The forest was gazetted in 1932 and consequently extended in 1968 and is rich in biodiversity, but of particular importance is the exceptionally high degree of endemism. This, together with the forest’s large area of continuous woody vegetation (covering 420 sq. km, most remaining coastal forests cover only a few hundreds of hectares, sometimes much less) gives it a very high conservation value.
In 2019, the forest became included in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme and its ecosystem promotes solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. The Arabuko-Sokoke Forest provides significant natural habitat for the conservation of rare and endangered mammal species, including three globally threatened species of mammals: the Golden-rumped elephant shrew, Ader’s duiker and Sokoke bushy tailed mongoose.
This forest also serves as an important bird area with over 270 bird species recorded, from which 6 are globally threatened: Clarke’s Weaver (vulnerable), Sokoke Scops Owl (endangered), Spotted Ground Trush, Sokoke pipit, East Coast Alakat and Amani Sunbird.
It is also rich in butterfly species with an estimated c.30% of the butterfly species of Kenya recorded within it. Its checklist consists of 282 butterfly species of which four are endemic.
The forest is composed of mixed lowland forest, open Brachystegia woodlands, and Cynometra forest and thickets and supports 50 globally or nationally rare plant species.
Arabuko-Sokoke Forest is a conservation island, surrounded by a growing human populations. Today there are 54 villages that are directly adjacent to the 120 kilometer perimeter of the forest, comprising of about 150,000 people. The population consists mostly of small-scale subsistence farmers who utilize the forest to support some of their livelihood requirements. Agriculture is the main source of livelihood. Area is characterized by high poverty estimated at 71.7 per cent and widespread food insecurity affecting approximately 67% of the households. Current socioeconomic status forces communities to continue to rely on natural resource exploitation from the forest.
The Waata (Sanya) people are the original forest-dwelling, hunter-gatherer community who lived in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. The main ethnic group surrounding the forest today is the Giriama who are one of nine Mijikenda tribes that occupy most of the Kenya inland coastal region.
Important components of sustainable natural resource management strategies across East Africa are the necessity of ensuring clear incentives for communities to limit local resource use to sustainable levels, including the provision of non-forest alternative sources of income and subsistence and a legitimate participation in forest management.
Reforms in the forestry sector led to the government adopting Participatory Forest Management (PFM) as a strategy to sustainably manage of Kenya’s forests and woodland areas for current and future generations. The recognition of forest adjacent communities as key stakeholders and users of natural resources is considered vital if successful management is to be attained. The Act provides for communities living beside the forests to enter into collaborative management agreements with Kenya Forest Service through Community Forest Associations (CFAs).
Arabuko-Sokoke forest is administratively divided into three forest stations, thus three community forest associations are established and participate in the forest management. Their members undertake various economic and social activities namely butterfly farming, beekeeping, herbal medicine collection, Eco-tourism activities, tree nurseries and fuel wood collection. However, as population increases, so has the pressure on the natural resources, and this has led to the need to initiate alternatives to enhance sustainable use of forest resources.
The Arabuko-Sokoke Forest has for many years faced many conservation challenges. Rural communities living next to the forest have more and more exploited it for their livelihoods and settled on its boundary which inevitably resulted in human – wildlife conflicts. Crops were raided by wildlife species including elephants, buffaloes, bush pigs, monkeys, birds and rodents. Of particular importance was crop raiding by elephants, which was a major concern to forest adjacent communities.
A 110 km solar powered electric fence was erected around the forest over the years and has solved the problem of elephants and buffalo damaging crops adjacent to the forest. Arabuko- Sokoke Forest is today an island, entirely surrounded by an electric fence. Crop destruction by elephant and buffalo was the greatest threat to the livelihoods of adjacent communities prior to the electric fence erection. The communities around the Forest value the fence highly and appreciate the protection it provides. Baboon are now the greatest threat to crops close to the Forest edge.