In late 2001, I abseiled down a cliff into a gorge just north east of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The edge was covered in thick vegetation and was full of shards of frost that snowed down on my neck as I gingerly let go of my right hand and dropped down only some 50 feet into a deep cave. There was a good few hundred more feet to go, and this explained my caution and fear.
Inside the cave were two very young Bearded Vulture chicks. One was much smaller than the other and aged about three days. The other was about seven days old. I took the elder. In the wild, only one chick survives and so Cain and Abel rescue is the norm in raptor management. It augments the natural reproduction by 100 percent if done cautiously. I was at that time working for the Peregrine Fund, National Museums of Kenya, KWS and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organisation in a project to re-introduce Bearded Vultures (Lammergeyers to some) to Kenya.
I called her ‘Mutt’ after the Amharic explosive exclamation. “Mutt!” is a bit like “What!”
I cannot now remember if it was with her or with another that I was thrown off a Kenya Airways plane in Addis. I had prepared the endless CITES forms, permits, health permits and clearances. Obviously the tiny chick is incapable of being taken down in the hold, as it needed 24-hour care, and its body temperature is entirely dependent on being held close to ones tummy for the duration of the flight. All this had been organized ahead. Yet one of the cabin crew noticed, moved swiftly up the aisle and came back straight away with two stewards and I was escorted outside. The chick had been traumatized enough for the last five hours and its life was hanging in the balance. I gave the stewards the papers to forward to the captain (I had already done it once). But I could see the Captain ignoring me as I sat on the tarmac. Finally I phoned my colleagues in EWCO. They immediately phoned the Foreign Office in Kenya. They phoned back to Kenya Airways, and the Captain was suddenly a different man. Onboard I was ushered and home we went, to be met at Nairobi by Paula Kahumbu’s car.
Mutt and five other Bearded Vultures were taken in this way. It was a good time. For the first time in two decades we had Bearded Vultures flying over Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya. Then we had a few problems, including one being deliberately killed. Mutt used to venture right into this hostile territory and I was advised to take her back into captivity. Two others were left wild as they did not enter that area.
I then put her in a huge shed at Game Ranching in Athi, and over the following five years tried to find her a mate within Kenya. I did find one pair and missed three opportunities to rescue Abel as I was unable to get official assistance in the field. This was the local requirement and easily resolved, but for bureaucracy. I began to regret having taken her back for she sat most of these years alone, but for a few where she lived with an Augur Buzzard and once a Rüppell’s Vulture. The captive breeding of Bearded Vultures is a simple thing, but without clear permission and encouragement it was not going anywhere. With the closure of my collection of raptors and house, Mutt remained the most important of all, and the one that held back our expedition plans and the final closure of my house.
I had released Duchess, a captive bred Crowned Eagle, at Ol Donyo Laro two years ago. The release went well and she is still alive and wild. The location is without doubt the best possible choice in Kenya for the release of Bearded Vultures, given the now enormous human population around Hell’s Gate (the original release site) and the proliferation of very hazardous electrical pylons and geothermal generation in the immediate vicinity. Other locations that once held this rare raptor such as Mt. Kenya, Mt. Elgon, Cheranganis, the Ndutus, Mt. Kulal and Sololo are either heavily influenced by humans, regularly poisoned or simply logistically impossible to release.
Mark Jenkins at Ol Donyo Laro stepped in to help. He has taken on the task of managing the wildlife and habitat of the area and has a personal interest in assisting one of Kenya’s most endangered animals. He phoned on Wednesday, January 20th to ask if we could be ready to move her the next day. On the day, Laila and I gathered up Mutt and drove her into town and got on a plane to Ol Donyo Laro. Mark had built a fine pen for her. She will remain in this new pen for a while, adapting her internal map of the area and getting used to the local scene. She will then be moved to the very highest peak overlooking known Bearded Vulture habitat in Kenya and across into Tanzania. From there we hope to release her, preferably with a PTT (satellite transmitter tag) or one of the new cellular phone GPS transmitters. I costs a small fortune, but possibly no other single animal is as valuable as she. With some luck, she will make her home here in one of the wildest and best quality locations in our region. It will be the end of a long story, and perhaps the beginning of a new and more vigorous campaign to re-instate Bearded Vultures in Kenya.
Mutt on her way to the airport
Mutt deserves a little fame for her species – Digg this story!