Kenya: Celebrating Vultures at Ol Pejeta

by Nov 4, 2011Birds

The clouds part. On the left is the Aberdare range where the intrepid Joseph Thomson spent a night in 1883 and saw “the gleaming snow-white peak” of Mt Kenya, confirming Dr Ludwig Krapf’s sighting on December 3, 1849. Krapf’s report had been ridiculed, because snow on the equator was said to be impossible.

“God’s mountain” reveals itself a few kilometres from Nanyuki; the peaks of Mt Kenya are drenched white as are its flanks. Krapf spotted the mountain from miles away in Ukambani.

The Kamba called it Kiima Nyaa, or the mountain of ostriches, and the Kikuyu called it Kiri Nyaga, meaning the same, for the plains around it were full of ostriches.

Krapf called it Kegnia and the British administrators coined it Kenya, which in 1920 became the official name of this country.

Rich pastures

So much for history. We drive along the Sagana, which is in full spate, past the equator into Nanyuki and finally into Ol Pejeta Conservancy to mark the International Vulture Awareness Day (Ivad) – albeit a month later, for it is held on September 3.

Our abode for the night is Pelican House, a beautiful country home beside a pond frequented by pelicans and plains game.

The copper-coloured impala are bigger than any I’ve seen. It must be because of the rich pastures of this 90,000-acre conservancy.

An enormous elephant walks past the rhino enclosure where the four northern white rhinos are kept under tight vigilance.

These four from the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic are the last of the eight surviving in the world.

Baraka, the blind black rhino, has taken over as ambassador of his species from Morani, who passed away on August 9, 2008.

My mammal list has the reticulated giraffe (there are 204 here), Grevy’s zebra, eland, Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle, Jackson’s hartebeest and the bridge which reads “only two elephants are allowed to cross at any one time”.

Research on the reticulated giraffes, once so plenty on the plains, shows that even though they are in no competition with humans or other wildlife, it’s the loss of habitat, mainly due to humans, that is their biggest threat.

I’m with the Raptor Working Group of Nature Kenya, the organisers of Ivad with support from Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Laikipia Wildlife Forum.

On the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro, groups of school children arrive. There isn’t a vulture in the sky but there’s plenty of artwork and passionate poems about these poor birds that are the innocent victims of poisoning.

Killer pesticide

Unfortunately, in Kenya and elsewhere, agro-pastoralists have found a new use for carbofuran, a pesticide; they are using it to lace bait for carnivores such as lions, which kill livestock.

A few grains kill a lion in minutes and a few pecks of the poisoned lion kill vultures, hence the crash in numbers by 96 per cent in the last two decades in Asia and Africa.

“Vultures are good for the environment,” says Jane Gathoni, a pupil from Irura Primary School in Nanyuki. Almost every child has something to say.

“They keep the environment clean by eating dead animals,” says another. “This way, they stop diseases from spreading.”

It’s great to listen to them. Hopefully, with children this aware, there’s a better chance of survival for the last of the wild vultures.

The raptor scientists from The Peregrine Fund, Darcy Ogada and Munir Virani, who first raised the alarm in Kenya about the crash in populations, tell us more.

Six of the eight species are listed as endangered, Dr Ogada says. “These big raptors are at the top of the food chain,” adds Dr Virani.

“They feed on wildlife, so if there is enough food, it’s an indicator of the health of the wildlife.” Another wildlife expert, Dr Erastus Kanga of Kenya Wildlife Service, agrees.

Focus on recovery

“We need to look at vulture recovery plans. And it means focusing on ecosystems and communities,” he says.

As the children take off for the afternoon game drive to look for lions, cheetahs and rhinos as well as the rescued chimpanzees at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, we meet a lone lioness stalking in the long grass.

She’s lactating. Her cubs must be around here somewhere.