Category Archives: Conservancies

Raptor Camp Update

September 2013 update
The terrorist attack in Nairobi has left us all in confusion. None know their objectives, but one thing is certain. There has been a show of national unity that has allowed all of us to feel a sense of patriotism.
In the last few months I have had much to do. First I have committed myself to moving to Soysambu Conservancy. At the Little Owl Sanctuary, run by Sarah Higgins I have been busy tending to 4 free flying hawks and doing multiple operations to save the wing of an eagle owl and the leg of a sparrowhawk.

Female Black Sparrowhawk pinned leg

Female Black Sparrowhawk pinned leg

There are now some 40 birds and it could grow forcing big changes upon both of us.
We had a visitation from Prof’ John Cooper and his wife Margaret, both very much involved in raptor work, the former a vet the latter versed in law with respect to raptor care in the UK. It was a testing period as the basic foundation for accepting any public participation in all matters to do with wildlife remains absent. Thus for them to present a series of lectures on raptor rehab (on 3rd July 2013) opens a can of worms that could have devastating consequences unless very cautiously worded. Thankfully although KWS stated the legal difficulties of public participation, at the same time all acknowledged the value we collectively have contributed. It highlighted the inconsistencies prevalent in conservation policy in Kenya where legislation and government resources do not meet the facts on the ground. It brought to light levels of ignorance in the understanding of raptors by our veterinary departments that must be improved. We were repeatedly reminded that raptors were a nuisance (in eating chickens), and were disease vectors (in anthrax…which they are not). It ended on a positive note; the need to know more, and Prof Cooper gave us no excuse as he reminded us all that Kenya was one of the first countries in the world to take on raptor medicine. If only bureaucracy gave us a chance!
Not coincidently I fell victim to recurrent exotic disease that may be a Lyme disease type as I fretted and stressed over the outcome of the above. I took the period of enforced “go slow” to recover and focus on treating the hawks and owls at Naivasha.

Dave the male African Goshawk

Dave the male African Goshawk

As if to illustrate the point KWS from Nakuru bought in 4 baby Barn Owls. Unfortunately they had contracted severe enteritis and one by one they died (leaving only one). Usually they are very simple to raise, but one day of sliding around in a box covered in minced meat and a cold damp night may have begun a series of gut infections. Few who do not care for the very sick know the anguish and sense of overbearing responsibility of tending to critically ill patients. I found myself driving to Nairobi, then to Nakuru so as to pop in to help Sarah give them their injections.
A couple of years ago I helped out in doing a documentary in Zambia for Tigress Productions. I was the “expert” vulture man that on occasion was asked a few questions on camera. But my main forte was in dashing about off-screen helping putting in cameras and such. It was something I did as a boy when helping out my father when he did wildlife films. I was asked to help out again for an upcoming documentary on the rains and how it resuscitates a dying eco-system in drought. I shall be off overland in a car next week. That required that I release what I could and this includes a very neat and exceptionally well behaved male Black Sparrowhawk, one of three rescued nestlings whose nest tree was felled. It is often the case that I must release star performers and birds on which I have spent so much time and I confess this time I felt as though I was losing an important asset as well as a companion.

Fidget, now released

Fidget, now released

With what I hope to earn I shall plough it all into building a raptor centre at Soysambu. It’ll be an extension of Sarah’s Little Owl Sanctuary that focuses on the free flying and release of raptors that were first treated at her centre in Naivasha. Naivasha is now built up with a huge human population making little but the immediate shoreline a suitable place for wildlife. Now that the lake has risen that strip of land has submerged and it is not possible to exercise most of the raptors, which in less than a few seconds can be on adjacent properties. Both Sarah and I have realised that the birds and our objectives will outlive us (some live longer than elephants and many are much rarer!) and there must be a long term plan. The last decade has seen the absolute minimum of financial support for wildlife conservation. Formerly it was not that impossible to scratch along getting the odd donation or grant, but today that is not the case. Perhaps if we formed a long term plan with a trust and a board we would get surety asked for by some funders. It had to come one day.
The plan is to meet the demand. Sarah has an ideal location and already existent farm buildings that could be turned into huge captive breeding facilities worthy of condors. There are offices and rooms perfectly suited to state of the art veterinary facilities that could revolutionise veterinary care of raptors and the study of their diseases. All it needs is a little imagination and support.
For my part I do terribly miss my former bush life and must return. My move to Soysambu took a few stages. First was gaining familiarity with the land through Juliet Barnes and Kat Combes. I was only partly familiar with it previously and very anxious to know more. Birds of prey and especially the migrants tend to gravitate towards the Rift Valley lakes. Soysambu Conservancy fringes ¾ of the lake and is alone in the entire Rift (from Israel to Mozambique) in being mostly under private ownership.

The Raptor Camp forest glade, Soysambu Conservancy

The Raptor Camp forest glade, Soysambu Conservancy

The other lakes are either public land, multiple privately owned or protected making it difficult if not impossible to conduct research or conservation management. Here I was free to wander about, climb trees and cliffs and learn. Such accessibility allows flexibility and frees one from the enormously inhibiting, though well meant, restrictions imposed by our national parks and reserves.
As predicted the lake shore is visited every year by over-wintering raptors such as Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles, 3 species of Harriers, 6 species of small migrant falcons, two species of large falcons (the Saker and the Russian Peregrine), and virtually all the others. Here too is a curious cross over point between species found in West and North Africa converge to meet their eastern counterparts. The Grey Kestrel and the Fox Kestrel as well as the rare Mountain kestrel occur there and in adjacent Lake Nakuru. It is also rich in vultures which are today uncommon in much of Kenya. It remains to be seen what else is there, and that will be recorded in time. Perhaps I can invite the various interested NGOs whose focus is on the research and conservation of migrant raptors and help set up a field base for their long term studies. Such a programme is vitally important and although widely understood as such the very protection that shrouds nationally protected lands works to oppose and profit from it and effectively turns such concepts away. To financially profit from critically needed research is to actively discourage it and we should consider the reverse…paying people to come and research and thus conserve. It was what I used to do in the days when I had financial backing and I have every intention of making sure it happens again.
I have chosen a little glade in the forests, some 7km away from the lake shore. In a quiet moment one would imagine wood nymphs among the myriad butterflies and birds that inhabit this odd forest patch. But the permanent residence of some 70 buffalo and a nightly visitation by the leopard bring one back to a good reality. I have every intention of integrating the structures with the surroundings and its animals. The rule is that no-one should see it when overhead or within 50m of it and that no tree or animal is displaced. I just have to befriend the leopard, who a few weeks back sat within 15m watching me cook my dinner on a camp fire. Some 400m to the east is a hill overlooking lakes and distant mountains and a small patch of the Mau Forest on Eburru. Here I aim to once again fly and release eagles, hawks, falcons, buzzards and owls and to regain the ability to focus others on specific areas of concern that I feel needed. I will for the first time have to consider donation paying guests or visitors so as to keep the objectives alive and self-sustainable. In the past I used to pay for visitors to come and get exposure, but now that must change.

My neighbourly Leopard

My neighbourly Leopard

When I return from Zambia I will have a busy end to this year.

Rehabilitating a Tawny Eagle

Rehabilitating a Tawny Eagle

A young Tawny Eagle was rescued from a man trying to sell her on the road side. She was kept in a cage by a caring owner and well looked after, but ruined her primary feathers. Her pen had wire mesh of a harmful type and self destruction was sure to follow. We had corresponded by email but well before he had to leave the country he had decided the best thing was to hand it on to Sarah Higgins.

 Unlike most birds who have gone through so much she was always a happy eagle, without too many faults largely because her first owner took an effort to “man” her. Without being kept on the glove and trained she would almost certainly have been a physical and mental wreck. Certainly those cage walls would have finished off a wild and terrified bird and she’d be unmanageable now.

Sarah built her a sensible shed, with partly enclosed walls with soft (shade netting) windows. I would occasionally drop by to see Rosy and Girl and of course I was immediately enamoured by the new Tawny Eagle. I think her name was originally something like Thunder or similar. Such names make my toes curl and I much prefer names that sum up the less dramatic side of an animal. She was called DuDu, (after an insect) then Boo Boo after all the bungled landings and take offs on her severely clipped wings.

Note clipped wings

Note clipped wings

Boo Boo was flying free in a matter of days. She is a pig for food and all one had to do is show her some and she’d run, hop and fly for it. The noble “art” of falconry is a load of bunkum in actuality and it is as simple as asking a dog to come back and a lot easier than asking a cat or horse to do so. It staggers me still why people make such a fuss about the difficulty and either herald it as a fine thing or damn it because it is so cruel. I find it best just to let raptors fly around and exercise themselves and leave the arguments to those that have the time. As much as Boo Boo would try she would fail to catch anything and often land exhausted before she got to her destination. Many an Egyptian Goose she strove to catch, but would land short.

Falconers “imp” broken feathers. Again this is mystified by some, when all it is, is gluing a replacement feather together to the old broken one to make one good feather. I got some old feathers from a Fish Eagle and imped a few. But she needed the whole lot replaced. Imping them all is possible, but the wings need constant maintenance. If she had flown away she would be in danger. It was best to let her moult on her own. 

Note Fine wings!

Note Fine wings!

It has taken her from Oct 2010 to July 2011 to moult out all her flight feathers. Compare the two photos. Prior to a moult release would have been fatal. It just goes to confirm the danger of cage management and it sadness me that this is still the “approved” method here in Kenya.

When I moved into ‘my pad’ in late May I was despite some absence, able to devote much time to flying her. Boo Boo has excelled herself in catching full grown zebra and wildebeest in front of astonished friends and students. The repeated humiliation of being tossed and thrown to the ground like a bug did not deter her.  Trying to set a new world record is obviously her goal, but wisdom has dawned in her small brain finally and she now tries for more reasonable sized prey.

Soy Sambu Hills

Soy Sambu Hills

On July 2011 she was taken to Soy Sambu Wildife Conservancy, there to meet her future minders, Juliet Barnes and Kat Combes. Jolia Hill lies in the middle of a plain, yet again surrounded by other small hills. Thousands of animals now live on rehabilitated land, once a livestock paddock and fields. Instead of the usual wild habitat removal, it is wild habitat encouragement. Still heady from receiving World Heritage Status for protecting Lake Elementeita the outlook is positive.  All were anxious to be there at the precise moment when Boo Boo was released, little realising the event would be somewhat dampened by the fact that I would call her back immediately. We did all have a good time watching her getting used to her surroundings. I think she was a hit.

Release is NEVER an instant severing of ties. The “rush into the bush and hurl” technique so often the officially approved method, is instead replaced by a smooth transition from captivity to freedom. Already a confident flyer with some stamina Boo Boo still has to find a territory, compete with her neighbouring eagles, and find out what foods are available and how to get it.

Boo Boo chased Jackal, stole food from others, stole food from an Augur Buzzard and got chased out of town off “her” hill. Not that it upset her at all! I had to tramp over hill and dale looking for her for two days. The radio transmitter mounted on her tail, a refurbished memory from some distant project squawked its last breath by giving me misleading directions. Because Boo Boo was so mobile and out of control, I knew I would lose her quickly. So I called her back and returned her to Naivasha with it in mind to return with a better transmitter. With luck there will be a series of adventures relating to Boo Boo’s release to follow!

The Little Owl Sanctuary: Waddlesworth Update

by Sarah Higgins

I am pleased to report that Waddlesworth is not only in fine feather but is also in perfect health.

Thanks to the many responses that we had to our appeal for information on our ‘squishy’ bird, I can now report that Pelicans are supposed to feel as if they have bubble wrap just under their skin because they actually do have the bird-equivalent of bubble wrap just under their skin! These are little air-filled pockets are designed for floatation, insulation and protection when diving. I have been absolutely fascinated by the amount of information that has come in and am very grateful for all of your responses – and also very relieved as it means that there is nothing wrong with Waddlesworth!

Waddlesworth has been for his third flight which, by his standards, was an epic trip. He was so disgusted at being tagged that he actually left home, got lost and ended up in our sheep field behind the house. As we hadn’t seen where he had landed he spent the night there – his first night out in the big wild world! We didn’t discover him ’til the next morning and, as he still wasn’t talking to us, he refused to come home. So I left him there and told our staff to just keep a distant eye on him. By lunch time Sammy (his foster mum) couldn’t bear it any longer and went up to the field, caught him and carried him back home under his arm (much to Waddles’ disgust). At that stage we were still worried about Waddle’s ‘bubble wrap’ so it was decided that he should remain in the walled garden (which he can’t fly out of) until we were sure that he really was OK – which, of course, we now know that he is.

Waddlesworth’s freedom has now been restored to him but he seems to have decided that he is not so interested in this flying business and that life holds far too many interests right here at home. I open his gate every morning and herd him out into the big garden where he mucks about and flaps his wings a lot but still he refuses to fly. On the one hand we are delighted, as we all love that bird to bits (especially Sammy, who is ‘mummy’), but on the other hand he should be getting on with his life. Still – the option is there and the decision is his. He has made friends with Batelle (the new Fish Eagle) and spends hours watching her. He is also pals with ‘Shale’, the tortoise.

Oh not again
Oh not again!

i’m getting out of here
I’m getting out of here!

It is totally ridiculous watching Shale and Waddlesworth sunbathing in the morning. Shale parks himself in the sun and sticks all his limbs out of his shell, Waddles comes along and plonks down beside him and amuses himself by very gently trying to catch Shale’s head, which is smartly withdrawn into the shell, only to reappear a few seconds later. Shale will put up with this for a bit but then gets fed up and moves few inches further away so that his head is not actually reachable and then settles down again.

out of reach
Out of reach

Waddles then plays at trying to pick him up, which of course would be impossible. It really is the silliest thing to watch. Waddles’ beak is very gentle and he is not capable of doing any harm, except with the fish hook on the tip, which he doesn’t seem to use except for picking up his fish. The tortoise doesn’t seem to mind this treatment and is perfectly happy to settle down with Waddles – when he is not being a pest and trying to catch his head!

peace at last
Peace at last

Where are all the vultures?

We were finally ready to go! The expedition launched from Nairobi on February 15 and there was no going back (we hoped). We started with a few more days in the Mara to see if we could catch any vultures. Again, we found no dead animals around, making it impossible to try to catch the vultures. We resorted to following hungry-looking lions hunting. We found three prides, all in hunting mode, but never witnessed a kill. We had given up hope, when on our final morning, on our way towards the exit of the Mara (keen to move on to the Serengeti), we spotted five lions. We just had to go and see.

So we got to the spot and watched as the lions licked at the remains of a topi. A few metres away, 10 jackals were fighting over their own small piece of the kill. And on the sidelines, 12 bloodied hyenas lay watching, looking distinctly peeved. Simon concluded that the hyenas must have made the kill and been pushed off by the lions who now lazed about looking fully fed. One thing was for sure, there was nothing left for vultures to come down to.

lion eating a topi in the mara
Lion with topi head

jackals in the mara
Jackals

Despite not having caught any vultures on this trip or the previous one a month ago, we learned some interesting things about their ecology and the whole Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. It was already known that the vultures were few in the Mara during this time of year while the wildebeests give birth to their calves in the Serengeti. And it’s not surprising! When the wildebeest migration is in the Mara, there are millions of animals and among them, old and sick ones which die and become food for the vultures. The lions, leopards and cheetahs also have a larger prey-base and kill much more often, leaving remains for the scavengers such as vultures. But during this quiet time of year, predators hunt much less frequently, and when they do, they are hungry and don’t leave anything spare. No wonder there were no vultures around!

We looked forward to getting to the Serengeti to see what the vulture situation was down there.

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