Vultures: The Third Eye Faces Extinction in Kenya
By Curity Ogada
I became aware of vultures at a very young age, they used to be everywhere! Their weird look was usually what caught my attention. Their feathers were always ruffled and some parts of their bodies, especially their necks and heads, were just bald. Their beaks were often bloody, their eyes looked almost dead. Their beaks could not be categorized as catchy, sharp and hooked to help them tear open carcasses.
They are not the most beautiful of birds. They have no outstanding features, it is so easy to ignore them. In fact, they come off as a bit haunting especially if they decide to come in their large numbers and circle a particular area needing access to a decaying carcass. No one pays attention to vultures unless they are in their way, unless you witness a sight of them scavenging carcasses. They seem to add no value, just some dirty, ugly birds.
Unbeknownst to me, vultures are quite exquisite birds. They love to soar and feed as a group, more like family. Vultures are more than just their looks, they are like a watch tower, they see what we cannot see, and they have eyes everywhere, looking and needing to catch sight of any carrion. They see secrets, hidden agenda, they see evil. They are a third eye, the police.
They are always watching from far above, waiting for death to happen and land on a carrion.
Over the years, I realized, I no longer spot as many vultures as I used to. They have become quite rare indeed. When I moved to Nairobi, five years ago, I would spot them near Nyayo Stadium, a few kilometers from Nairobi Central District. They had identified a slaughterhouse, commonly known as “Bama” , where they would feast on remains of slaughtered cows, goats and sheep.
As the years progressed however, I noticed their steady decline from sight.
In 2015 Birdlife International made an announcement that sent shockwaves throughout the conservation community: Africa’s vultures are on a steep slide towards extinction. In all, six of Africa’s 11 vulture species were placed in a higher extinction risk category – reflecting sharp populations’ declines that brought to mind the catastrophic collapse of Asia’s vultures in the 1990s.
Where are the vultures today?
My search to trace these incredible birds began in Kajiado county, it is the richest in Kenya when it comes to wild animals.
Kajiado County is 62 kilometers from Nairobi County. You can access its major towns: Kitengela, Rongai and Kiserian by bus but some areas are so remote, one can only use motorbikes.
Photo Kiserian town, Kajiado
According to the 2019 Kenya Populations and Housing Census, the population of Kajiado county was 1,117,840. It has an annual growth rate of 5.5% and a population density of 51 people per km2. Main activities include pastoralism, livestock herding, tourism and agriculture. Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Associations reports Kajiado County as hosting the highest number of conservancies (24), followed by Taveta County.
My first stop, Isinya. Due to the vastness of Kajiado County, I am obliged to go the rest of my search using a motorcycle.
24-year-old Paul Kimani picks me up and decides to give me a tour. The terrace is quite windy and dusty, Kajiado has had its fair share of dry seasons and this day was no different, but I was unperturbed.
Paul knows Kajiado so well, apart from being a motorist, he was born here. His life has been in Kajiado, since being a toddler to now a family man of three girls, he loves it here. But the county he knew then, during his junior years is not the same.
Kajiado has vast open land, mostly public but others are privately owned, full of acacia trees and scarce grass. We pass by several nomads, moving their cattle in search of water. It is a dry season, over five months no rain and it is evident. Once in a while we catch sight of Impalas in the distant bush, nothing more in terms of other animals.
“We used to have so many animals walking around in these regions, mostly Zebras, Impalas, Hippopotamus”, Paul remembers. Smiling a bit at the warm memories.
It gets really windy here and cold, really cold, my teeth chatter. This spot “corner baridi” that Paul calls “cold corner” is a few kilometers from Kiserian. It is very beautiful but no animals are in sight. A few private homes can be spotted in the distant hills.
“There used to be so many wild animals that roamed these areas. At this spot you would never miss at least 3-10 animals just grazing or sometimes looking for water,” he continued. “Mostly Impalas and Zebras, and no tree would miss a family of birds, there were birds everywhere and vultures were among them. I would not travel a kilometer before spotting at least 4-5 vultures. They were part of the community. I personally loved vultures, there was a time I found one dead and I preserved its bones, I honestly cannot remember where the bones are now,” he smiles at the nostalgic memory.
Paul points an area that was swarmed with animals and vultures in the past
“But then, back in high school years ago there was an incident, two impalas had been killed, and beside the decaying meat, there were around 8 vultures dead, but it was just the beginning it became a norm, you would come across several zebras or impalas dead and vultures would not miss at the sight”, he struggled with his last paragraph, “my friends one day were arrested and later arraigned in court, a few days later one of them was released on bond, the other one was released after several weeks, I heard they were fined ksh.300, 000 at the time and their parents sold some cows to settle.”
Years later, he learnt, they had a market for game meat. They had met some unscrupulous people who were interested in buying the animals for game meat and body parts. It seemed they used a particular poison that killed the vultures on the spot. He never made contact with them and so he does not know if they ever stopped poaching completely.
He says even though his friends were arrested and released, there were still more culprits and more wildlife crime led to even more vulture’s death, no one really cared about the vultures at that point. Soon there were not many animals left and the government also brought in some animal wardens, who helped tame the poaching a bit, but then perhaps a little too late.
According to the #WildEye East Africa data map by InfoNile and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism though there have been several cases of arrests and convictions as a result of wildlife crime in Kenya, only one case has involved vultures.
In this particular case, the suspect, a camel owner, was arrested after being linked to the poisoning of 18 endangered vultures. Initial investigations indicated that the endangered birds died after eating poisoned camel carcasses.
My journey at this point bore no fruits, no vulture insight and no animal spotted. We part. I am, however, overcome with sadness, thinking about the birds and animals’ fate. A fate forced on them because of greed and negligence. This does not deter me. A world without vultures is bleak. Vultures need to be saved and fast.
Do We Need vultures?
According to a documentary by Netflix called Animal, vultures are very crucial in maintaining the ecosystem. They do the dirty work of keeping our planet clean, stomachs as acidic as car batteries destroy any bacteria and viruses they eat and they deny disease-spreading insects a place to breed. We need vultures. But their numbers are plummeting.
In just 15 years, 97% of India’s vultures were killed, poisoned by feeding on the carcasses of cattle treated with a drug called Diclofenac; other raptors have suffered a similar fate according to research by Animal Documentary on Netflix. This can easily happen to Kenya too.
Many birds of prey are still under pressure, seen as a threat to livestock and game, they are persecuted and when habitat is destroyed, they lose food and shelter.
Data from Africa Wildlife Poisoning Database also reveals that vultures are the most poisoned wildlife species in Kenya since 2000. Between 2000 and 2020, 257 poisoning cases involving the death of 8,172 individual wildlife species were recorded, among them 775 vultures.
Vultures accounted for 49 per cent of all the poisoning incidents during the same period.
In 2020, Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of Worldlife Direct and recently Nat Geo board member wrote an open letter to the Kenya Wildlife Service to stop the Koroga Festival that was scheduled at Hells Gate National Park.
Hells Gate and the physically attached Njorowa Gorge has a long history as a prime wildlife location. Given its magnificent cliffs, nesting raptors, scenic views and wildlife profusion it stood out as one of the most precious areas in Kenya treasured by generations who could access it relatively cheaply and without the confines of a 4 wheel drive car. It was, and still is one of the most diverse of all protected areas with more species diversity per km2 than any other non-wetland ecosystem.
She argues in her letter that, “the park owes its existence to the “Main Wall; one of the highest cliff faces in the entire Kenyan Rift Valley floor. It is the womb, the maternity ward to which tens of thousands of swifts, bats, swallows, falcons, eagles and vultures must go to nest. Vultures we know from proven tracking records of satellite tags traverse most of Kenya, northern Tanzania, Ethiopia and Sudan and then come here to nest…and we are about to expose them all to a tragically misplaced holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Yet again.”
A BBC documentary reports that Out of 11 vulture species found in Africa, 7 are on the verge of extinction. In Kenya, one species – bearded vulture – has less than five individuals remaining according to conservationists. Poisoning has been cited as the major cause of the vulture population decline over the past 3 decades stemming from numerous incidences of human wildlife conflicts.
My next stop; Aberdare National Park
Abdi Mohammed, a warden at Aberdare National Park a protected area in the Aberdare Mountain Range in Central Kenya located East of the East African Rift Valley says, there was a time he saw vultures in the park, but there were incidents of poaching, he never witnessed a scene himself, but his colleagues did. “This side of Aberdares, there are not much wild animals left, most had declined due to poaching and natural causes, we only have countable elephants, leopards, gazelles and hyenas and some bird species, I guess the vultures migrated to the upper Aberdares where there are still several animals under conservation and there, they get meat”, noted Abdi.
“I used to enjoy bird watching so much especially when there were vultures around, not the most loved birds but they are not to be ignored, sad they are not as many left now,” Abdi said with a painful look.
Dear readers, all is not lost, there is hope…
Conservation of vultures
Set deep in the remote Kajiado, there is a Vultures Protector, a hero in fact, so passionate about conserving vultures. Meet Robert Kaai, a 34 year old gentleman who holds a masters in Conservation Biology. He has deep passion in Wildlife management, ornithology especially Raptors conservation.
“Vultures are the only animals that feed on dead animals, that means they help clean the parks and other protected areas. Without vultures then we don’t have the parks, then no tourism and dead GDP (Gross Domestic Product),” he narrates.
Photo-Griffon Vulture, Gyps Fulvus, one of the species at Kwenia Sanctuary.
His passion for vultures began way back, a bizarre story really, when he was 14 years old, one day while herding livestock in his family land near Kwenia Vultures cliff, he met some ornithologist, Munir Virani and Simon Thomset who would become his second family. They supported his education at Egerton University, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science.
He continued to collect data for them and later on in 2021 went into vulture conservation by partnering with Kenya Birds of Prey Trust and ended up creating the first ever and only Vultures Sanctuary in Africa called Kwenia Vultures Sanctuary. It is located in Kajiado, South of Nairobi approximately 90km from Nairobi Central District. The sanctuary is home to the Ruppell Griffon Vultures, White back vultures, Egyptian vultures, Lappet faced vultures, Hooded vultures and many species of eagles.
Talking about vultures really brings such a lightness to his features, “ I love vultures because they help reduce spread of zoonotic diseases, I am amazed by the fact that they can travel upto thousands of kilometers in just one day. They live in small spaces in the ecosystems and honestly we need these incredible birds more than they do us”.
Kaai says that vultures are critically endangered species due to their feeding habits, they feed on carrions and therefore easily get poisoned and also they live on cliffs that are prone to anthropogenic disturbances.
“Flying vultures are a major signal of dead animals somewhere, killed by either other animals or poached, so poachers are poisoning them to protect themselves from being seen by authorities, it is sad that vultures can sometimes be poached to have their feathers used to make arrows and some even believe vulture feathers can be used to cleanse their clients in superstition practices.
Kaai wishes the government would invest more into vulture conservation by enforcing stringent laws on poisoning, fastening vulture protection areas process of registrations and helping by distributing/ hiring vulture guardians across the country.
“Kenyans need to be more informed, especially communities that live closer to wild animals and birds. Together we can help save these birds,” he contends with a glimmer of hope.
Imagine if we had more people like Kaai, with a fierce passion to protect and preserve. Time has come for action. We need the vultures, the wild animals need the vultures, their survival solely depends on eradication of poaching and more conservation. If the vultures can help us monitor and track the evil act of poaching, then we need to act fast. Our third eye, the vultures need us, the animals need us. We all have a Robert in us, we just need to activate it and take ACTION.
Support for development and production of this story came from InfoNile, in partnership with Oxpeckers, with funding from the Earth Journalism Network.