Category Archives: Poisoning

An idea is born

With my newfound passion for birds of prey, it was obvious that Simon and I would be crossing paths again. I was working at Kipling Camp by Kanha Tiger Reserve at the same time as Munir, Pat and Simon were planning their twice-a-year vulture census in India. As you might already have read from Simon’s entry, vultures have suffered a disastrous decline in South Asia due to poisoning by diclofenac. I was invited to join the team for part of the expedition and jumped at the chance. It turned out to be another great experience. We took a boat down the Chambal River, with cliffs on both sides on which we saw vultures, peregrines, eagles and owls. We also spent time in Ranthambore (where I saw my first wild tiger) and Bandhavargh National Parks.

A Brahminy Kite fishing in Kerala, India

Another continent. A few months later. This time, I was studying primates in the tropical rainforest of the Osa Peninsula in south-western Costa Rica and helping to manage a lodge there. Simon had long been interested in seeing the birds of prey of the New World, for reasons that he can explain in his own entry. I thought this to be a good opportunity to repay Simon for his kindness in looking after me so well in Kenya. Knowing him to be going through a transition stage, with his mind open to travel, I invited him to come and stay.

The stunning New World King Vulture

During the frequent rainy afternoons at Terrapin Lodge, Simon painted birds of prey as I went through photographs and attempted some of my own paintings (which I will not be showcasing). We started talking about producing a book, full of beautiful photographs and paintings, on the birds of prey of Africa, and what began as the germ of an idea started to take root and grow. As we bounced ideas off each other and started to make plans, we realised we would be embarking on an incredible adventure that would take us through much of Africa. More about that in my next post.

A reunion in the Mara

Simon and I joined forces again not too long after my time in Athi River, this time to take on the Mara. Our mission was to catch and tag vultures for research, this during the wildebeest migration. Our work involved tracing vultures back to a carcass, setting nooses on the carcass so that vultures would get caught in them, and then quickly removing the noose from the vulture, tagging its wing and releasing it.

Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture

On the first day, we did a trial run, which was actually successful. I sat there, holding my first vulture, and was amazed at how beautiful it was. Having grown up with the same preconception as most that vultures are ugly creatures, I was stunned to find them to be elegant fliers, masters of the sky. Over the course of that week in the Mara, my respect for these animals increased. This only served to deepen my sadness about the poisoning of wildlife that is taking place, which ultimately affects a huge number of vultures that feed on the poisoned carcasses.

Holding my first vulture

Spending a week in the Mara led to other wildlife treats. We came across what has to be one of the largest wild pythons on the planet. Cat sightings included leopards, cheetahs, and lions making a kill. Contrary to the average person, I am much more at ease bathing in rivers and eating camp food than having hot showers and fancy dining. There’s also nothing quite like going to sleep to the sounds of lions and leopards calling into the night.


The use of Poison against wildlife.

In the twelve Agatha Christie murder mysteries the most popular method used for killing people was poison. Poison is difficult to detect, it is quiet, easily concealed and it is difficult to prove “whodunit”. It has about it a certain horror ideal for a good novel. It is underhand in the extreme and it must be a terrible way to die.

Perhaps for these very same reasons poisons are used on wildlife by poachers and those with a grievance against wildlife. There is mounting evidence to suggest that poison is now the commonest method used to kill carnivores and it is certainly the least detected and appreciated.

A possible melodramatic use of poison could be by a community terrorised by a marauding large carnivore, such as a lion that has taken livestock and has cunningly overcome obstacles such as thick thorn bomas, wire fences and ignored loud noises shouting men and persisted in robbing their only livelihood. It cautiously avoided being shot, live trapped or snared and is difficult to kill in any other way.

Poison is spread on one of its dead victims, the lion is killed and rural life returns to normal. Such an extraordinary incident is not inconceivable and it could find the approval of most people unfamiliar with the behind-the-scenes carnage this one act invariably commits.

Unfortunately poisons are not as discriminate as a bullet which, sad as it may be, would not kill (much) more than its target. (Lead from hunter’s guns is one of the chief causes of condor poisoning in USA). In the following the object is not to dismiss real and justified claims made against wildlife, but to highlight the innate danger of poisoning and to call for its ban. I have seen poisons used against wildlife across the entire spectrum of civil society from the elite land owner, the university trained academic livestock/agriculturalist, nomadic pastoralists, government and civil wildlife conservators, government health Dept’s and children in rural areas. It isn’t a class issue, but it is unique in its local prevalence of use, from house-holds to national parks. When poisons are used to kill wildlife when an alternative is possible or no real damage has occurred, or if the perpetrator is guilty of trespass into a wildlife area or if they seek profit, the act is clearly criminal. Equally if poisons are used to kill “problem animals” when no or very little effort was made to avoid the problems they caused (such as not using traditional bomas or modern fences, or not shooing it away) then it cannot be acceptable.

Today there are other oblique reasons for killing wildlife that border close to political manipulation and poison may be the weapon of choice as its impact is devastating, indiscriminate and it smacks of terrorism. Nothing has as much visual impact as the twisted carnage of bodies scattered like a bomb-blast over hundreds of square meters, or even kilometers. It sends a powerful message particularly so when it is done in, or right next to protected areas.

The pollution problem, masked by rapid loss of habitat and wildlife.

At a recent meeting in our National Museums of Kenya I heard a presentation regarding the use of Furudan©, an exceptionally lethal poison often used against wildlife. The presenter had much to say about the extremely toxic nature of this one chemical that was alarming and very pertinent, but he and many of those assembled were unaware of the manner of its application in the wildlife areas for the specific purpose of killing animals. Some assumed the poisons to enter the environment after its legitimate use in the fields, and like so many other scenarios, trickle into food chains and end up ultimately killing wildlife and raptors in particular, through a process called ‘bio-accumulation”. It is the stuff of text books and perhaps because this is so widely known it distracts many (including myself) from the other innumerable ways agro-chemicals can kill raptors.

The bio-accumulation route happens here in Eastern Africa at a vast scale, particularly so because we still justify the use of stable chemicals such as an array of organochlorines long since banned or very strictly controlled abroad. But this is compounded and confused by the fact that the majority of actual mortalities occur as a result of the use of what are often termed ‘safe’ pesticides, the unstable and (supposedly) quickly decomposing organophosphates and carbamate pesticides. But these can be applied much higher up the food chain, even right on the raptor’s food (such as the use of fenthion an avicide, sprayed directly on millions of seed-eating birds each year…that are in turn eaten by raptors). The ‘safe’ pesticides are the most destructive of all but the least detectable post-mortem and therefore largely ignored. A pesticide biologist has a much easier task in detecting the infamous DDT, for it sticks around for decades but it may be a red herring to focus too much attention away from the more direct deaths that occur through the use of ‘safe’ quickly bio-degrading pesticides.

In the bush where I am lucky to live, away from the eyes of the law and free to do as my neighbours do I am aware of the absence of accountability. It is so prevalent that I have rarely notice it until I meet visiting shocked and surprised up-right members of civil society who assume (I have no idea why) that out there in the hills people astutely read the labels of pesticide bottles. Some do, but many don’t. I am hopeless. If it doesn’t die immediately, add more, double the dose (In reference to house-hold pest insects of course that end up poisoning other stuff too).

I remember taking a colleague past a group of people who at the end of the day went down to the Athi River and washed out their back-pack sprayers. He almost yelled out loud, he went on to speak of the need to wear masks when spraying fields. I said “Yeah, whatever”. That river was so polluted anyway from leather tanneries up-stream that I had seen all the fish, hippo, crocodiles, otters, Fish Eagles, cormorants, and king fisher’s belly up and floating down-stream a few years earlier (about 1988). The tanneries, situated right in the flood zone of the river, would regularly open and flush their toxic waste tanks with river water. They continued to do so it was said, because the owners paid someone to turn a blind eye and no-body cared. Less than 500m from that, in flowed a bright green stream of waste from a brewing company.

Further on massive flower farms have ditches running from their fields right into the river. If you just spent the morning looking into 2-3 km of that one river, you’d give up, or be persuaded to do so, especially if you have no lobby group support.


Athi River. 1990.

That was 20 years ago, long before innumerable industries and farms sprouted along its banks. Now it hardly flows anyway and it is long since dead. Shame, for I remember many thousands of wildebeest and zebra crossing it, to be chomped by huge crocodiles to the cacophony of grunting hippos, only a few kilometers down stream from the main Mombasa road. 200 buffalo and some 20 lions roamed those vast plains and abandoned sisal plantations and apart from the absence of thousands of vehicles it looked little different from the famous spectacles of the Mara/Serengeti. It took less than 2 years to kill the lot and to fell nearly every tree, after the guillotine decision was made to sub-divide and develop those ‘idle’ ranches. To fuss over pollution in the face of this planned and near complete loss of wildlife, the inevitable outcome of land sub-division and massive settlement schemes would seem ridiculous now, but we should for if humans and livestock have now replaced those wildlife we must now accept that they too are being slowly poisoned.

The emerging truth is that we do now carry a medley of toxic chemical burden greater than that of most western nations. We do not have their ability to screen pollutants or diagnose the problems they cause or have workable strict regulations on their use. We Kenyans like to brag to foreign tourists and visitors when we hand them a bowl of our finest fresh produce about it being pure and clean of pollutants, but it isn’t and we aren’t either. Destination countries of our exported horticultural produce are sometimes known to discard entire shipments because they do not meet their standards. We get all huffy because it meets our standards, but that says more than it first seems. We may accept this view when standing knee-deep in plastic bags clogging foul streams in all our cities and rural towns, or under a sheet of plastic in a vast greenhouse but we’d be surprised to learn that the rivers which fill the screens of wildlife documentaries are almost as bad. In countries where so many pressing issues consume the energies of its people, pollution is an extravagant thought no matter how malignant it may be to our personal health, let alone to wildlife.

Typical of so many problems, the moment you look into it you are over-whelmed. The matter of pollutants in Eastern Africa inadvertently sliding into our eco-systems is real and certainly assisted by a populace who remain unaware of the dangers despite it being the standard environmental cliché of the western world and taught in Primary schools. There are governing bodies in place, but these at their self-admission are seldom capable of keeping abreast of the problems. But this isn’t the focus of this discussion. I am guilty of the distraction as are my colleagues. No, it is much more simple. It is the use of agro-chemicals in deliberately persecuting large wildlife.

Case Histories.

I have been unfortunate to have witnessed at first-hand some poisoning cases and have spent many an hour arguing the matter over with livestock owners. Perhaps three personally recorded incidents may give the reader some insight into just how all this happens, the level of threat, the justification and the results. In rereading the notes I made at the time I believe that much of the personal inflection I left out was actually the most valuable in getting to fully understand the rationale of people that use poisons and the implications regarding its dispersal. This may help change what I sometimes suspect, is an outsider effort to de-criminalise poisoning by allowing perpetrators a legal way out by their claim to ignorance……by illustrating that I never met any that were unaware of the devastation caused or showed any sign of remorse. It may not be, I hasten to add, the rule and things may be different elsewhere. Case 1. gives an interview, 2. gives the result and some reasonable speculative thought on the probable extent of damage, and 3. gives an idea on how easy it is to do 1. & 2.

In March 2004 I stood arguing with a group of young men who had poisoned a cow (with “Karate©) that had been killed the night previously by spotted hyenas. Karate is principally a termite poison, but they had a bottle around to put into a flat bowl filled with curdled milk to kill the unbearable number of flies. They and about 5 other similar bomas had recently immigrated in from desperately over-grazed land from the south and had settled about one kilometer from my house with some 250 head of cattle each. In some respects they were representative of a vast cattle industry and they were all working for well educated professional livestock owners. The sick cow had been left out of the “boma” (or “Kraal”) during the rain and was easy pickings. They must have heard the animals that killed the cow, for it was not 70m from their temporary tin hut. One herder had even got out to see them but did nothing about it. A couple of shouts, a few well aimed rocks and plus perhaps, dare it be suggested, bringing the sick cow into the boma would have solved the situation.

The hyena tracks were everywhere. Because it was muddy I was barefoot at the time and it was easy to walk into the so-called predator proof boma without lifting a leg or pricking my feet. All six bomas were similar and that showed just how shoddy their management of cattle was in this rich wildlife area.

They insisted their lives were in jeopardy and that these “lions” (yes they had mistaken hyenas for lions) could kill them all. They were indignant, insisting that the ranch on which they had rented grazing compensate them, or they would threaten to take matters into their own hands. (You must understand that they are answerable to the cattle owner, and they might loose their job for neglect of duty. It is easy to blame others and to extort compensation by threatening to take it out on wildlife). It was important to note that these men came from a vast area to our south that the tourist world would know to harbour pastoral people that “lived in harmony” with wildlife. After a while I began to understand that only one had actually ever seen a lion before, implying something far short of a harmonious relationship back home. They were proud of the fact that their home area was now devoid of predators and they held a condescending view that we still had them. This, they said, explained their lack of knowledge in constructing a suitable boma to protect their cows at night.

2 points here:

1. The level of discrimination between animals and the targeting of those individuals that actually do the predation of livestock was minimal.
2. The effort made to protect livestock from predation was minimal.

It may be foolish therefore to assume (as many do) that all those who poison know what they are targeting, or that they have a genuine problem that has no other solution. Significantly each understood it was illegal to shoot the “lions”, and interestingly all thought that if they or the ranch did so they would get into trouble, irrespective of the ambiguous legal rights to protect property, because of the bureaucracy and official latent distrust of private use of firearms. But none thought it bad to poison animals. Bedsides, once the cow had been poisoned and they had left the site it was out of their hands who would get poisoned and who would not. God would decide. It was the personal choice of the ‘lion’, to live or die as it was of the vultures. In such a case how could anyone incriminate them?

Main point here:

1. The assumed lack of culpability poisoning has over the use of any other method.

As I was getting on so well (I paid for the water for their cows) I asked what of the jackals, eagles and vultures that would all die? Their answer was very important! “Who cares? They are all useless vermin (‘adhui’ in Kiswahili). Besides we know that if they die it sends a message to all the others not to come near. Their bodies may be eaten by hyena or lions and leopards, and so kill them for a long distance around. This is good for our cows.” I wish I had a tape recorder, because so many outside observers appear to make their own conclusions that these deaths are “non-target”, when in practice they may be actively killed as well. Of course if one tailors the question regarding vultures by explaining their protected status and beneficial side, the response is agreeable. Incidentally I did later video this particular group when they were using back-pack sprayers on their cattle that drifted the aerial atomised cloud (in this case Triatix©, possibly mixed with Karate©) downwind to my house where it killed over 40 Speke’s Weavers and Grey capped Social Weavers in less than 1 hour (who fell out of the trees stone dead) and an Augur Buzzard (who fell off the glove stone dead). Despite the high probability of them being able to kill my entire collection of eagles, Lammergeyers and rare falcons and hawks their attitude was confrontational and they would not desist. In other words, despite being well informed, educated and in the process of poisoning animals, and being challenged to stop it by a person of some managerial capacity (me), they continued, claiming no responsibility. Living just downwind with the threat of instant loss of all ‘my’ collection was unsettling to say the least and I had much time to dwell on a matter that I have never had to so forcefully contend with before.

Malice is not a common term used in the investigation of these incidents, but surely it inflicts rural pastoral people as much as it does anyone else, and it should be considered in a legal review. However it was not necessarily the sole motive. So under-appreciated is the ‘wildlife’ around them, so ‘useless’ and of no economical value that there exists an underling element hard to define. If wildlife is seen to possess land, or to deny complete and unrestricted use of land, it is seen as an annoyance. This perception cannot be helped by the continued removal of all rights for wildlife ‘possession’ in private and communal land.


Shortly afterwards on 18th April 2004 while talking to someone at ranch HQ I happened to look above his head at a large spiral of rising vultures. It was about 9AM, the perfect time for thermals. Two vultures left the thermal and rolled, straightened out and flattened out in a fast uncontrolled downward glide. Immediately behind them one other vulture rolled, righted itself, rolled and then started flapping insanely on its back as it spun to earth. I ignored the conversion and drove overland as fast as I could. From this “kettle” of over 50 vultures I saw at least a dozen that were behaving oddly. In the far distance I saw one plane to earth and land. I drove to this. I found an adult Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture before I got there, standing under a small tree in the shade on an ant hill with its head hanging down. I looked around and saw two Lappet-faced Vultures standing on the ground incapable of flight and wondered if I was just lucky, or if there was an equal distribution of poisoned vultures across the entire plains.

What followed was a hectic day of crisis management in which a systematic un-emotive team would surely have found 5 to maybe even 10 times more causalities. My first consideration was to find dying vultures and try to save them. I rushed to the ranch office to report the situation and Thou the large and powerful office manager rose to the occasion and drummed up as much people as he could get his hands on. I left with three people armed with spades. By chance we found a dead hyena and jackal. I had a video camera and filmed them being buried and much of what followed. They were almost entirely eaten and I assumed that the vultures that ate them must be dying too. While burying the carcasses we witnessed two Lappet-faced Vultures eating a small carcass (which we did not identify or pick up and bury) from afar and as we neared one flew away weakly and the other ‘fit’ one we were able to drive down. We headed home with 5 vultures in the car. As we off-loaded them in a large shed I saw more vultures descending some 300m away from my house. The ‘fit’ Lappet, suddenly took a turn for the worse and collapsed, implying that even the slightest sign of poisoning is irreversible. It took us just under 10 minutes to off-load the vultures and drive to the kill 300m away just in time to see one Lappet-faced vulture ‘dying’. Some twenty vultures were feeding on this, yet another hyena. We took 2 Lappets from there and noted about 5 vultures that failed to do more than run into bushes and hide. The ‘dying’ vulture died in my arms. It had only been on the ground for ten minutes and it had ingested so much poison that after death even the flies that landed on it fell dead. I have pictures to prove it.



Poisoned vultures. 1. Hell’s Gate National Park, under main wall colony 1995. 2. Collapsed in tree Athi River March 1996. (2&3).

The situation was so out of control that on looking back I have no idea what I did with that particular dead hyena, nor was I sure if I went back to try and rescue those sick vultures. What I did note was that this hyena was about 11km from the poisoned cow. It had delivered fresh parts of that dead cow and its poison to my back door neatly packaged in the shape of its stomach contents. Despite my panic on examining that dead hyena I noted the vultures had consumed the flesh and the stomach contents as well. The flesh may or may not have enough poison to kill the vultures but the stomach certainly did.

I looked around and saw vultures dropping down to feed on animals all over the plains. There had been a long dry spell and vultures were especially abundant due to dying cattle and wild ungulates. I saw vultures at one point that day descending to at least 6 sites. That is odd behaviour and indicative of six dead animals, which under the circumstances were explained by them being victims of poisoning. Those vultures would probably die too and there was nothing I could do about it.

Distraught and very angry I realised that the feeding frenzy of perhaps 200-400 vultures wasn’t going to be something I could do much about alone in one car with three volunteers. I did not have a phone and thought it best to return to the main ranch HQ and sound the alarm again. We needed as many vehicles as we could muster and we wanted KWS to witness this outrage. But almost as soon as it begun, it went quite. Vultures like to rise around 8AM, sally out and feed by 10AM and vanish over the middle of the day to bathe or roost in trees or fly to regurgitate their meal in front of an appreciative mate or chick. Now noon was upon us and all went quite, very quite. Exhausted from a few hours rally driving over the ranch I collected myself and thought of what was the most logical next step. Vultures on the ranch often perched in a group of trees under which we habitually throw out carcasses of butchered cattle and sheep. It was referred to as “The Vulture Restaurant”. I thought that if they had been poisoned some birds may have felt strong enough to fly to their favourite roost and be easily found. I drove to the trees and got out a walked with Oliver my old dog who I hoped would find one or two vultures. Under the trees my eyes met with the most awful sight. There were mounds of dead vultures meters high. They lay in piles and on closer inspection I saw a few were still blinking and alive. They had been defecated upon from vultures roosting above, meaning that they had been here since yesterday. Then I saw vehicle tracks to and from the piles. Someone had taken them here! Of all the stupidest places on earth to choose they had chosen the one site where a dead carcass was most likely to kill more vultures and more hyena and jackal than anywhere else. (The vulture restaurant entertains vultures by day and hyenas and jackal at night). Or was this too deliberate?

The situation had suddenly become ugly as someone on the ranch had attempted to hide this catastrophe and were probably complicit. They had not cared one wit for those few vultures that were still alive as was demonstrated by them putting carcasses under the very trees in which we all knew the vultures habitually roosted and tossing living birds into the heap. It must have taken a team of collaborators to have done this job.

I returned to the main ranch HQ and was able to get hold of the manager Phil Tilley and the owner Dr David Hopcraft who immediately phoned local area warden of KWS and got cars and vehicles together for a clean-up operation. Everyone was appalled. We stood about in shock.
A tractor and trailer was called, dozens of silent and deeply concerned people appeared to offer a hand in getting rid of this shameful debacle. I videoed the process and it is clear on the faces of all that we very upset. A grader came to dig a pit, and into this the bodies were thrown lest they poison more animals. There wasn’t any time for taking morphometric measurements of the vultures before nightfall came but I did take some 10 samples for laboratory analysis; one sample from the poisoned dead cow, the others from the vultures. (Unfortunately the government chemists didn’t differentiate between the samples and only confirmed the poison as carbofuran, Furudan© to be precise).

I returned home in the late afternoon and gave the captive vultures another dose of atropine and as much IV fluid as I could. I lost 2 more vultures that night. The Lappets, huge and menacing in the field were very interactive in the hand, opening one eye and tolerating handling. The White Backed and Rüppell’s were beasts in comparison, but easier to handle when near death. One of the Lappet’s had regurgitated some poisoned meat that to my dismay this was nearly consumed by a White backed Vulture, despite being so near death it could not miss this opportunity to pirate food from another! Like the dead hyena outside my house, a dead vulture is also a method of dispersing a fresh parcel of poisoned cow. They may be termed as vehicles that ‘transport’ poisons. But vultures can fly 150 miles away from the source. One case such as this could deposit poison in central and southern Kenya, from Mt Kenya and the Aberdares throughout Tsavo West, Amboseli and Hell’s Gate, The Mara, northern Serengeti Tanzania and all that encompasses this area.


Proving the point. Jackal consuming White-backed Vulture.

[1]Jackal/Vulture photo. Bruce Friedman in The Vultures of Africa.

Dr Gakuya from KWS veterinary dept’ and his team came the next day and inspected the site and he reassured me that I was using the right antidote on the still living vultures at home. He later wrote a report and submitted it to the KWS Director. Somewhat disappointed we heard no more, but it would at least add to their mounting file of similar cases. The five sick vultures recovered. It was interesting to note that over the next 10 days I did not observe any vultures or Tawny Eagles, despite extensive daily searching. I did see many Steppe Eagles which was disturbing as they could easily be exposed to poisoned animals. When I released the captive vultures 6 days later, they were only individuals I then saw. This implies my method of searching was good, and that there were indeed no vultures. But 2 weeks later I counted some 50 vultures at a dead cow, near my house. Things had suddenly returned to near normal masking a regional near complete eradication of vultures. One is led to conclude that a single site, could lure in a disproportional large number of nomadic vultures and act as a ‘sink’. A ‘sink’ is a trap that lures in individuals from a wide area and removes them. It may be seen at first sight as a great place with more numbers than usual but it is the very opposite and the consequences are more catastrophic to the whole population.

Of the10 White-backed nests we had on the ranch (most active at that time), 3 still miraculously remained occupied. Of the 5 pairs of Tawny Eagles all were gone but two new pairs seemed to re-occupy sites within 2 weeks. Vulture numbers remained low, and Tawny Eagle numbers were much reduced. Of the 2001-02 aerial survey estimate of 180-250 Spotted Hyenas on 85,000 acres, I estimated about 25-50 survived. We knew that poisoning continued around us and it was hard to say to what extent this one incident had on the overall decline. Poisoning cases and general truculent behaviour ceased when the rains came, indicating that the incidents in predation had either stopped, or as is more likely cattle had stopped dying and were not available to scavengers. Poisoning incidents will have declined, one assumes with the decline in scavengers.

The total tally of carcasses in the collected pile was 107 vultures and 5 Tawny Eagles. Those that I had irrevocable evidence of having been poisoned was a further 25 birds. Those that I had seen feeding on poisoned carcasses that had consumed enough to kill them was 35. Finally, those that I had picked up elsewhere dying or dead away from the vulture restaurant site were about 20. Of these 5 survived because they were treated with atropine. I am confident that any vulture showing the slightest neurological disorder was incapable of recovery without treatment. Of the total which stood at 187 dead vultures I did not include, as perhaps I should, those vultures that I saw fall from the sky, or others that looked sick. I accounted for 4 Jackal and 5 hyena carcasses, with another probable causality being found some 2 weeks later at the entrance to its den. I assumed many more died. Even this certain under-estimate turned out to be the highest recorded single case of vulture poisoning anywhere in the world. It even beat historical records during an era when vultures were much more common and now rare or extinct due to poisoning. I do not for one moment consider it a unique incident. Indeed I think it a relatively low-impact operation conducted as it was right under our collective noses. We were able to clean up a lot, as so avoid many other fatalities. We buried what remained of the poisoned cow. Elsewhere this does not happen.

It was easy to trace the source of the poison. A cow concerned had been transported in a truck and had suffered trauma. It had been slaughtered at the open gate of a large cattle enclosure. We understood that there had been some disgruntled opinion regarding the possibility of hyena predation by the cattle owners and that they went ahead and poisoned the cow without any evidence of predation. From whom they got the poison remains a bone of contention. This cow hadn’t been killed by wildlife but was poisoned on the off-chance that it would kill wildlife. It had later been dragged to a habitual site used by vultures and hyena that had been conditioned to scavenge at the “Vulture Restaurant”. That move we understand was made deliberately to “get rid of the carcass by letting the vultures eat it”.

In this case it was easy to find and prosecute the person(s) who poisoned these animals. There was no predation of livestock claim, so it would be a criminal act, without excuse. But no official enquiries were made despite full co-operation from the ranch and the matter was laid to rest with a verbal warning from the Area Warden and ranch owner to an assembled group. The official reaction was not confrontational and as such could not have helped stop it from occurring again.


22nd April 2005. Tractor tipper burying poisoned vultures and storks. Athi River.

The following year the cattle and their problematic herders returned. The dry conditions felled many cows and wild ungulates and their scavengers were yet again poisoned. On 22nd April 2005 some 30 vultures, 6 Marabou Storks and 2 Tawny Eagles were picked up long dead, and many partly consumed, as we were late in getting the information. Again the poisoned cow had died of starvation not predation. One important point to note is the ease in which these poisoning incidents can occur within one’s own area and yet go undetected. I would never have known this had occurred had not a friend phoned me up, despite it being less than 10km from my house. We passed the boma from which the dead cow had come and were met with an aggressive contingent of people from the same community that had grazed their cattle the last year. The threatening gestures were to be taken seriously as security issues on the ranch had escalated with over 20 robberies (and a few armed attacks in my house). The element of insecurity may have not be incidental. Indeed I correlate the two.

The purchase of poisons is a matter of interest. I interviewed three chemists, two in Athi River town, and one in Kitengela in 2005. I lied and said I was having trouble with hyenas who were harassing my cattle at night. I was handed a packet of Furudan and giving lengthy advice on its mis-use. I protested at the price and asked for an alternative. Among many I was shown Karate and malathion. But these were, I learnt not as good because the hyenas, jackals, and vultures could ‘smell’ it. Furudan I was assured was “much better”. I also received sound advice on killing my pestilent Ground Squirrels and Guineafowl that I bitterly complained about. If I scattered hybrid maize seed with the pink coating of fungi/pesticides I was sure to kill them all. “What of the hawks that would eat them?” I asked…. “So much the better” I was told. I came away so much the wiser.

I returned in January 2008, to record the conversation, but as predicated the response was biased due to suspicion. The chemist is also a person I visit each week for the last 10 years and is well aware of my line of work. The conversation took a different line as I asked too whom the poisons were sold. He implied the sale of Furudan was often sold to livestock owners for the specific purpose of killing wildlife, and although widely used it was not popular by some farmers due to its tendency to kill and dis-colour vegetables and tomatoes.Thanks to being now aware of its dangers he would he assured me, never sell it again for the purpose of killing animals.

Casual conversations such as this are probably more truthful than a grim questionnaire being presented by officials in white lab coats armed with a clip board. People know that it is illegal and aren’t going to tell.


It is always a mistake to take sides in matters regarding genuine conflict between wildlife and the interests of people, especially so in a country in which the depredation albeit small, could put an individual farmer out of business. Poisoning may be the ‘poor man’s’ way to retaliate when none come to their assistance. ‘Wildlife conflict’ is the social hard edge side of wildlife conservation in Kenya, and few like to face these often highly emotive confrontations face on. There are many economic solutions to conservation and these can work very well here in Kenya, but all it takes is one to ruin a promising enterprise. Wildlife poisoning is not recognised at the level it should. For example, my colleagues Munir Zirani (Peregrine Fund) and Muchane Muchai (National Museums of Kenya), Paul Kirui (Senior Guide Mara Intrepids Club), and Catherine Gatome (Veterinary Surgeon), and I gave a small presentation in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Sept 2004, to many stakeholders of this world famous region. It was my task to break the ice regarding the use of poisons. I asked the assembled if any had witnessed poisoning and there was hesitation until Paul showed pictures of poisoned dead vulture parts for sale as curios to tourists and I ran a video showing hundreds of poisoned vultures. Then many agreed it was widely used but very difficult to quantify. If I had asked about poaching or snaring all would have acknowledged this immediately as a problem, but one that was being vigorously challenged, with a budget, vehicles etc. But poisoning is unaccountable (despite dead bodies) and frustratingly impossible to oppose. This was recognised.

I have heard second-hand some very disturbing news of Furudan being used in Selous and Ruhaha in Central and southern Tanzania as a means to kill doves for food by poisoning water holes and one must assume all else. Elephant have died of Furudan poisoning too. Poisoned hippo have killed crocodiles and “thousands” of vultures in one case in Selous recently. It is used as a fish poison in the Congo and has had a long history of use in killing ducks in Kenya, both for human consumption. It is used to kill stray dogs and cats and is used by thieves when breaking into houses to kill guard dogs (pers obs). It and other pesticides are used to kill chicken thieving hawks by placing poison of small chicks and kites by dusting scraps of meat (pers obs). In Ethiopia I saw many cereal farmers walking in their fields sprinkling a granular form of pesticide (that appeared to be Furudan) from bare handfuls on to paths and exposed areas to poison rodents and birds. I asked them, with a colleague from the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organisation, Ato Lakew Berhanu, what the pesticide was. The answer was that they did not know, but it was distributed by the ‘government’. One farmer said it killed birds of prey that ate the dead birds. The magnitude of this single use of pesticide, multiplied millions of times could on its own severely impact populations of raptors in this corridor greatly used by migrant raptors.

Human health issues are a matter of concern of course, but I understand that if the body of a poisoned animal is well cooked the pesticide degrades sufficiently to not kill its consumer (immediately!). Elsewhere it is used to kill eagles in Scotland and America and its use in USA is facing very stiff opposition from the National Environment Agency, having killed (in its granular form) millions of birds. It is just too toxic to use safely. To distribute it among mostly uneducated rural peoples in Africa raises the issue of legal culpability among its manufacturers. In Kenya we have various departments which are mandated to investigate pesticide misuse. These include the Pest Control Products Board that adhere to the Pest Control Products Act; and with reference to past Furudan mis-use on commercial killing of ducks they have categorised Furudan as a ‘highly restricted’ pesticide, requiring permission prior to use.

However this board, recently questioned by Darcy Odaga and Martin Odino from the Ornithology Dept National Museums of Kenya, knew of no mis-use of the pesticide and therefore no reason to restrict its use or withdraw it from the market. But they did acknowledge that should it be withdrawn, it would be replaced.

There is in some parts of the world a process whereby people are screened and seen to be fit enough (or not) to use a device that can kill. A drivers license, a pilots license, a license to have a gun are such examples. Although the North Americans have the National Rifles Association battling to maintain indiscriminate licensing of all of its citizenry as a constitutional right regardless of tragedy, there are those opposed. Guns are lethal and their use must be controlled. People are quickly called to arms if there is a threat of chemical warfare. We see the use of chemicals as much more frightening. Why is it therefore, that a group of extremely toxic chemicals is readily available across our counters in nearly every town or village without any question? It is far more deadly than any gun, something we are near paranoid about keeping away from our populace.

Kenya’s population of large carnivores especially lions, leopard and hyena can be severely impacted, of that there is no question. But numerically much more vultures and eagles will die to one lion or hyena killed. These two mammalian carnivores can live in greater densities than large raptors, breed much faster and require smaller areas, that can be protected by a fence if worse comes to worse. But vultures and eagles cannot be so confined. Vultures and eagles will decline at a greater rate and if poisoning continues at the current rate they will, it is predicted, (based on Indian experience with dichlofenec) become very rare or regionally extinct before the lion does so. The prediction tables needs more refined analysis to be sure, but such models, theoretical and as seemingly impracticable as they appear may illustrate what we already suspect. Continued high level of pesticide mis-use will greatly impoverish the wildlife community of Kenya.

Tiny Tim, sick hawk and dead vulture

For some reason this entry never got through. So here it is again.

Day spent at home on Game Ranching near Athi River. All the birds are well and Mwanzia and Jonathan are keen to take the weekend off to catch up on their various public holidays, of which I have completely forgotten. The only matter of interest on the farm during the week is that there are lions back on the place. This is good news to some of us, but not good for others. The lions of course stand no chance of surviving long. They will be shot or poisoned on neighbouring properties that are being sub-divided into small scale “shamba’ systems. A few have been caught and now reside in captivity waiting the formation of a fenced in conservancy before they can be let loose. They usually come from Nairobi National Park only a few kilometres to our north west, passing like ghosts through industrial areas, and high density housing estates, that some cynics would say was an attempt to block off the park from the “wildlife dispersal areas”. A succession of lion killing tragedies, the dominion of other parties with passionate agendas ends up with thousands of animals with no where to go sitting on my back door, lions included, of which I am delighted but see no future. Part of my interest right now is helping secure a conservancy encompassing three ranches totalling some 45,000 acres that currently holds one of the largest resident concentrations of wild ungulates in Kenya.

Although I do not own a single acre I am exceptionally fortunate by being able to step out of my back door and cast off an eagle or falcon into the skies and walk, for hours over uninterrupted open savanna under the gaze of giraffe, a myriad wildebeest and constantly nervous Thomson’s Gazelles. While it sounds ideal my house made of modest mud and wattle with thatched roof and is fast falling to pieces. It always has been, because I never was very good at building houses. But the recent tremors a few months ago have put large cracks in the wall.

The large sheds for breeding eagles and Lammergeyers are now vacant. I still have Rosy and Girl, incubating an egg, a lone Lammergeyer with no hope of getting a mate, one male Lanner Falcon called ‘Tiny Tim’ who fell from a building in Nairobi, a lunatic male Black Sparrowhawk that was rescued from a gum tree in the middle of a rural farm, a 13 year old female Verreaux’s Eagle (a Cain an Abel rescue that went wrong), and finally a single female Augur Buzzard with a bad wing. I have got rid of 7 others recently in a slow sequential move to close down operations. It is a sad thing to see what once was an up-and-running facility loose heart. Where there had once been energy, enthusiastic people, happy dogs, lots of eagles and hawks and government backing there is now an empty shell. But to dwell on it is not productive.

Today I took Vero’s out for a spin. She flies beautifully. She is a little too tame, the reasons of which I may explain later. But she is huge and unlike the Crowned Eagle will circle and weave about the sky. Sometime she goes far too high and far too out of sight and I fret and run around in panic. Then the plains go quite, a distant rush, a ripping of sky and she is falling thousands of feet back to me from the top of some thermal that bore her aloft. If no one has experience this, no one has lived. Equally she vanishes unseen and unforgivably to an unknown destination that requires days of desultory searching and self examination. However, so far, she has miraculously reappeared and despite the anger and spitting rage I exhibit I dearly forgive her. Despite my shameless emotion she sits aloof and disinterested as I carry her back home.

After a week confinement she was happy to get out and go out, but she did not do too much. I took Tiny Tim for a buzz. He is actually quite a large lanneret (an old term for a male lanner), and should he be shown around an assembled group of admiring people most would say “My what big talons and vicious beak he has!” and if he should flap his wings, folks would throw themselves aside just in case they were savaged. But when paraded in front of eagles 10 times his size, he is wee in comparison and visitors usually warm to him immediately with endearing oohs and aahs. He is devastatingly cute and knows it. He will turn his head upside-down to solicit affection. Lest anyone think he is too tame or an irreversible imprint incapable of release I urge them to see him in a usual mood, high overhead and looking for something to kill. He is then all falcon, dismissive of people, and in a world all his own. He’d take a week to be totally wild, and one day he shall be. But meanwhile he’ll be exercised hard, hunted hard, and made to exceed the physical fitness of his wild brethren before he goes wild. So far he knows only to fly prettily to the swung lure and can keep hard flying for a good 20 mins without stopping. But he hasn’t caught anything in his life except for a very easy pigeon which he didn’t even know what to do with. To release him back into the wild now, as would so many others, would be a death sentence. Meanwhile I shall fly him and get him to chase things until he gets the idea.


Lanner. An old female I had for 18 years comes in vertical toward camera.

On returning around 8am I put the birds out, checked all the others in the sheds, checked on Rosy and Girl on their egg.

Then the weekend past with work, and the afternoon is when we go out and play. At 4.30pm I fly Vero, and Tim as usual. I had some tourists turn up on Sunday from the nearby Acacia Camp, and Tim put on a great show by the dam, pretending he could take Egyptian Geese! Which he can’t.

22nd Oct 2007.

I had to go into Nairobi to do work. Over lunch I got a phone call from Oudhay Bali an old friend who said that Tim Nickolin’s son Robert had an injured hawk. There is an excitement, best known I suppose to vets and children at Christmas morning when they are presented with a box, in which the contents are unknown. That the box contains an animal in distress adds an additional urgency. I rushed over, and their in a traditional cardboard box lay a male Black Sparrowhawk. I smiled inwardly. I have forever been fighting not to be a hawk nanny. Yet no matter how hard I try I cannot resist a foundling or an animal in need of care. In opening the box I knew the course of the next few days or even weeks would have to change to suit it.

We gave him glucose with a long tube down the throat on the spot. I then put him back in the box and headed for home, now nearly a 2 hour drive thanks to the rebuilding of roads, which now do not exist. The trauma on the hawk could kill it, but persevere we did and he now sits dangling from a cradle. There is little doubt that he had impacted a window. The right side of his head is swollen and he is paralysis on all limbs. However there is partial use, and he can see, feel pain, and swallow food. There is nothing for it but to nurse him over the next few days.

But this is a set back in Duchess’s release. Joe has however sent me an email saying she is ok. They have got a goat and Amos has been able to feed her.

In the evening I got an SMS from Dr Meredith Wagner a carnivore scientist working very close to the site where Duchess was released. They just picked up a dead sub-adult Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture that Laila and I had tagged in the Mara on the 3rd Sept 2007. The tag is a rather nasty looking red flag we attach to the wing. (see picture below). It is not a process I fully endorse. No falconer or rehabber in their right mind would do the usually accepted methods of marking or radio/ing raptors as do biologists. But to give them their due we have had a lot of re-sightings. Hardly surprising as the tag looks like a shopping bag held over the shoulder of a vulture. It does not interfere with its flight. My colleague in the Peregrine Fund Dr Munir Virani and I have been busy in the Maasai Mara and at Athi River tagging vultures for a few years. We have found not surprisingly that they move rapidly throughout the entire country. We know they are being poisoned at a rate able to make the species extinct. Poisons, usually agro-poisons such as Furudan are liberally laced on dead livestock and wildlife in an almost routine manner these days. Supposedly to kill harmful predators of livestock such as Hyena, lion, leopard but also to kill animals that can be easily frightened away such as cheetah, jackal, eagles and vultures. The more evidence we get, the more we see a trend that defies the acceptable. For example, others and I have noted that the massive die-offs of vultures and eagles at a carcass is not unwelcome, and is not seen as a terrible mistake. To say that vultures and eagles are non-target animals may be assuming too much. But Meredith insists that poisoning is not occurring in the Shombole sanctuary. I do hope she is right. But it doesn’t make much difference if poisoning is occurring 150 miles away. Vultures will still die in sanctuaries no matter how well protected they are. What is more the dead vulture could easily be consumed 150 miles from where it was poisoned and kill hyenas and even lions, who in turn would poison whatever eat them. Like the “old woman who swallowed a fly” it can go on and on.

In April 2004 a few kilometres from my house on a conservancy, transient pastoral cattle herders killed 187 vultures in one poisoning attempt, aimed at killing hyena apparently. It was the largest recorded single case of vulture poisoning anywhere in the world. Although reported immediately to the authorities no prosecution was made, despite the ease in identifying the people concerned. Poisoning carries with it a lack of culpability, whereas someone shooting a problem animal is prosecuted. It is an odd thing to justify poisoning over other more direct and discriminate methods. That the cow they put the poison on had died from being crushed in a truck, not by hyena, was illustrative. So too was the assumed right of the people concerned to go ahead with no authority to poison anything that should eat the carcass. No attempt was made by them to discriminate and target hyenas, and no attempt was made by them to boma their livestock at night to stop and possibility of livestock mortality. No mortality had occurred. It was a shameful matter, but is was repeated on the same farm by the same people. That this rate of poisoning occurs throughout East Africa is now alarming the conservation world. But until such a time as someone is prosecuted there seems nothing to stop anyone doing it again.


1060. Tagged sept in Maasai Mara, died Shombole, one month later. Sample now in lab’ and results as yet unknown.

So we tag vultures, see where they go, and today to get one back dead is bad news.

[1]The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Jonathan Kingdon. Natural World. Academic Press.