera traps installed by Friends of Arabuko Sokoke Forest.
The environmental lobby group has been supporting the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Kenya Forest Service with surveillance of the forest.
Conservationists believe wild animals, including lions and hyenas that have also been sighted in the thick forest, are straying from the Tsavo parks in search of pasture and water due to prolonged drought caused by climate change.
“This is the first time our cameras have captured a leopard after many years,” said Friends of Arabuko Sokoke Forest Field Operations Manager Mlati Ochieng.
“We survey the whole forest and we also spotted the Sokoke cat, one of the rarest cats in the whole world, which 50 years ago was domesticated, but it is currently on the verge of becoming extinct in the wild.”
Mr Ochieng, an ecologist, said the Arabuko Sokoke, East Africa’s largest coastal forest, was not a known range for wild animals.
But the arrival of wild animals has sparked human-wildlife conflicts in the villages around the forest.
“We had not had cases of carnivore-human conflicts but they are now getting out, eating goats and cows and returning to the forest. Villages affected include Jilore, Matsangoni and Mida where we have heard [about such] cases,” he said.
Animals now found in the vast forest include elephants.
A majority of international tourists who visit the forest go there for birdwatching. Conservationists are now waiting to see if the wild cats will return to Tsavo or Lamu where the carnivorous animals are common and are believed to have come from.
Most of the big cats are found in the savanna and woodlands, which are more open, said Francis Kagema nature conservation programmes coordinator for the Coast region.
“It’s not normal to find the big cats in this forest but occasionally, they roam here because this area was once a continuous ecosystem with Tsavo,” Mr Kagema said.
“However, they have been cut off due to human settlements in between. The situation in Tsavo is bad, especially now with the prolonged drought. Wild animals are roaming eastwards, straying to people’s homes towards Arabuko Sokoke.”
Hyenas have also been spotted in the forest.
But he said leopards do not stay long in Arabuko Sokoke because the ecosystem is too dense for them.
“Furthermore, there is little food for them as there are few animals that can be preyed on by leopards, lions, and hyenas, forcing them to go back to where they came from or they die. They pose a risk to human beings and livestock,” he warned.
KWS senior assistant director, Mr Samuel Tokore confirmed the leopard was spotted in the forest.
“Of course that’s a wildlife habitat even lions would occasionally come in, we have elephants in Arabuko Sokoke. But the leopard might have come all the way from Tsavo or the neighboring ranches of Kulalu, it might have strayed from those sides,” he said.
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