Investigating the impacts of the invasive species Prosopis in Baringo, Kenya

The Baringo district northwest of Nairobi is one of the regions in Kenya where a number of mesquite species, Prosopis spp., were introduced some 40 years ago as part of poverty alleviation efforts. The trees were intended to provide, among other benefits, additional income.

Today Baringo is one of the most heavily invaded regions in eastern Africa, with severe consequences for the rural communities. As part of the kick-off meeting of the recently launched, Swiss government funded R4D (research for development) project called “Woody Weeds”, the project team visited the district, one of the case study areas in the project.

During this two-day visit, two communities were visited which suffered from high Prosopis invasion levels. These communities gave an interesting first insight into the dilemmas that have arisen due to Prosopis invasion. The first community we visited utilizes Prosopis for charcoal production and hopes to benefit in the future also from selling Prosopis wood to a local power plant; by utilizing this invasive species the community members gain some financial benefits and at the same time reduce the impacts of this plant on their land.

Irrespective of how the local communities deal with this invasive species, one of the main challenges in management is to find ways to slow down or reduce the spread of Prosopis and mitigate its negative impacts in Baringo (and elsewhere). While the government of Kenya supports local communities in utilizing Prosopis, there is, so far, little scientific evidence that utilization indeed slows down or even stops the spread of this aggressive invader.

One of the key tasks of the “Woody Weeds” project will therefore be the evaluation of the impacts on the environment and rural livelihoods of the various management options against Prosopis and other woody invasive species, such as management by utilization, physical, chemical or biological control, or doing nothing, and to inform decision-makers about the key findings.

Urs Schaffner, CABI

The impacts of invasive weeds in Chitwan National Park, Nepal

Mikania (Mikania micrantha) is a tropical vine which is native to the Americas. Often referred to as the ‘Mile-a-Minute Weed,’ mikania grows rapidly in areas of high rainfall and has become highly invasive in parts of Asia and the Pacific. Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, invasive species are defined as alien species that threaten native ecosystems, habitats or species and in Nepal, mikania and other invasive plants such as chromolaena (Chromolaena odorata) are becoming increasingly problematic within the Chitwan National Park (CNP). There, the plants are having a serious negative impact on native grasses, shrubs and the one-horned rhinoceros, and by implication, deer and tiger populations. They are also affecting the local people who reside in the buffer zones and rely on the park for fodder and other materials.

A rhino amongst chromolaena

A rhino amongst chromolaena


In a specific study on mikania, scientists from the National Trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal with support from CABI and the Zoological Society of London have found a significant negative relationship between high mikania coverage and the population of rhinos. This is because the mikania vine smothers the fodder plants that the rhinos feed on. This could also be influencing their movement to other areas of the park where they feed on resources and crops important to local people. This in turn may exacerbate conflict between the residents of the buffer zones and the wildlife in the area.

Deer and Tigers

The reduction in fodder plants is likely also to cause a mirrored decrease in the number of deer in the park. Deer feed on similar plants to the rhinos and the impact of mikania on native vegetation is therefore likely to affect their feeding behaviour in a comparable manner. As a result a decrease in deer numbers is likely to have a negative impact on tiger populations, with tiger numbers being directly related to the populations of their prey.

Local people

The residents of the buffer zones surrounding the CNP are known to rely on the core area of the park for resources such as fodder, which they use to feed their livestock. These residents recognise that fodder availability within the park has decreased and report that collecting materials now takes three times as long as it has in previous years to gather the same amount of fodder. Reduced fodder has been attributed to flooding of the park and the spread of invasive plant species. In particular, a high proportion of local residents report that mikania has a significant negative impact on the fodder growing in the park.

Sustainable control of mikania weed

CABI piloted using a rust fungus (Puccinia spegazzinii) as a classical biological control agent for mikania weed in India. This highly host specific and damaging pathogen has now been released in Papua New Guinea and Taiwan, where it is having a significant impact on the growth of the weed. The rust has recently been released on a number of other Pacific Islands, and could be considered for release in Nepal.

Green Invasion: Destroying Livelihoods in Africa [Video]

CABI, together with Tmax Productions, have produced a video called the ‘Green Invasion – Destroying Livelihoods in Africa.” The short film (approx. 7mins long) details how invasive weeds are impacting on the lives of rural communities in East Africa.

Although a large number of non-native species have become invasive in the region, this film focusses on four of the most problematic species namely Chromolaena odorata (Devil weed), Parthenium hysterophorus (famine weed), Prosopis juliflora (Mathenge) and Opuntia stricta (erect prickly pear). The excellent footage shows the extent of  weed infestations with accounts from community members on how these invasive plants are destroying the natural resource base on which they depend. It is clear that invasive weeds are destroying traditions, cultures and a way of life for millions of people on the continent.

However, all is not lost. The film notes that if effective management programmes are implemented, including biological control, we can make a difference to many people’s lives.

Although of general interest, the film is intended to raise the profile of invasive species and their impacts on livelihoods amongst donors and governments. We need them to take action and provide support for initiatives to manage one of the biggest threats to economic development on the planet.

Arne Witt
CABI Regional Coordinator, Invasives (Africa & Asia)

Use them and lose

Is promoting the utilisation of invasive non-native species for commercial or other uses e.g. as a feed for livestock, use as a fuel or to produce biogas, a help or a hindrance to their control?

A view from Arne Witt, CABI Regional Coordinator, Invasives (Africa & Asia):

Promoting the utilization of any invasive non-native species (INNS) has largely contributed to their spread, especially in most developing countries which don’t have the capacity to develop and implement effective integrated management strategies.  Utilization as a control can only be effective if it forms part of an integrated management plan – on its own it merely exacerbates the problem.  There are many examples of where INNS have been intentionally spread by individuals because they have been led to believe that they can enrich themselves by growing and then utilizing an INNS – at low densities many INNS are beneficial, but it does not stay that way for very long – short-term benefits but long-term costs.

One needs to remember that utilization works from “inside out” whereas “control or management” works from “outside-in”.  In other words, the most cost-effective way to utilize an INNS is at the largest and densest infestations. As such you would build your biogas plant or sawmill in an area where the costs with regard to transport are lowest. In addition, you would not “eradicate” any of the plants you utilize – it is expensive and time-consuming to do so and why would you want to anyway, you want a renewable resource, so getting the plants to coppice, so that you can use them again in the future, is exactly what you want.  This is largely what is happening in Africa – those utilizing prosopis for charcoal do not apply herbicide to the cut stumps or dig out the rootstock – they want the plants to coppice. The same happens in India with regard to the utilization of lantana – communities don’t kill the lantana, they allow it to coppice. In addition, it does not make economic sense to utilize plants growing individually or in small pockets away from these dense infestations, especially in developing countries where we have poor infrastructure.  For a control/management strategy to be effective we need to work from the “outside-in”, removing individual plants or small isolated stands first before moving onto the dense stands – utilization works in the opposite way which is why it is ineffective as a management strategy on its own.

African landscape dominated by prosopis

African landscape dominated by prosopis (Arne Witt, CABI)

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The value of costing nature in the fight against invasive species

Increasingly we are seeing the terms ‘ecosystem services’, ‘ecosystem functioning’ and ‘ecosystem processes’ in the media and the scientific literature, to highlight the benefits the natural environment provides to our wellbeing.  Invasive species, from bivalves to balsams, have the potential to impact on ecosystem services, though it is widely accepted that there are gaps in our understanding within this field.

Ecosystem services can be defined as the ecosystem processes that we as humans benefit from and they can be categorised into four groups:

Provisioning: The ecosystem provides products essential for our everyday needs including timber, fuel, food, genetic resources and medicine.

Regulating: We gain from natural services including pollination of wild plants and crops by bees, by rivers and floodplains providing natural flood management, and climatic regulation.

Cultural: We benefit from natural spaces for recreation and social activity.  We find harmony in natural areas that are aesthetically pleasing.

Supporting: These services underpin all of those mentioned above.  Biological diversity promotes stability and a healthy ecosystem, nutrient acquisition and flow through the ecosystem by fungal and invertebrate decomposers, and primary production.

American Beaver, Castor canadensis - Steve Hersey, Flickr

The north American beaver, Castor canadensis has had a catastrophic impact on Chile’s sub-Antarctic forests impacting on provisional services
Photo: Steve Hersey, Flickr

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