The life of the oldest tree in Mt. Kenya Forest and a major ecological landmark in Meru hangs by a thread after an arsonist ignited a fire in its hollow core and scorched the entire trunk.
After standing for more than three centuries, the tree is now facing death, which deals a severe blow to cultural and ecological protection.
Conservationists are now calling for thorough investigations into Sunday’s arson attack on the giant Meru Oak, popularly known as King Muuru (King of the Meru Oak).
King Muuru is located about five kilometers from the city of Meru in the forest of Imenti and, according to indigenous knowledge, is said to be about 350 years old.
The oak gets its name because of its age, towering height, and huge trunk before its top was broken off a year ago.
King Muuru has a base diameter of 2.7 meters and takes seven adults who hold hands in a circle to hug him.
Before its top broke off for reasons of age last year, King Muuru stood about 50 meters tall, towered over his species and other trees in the forest, and secured his title as King of the Forest.
Another interesting feature of the tree is its hollowed out pith and a door through which one can enter. It can comfortably accommodate several adults. Before it fell apart, the tree had other openings up high that were viewed as windows.
According to Ms. Dorothy Naitore, the tree is important to the Meru community as it has been an attraction for several generations.
Due to its fame, King Muuru is one of the most visited trees in the region, alongside the Mutunguru (Anthocleista grandiflora) of Tharaka Nithi, which is considered one of the tallest trees in the region.
The over 80 meter high Mutunguru, whose age is estimated to be over 200 years, is also an important tourist attraction on the eastern slopes of Mt. Kenya.
The arson attack is a major blow to the conservation and tourism efforts of the local Community Forest Association (CFA).
According to Meru Ecosystem Conservator John Njoroge, the fire was discovered on Sunday after rangers saw smoke rising from the tree.
Assessment of the scene reveals that the fire was set inside the tree, scorching the inside, and withering two of the branches.
It is not yet clear whether the tree, now reduced to a burned hollow trunk, will survive.
“We’re still investigating who was behind the arson attack on the most visited tree in the Mt. Kenya ecosystem. When we discovered the fire, we called the fire brigade from the city of Meru to help extinguish it.
“The fire severely damaged the tree, which is already aged. It is unfortunate that the attack came after we granted a special use license for an ecotourism facility around the tree,” said Njoroge.
The Kenya Forest Service and the CFA intensified patrols in the forest after the arson attack.
“The CFA will be required to post a guard on the site. We will bring in experts to evaluate the tree and advise on how to strengthen it as it is a legacy to the people of Meru,” he said.
The Meru Forest Environmental Conservation and Protection Association (Mefecap), a local CFA, has already set up an ecotourism facility around the giant Meru Oak after receiving funding from the Upper Tana Resources Management project.
Ms. Naitore, a member of the CFA, called for a quick investigation to ensure the arsonist will be held accountable.
She said Mefecap is betting on King Muuru’s fame to have a thriving ecotourism center with nature trails, game swing, picnic area, biking, camping and forest bathing.
“We built sanitation and erected a solar fence around the tree to encourage tourism for the community’s benefit. Tough action should be taken with those who want to thwart our conservation and tourism plans, ”said Ms. Naitore.
Part of the plan to secure the legacy of the giant Meru Oak is to have botanical experts determine its actual age and record its characteristics for educational purposes.
The ecosystem activist said KFS is also working with Meru County Government to develop an arboretum in the Imenti Forest so that city dwellers and visitors can appreciate the forest.