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Mutt the Lammergeyer Release, Part II

Mutt the Lammergeyer flew into a border zone where security is not so good. The next five days were some of the toughest I have had for many years. I scrambled, slid, abseiled and climbed in search of an elusive “blip” on a radio receiver. I was scared because if she was killed or disappeared out of radio contact I would have the death of a very rare animal on my conscience. The responsibility of it was sickening especially so as others would take a dim view and consider this seriously if it failed. In hands-on wildlife management critics are ever ready to oppose, no matter what the outcome. It was not good to worry about people’s opinions but as we searched with an ever increasing risk of finding her dead, I kept reinventing what I was going to have to report. In every respect this was the best chance Mutt would have, with the huge resources of Ol Donyo Laro supporting her. If she failed here she would have no hope anywhere else.

I exhausted three ranger patrols, which would have made me chuffed had I not been highly alarmed and in dread of finding her dead. Frustratingly Mutt proved yet again her total inability to return to the “hack” site for food. Instead she hid. Sometimes she must have flown out of one canyon into another, hugging the forested contours and never venturing out into visual range.

Nguruman

Nguruman

From a distance the Nguruman mountains look like rolling hills cloaked in forest with patches of cliffs and open grassland glades. From afar these look ideal and it is possible to find elephant paths that allow easy walking. You can walk the entire length of these mountains in glorious wooded avenues stamped asunder by millennia of elephants and buffalos. To picture the untrodden slopes in which Mutt was so unkind as to spend the night, think of taking a few dollops of mashed potatoes and arranging them in a neat line like Alpine mountains. Then with the back of the fork go berserk scraping the lower sides with furrows and ridges. Then pour thick gravy all over it so that you cannot see these wicked furrows and you have made the section of mountains in which Mutt decided to hide. It looks smooth and forested from the outside, but in fact it is deeply scared beneath with a myriad ridges. It is impossible to get a good fix on a radio signal because radio waves bounce or get cloaked depending upon the landscape.

Larle, a ranger who had helped me with the previous failed release, was inexhaustible and stayed with me for two days. Like me he was unarmed and did not carry a flak jacket, provisions, radio, heavy army boots etc., as did our accompanying ranger force. We left them far behind as we moved mostly on all fours through terrible terrain.

The second night I had awoken with deep pain in the back and was unable to sleep until dawn. The day before, while negotiating a rocky slope in thickets I had slipped badly and hurt my stomach and back with the stiff backpack which had a thick kidney belt. The next morning I urinated some blood and decided to take it easy and stayed in camp. Thankfully things settled down. All I got that day from Mutt was a steady and reassuring signal coming from the same sort of area far across the valleys. The next day we went early with a fresh team who surged ahead and left me behind. They had no idea where they were going and soon came back. Cautious about my health I plodded along warning them that they had no idea what was in store for them. They needed to reserve their energy.

The next 10 hours saw us sliding and crashing up and down vertical banks, sometimes on ropes. The rangers would pause every hour to shake their heads in wonder. Surely none had seen these parts of the mountain and I believed them. Mutt’s signal was wandering. She was flying. We went lower down the mountain descending hundreds of meters mostly on our backs and finally appeared at a large spring. The water was cold, very pure and much appreciated. The spring fed a small riverine line of tall trees and beyond it was the lowland hot acacia woodlands. The hill here was called Milima moto (meaning hot hill), and it lived up to it.

The rangers, feeling as though they had all survived an awesome experience all expressed a resolution that no matter what we would continue on and find Mutt no matter how far she had gone. They were prepared to walk a week or more and have rations dropped on them from the sky. Still feeling beat from ailing kidneys, my comradery with my new fraternity faltered at this suggestion and I sincerely hoped that I could borrow a plane instead.

In line with her radio signal we saw a Crowned Eagle fly out over the hot lowlands and descend fast. I thought this odd because Crowned Eagles are restricted to the high forested slopes from which we had come. The radio suddenly went quite, an ominous sign in this flat landscape. We trudged on towards Magadi sweating profusely in the stifling heat. I tried the radio receiver and changed course to the left. It was so faint a signal and she sounded a very long distance away. Maybe she was covering ground fast. Then appearing before us were a few giraffe looking down and there on the ground was Mutt. She had been beaten to the ground by the Crowned Eagle.

In the next few weeks I organized a new home for her at the Honorable Mutula Kilonzo’s residence near Machakos. Mutt has had more than enough opportunities for freedom and has demonstrated an inability to return to the place of release. She never ate and spent her freedom sulking, frightened and hidden. Even with the full support of Ol Donyo Laro and their formidable team of rangers we recognized that another release attempt would be fatal. I was disappointed in the lack of other wild Lammergeyers, as these hills were in previously known habitat for this species. The Lammergeyer or Bearded Vulture is certainly a critically endangered species in Kenya, and the future of Mutt must now include captive breeding. This enormous bird is much less common and considerably more threatened than more high profile species that receive generous attention.

Portrait of Mutt

Portrait of Mutt

To be honest I dread the responsibility of re-opening the Bearded Vulture re-introduction project, as it will entail considerable physical effort and fiscal resources. Neither of which I have these days! The lessons I learnt nearly a decade ago were not so much the difficulty in achieving a re-introduction, but the insurmountable problems encountered in modern day conservation bureaucracy. This project needs international consent as well as local, and to please all parties takes patience and a lot of hard office work. I am grateful to have high level support from a prominent MP who has a personal desire to see the species re-instated. It would seem that Mutt, like it or not, keeps the flame alive for Lammergeyers in Kenya.

I have a few priorities to straighten out in securing a place to work and live before I can focus attention on Mutt. Meanwhile we are planning a breeding shed similar to the condor breeding sheds in San Diego Zoo and the Peregrine Fund in Boise Idaho.

Mutt’s Mountaintop Home

Mutt the Bearded Vulture was moved to Ol Donyo Laro a few weeks ago. Mark Jenkins had built her a large pen near his house. This was an excellent first base camp for her but it was not intended to be a release location. She was to settle here until she found her bearings and became familiar with the area. Mark had his eye on a rocky high top almost at the summit of the Nguruman’s. Here was a ranger post with radio tower and nearby appearing out of thick forest and rocky cliffs lay a perfect spot. Bearded Vultures like these outcrops of rock to drop their bones. It is called an “ossuary.”

Laila and I flew up to meet Mark and his family. We then took Mutt up the rocky road to the high radio camp. Mutt had to be slightly sedated for the trip as it was long. We passed through some of the best quality forest I have ever seen and deep valleys with formidable cliffs. Truly these forests are a beautiful area of Kenya that deserves protection. When we arrived, I carried Mutt in my arms to a shed perched on one of the finest places in the country. It has a view that beats any lodge or grand home. It looks out down the ridge to northern Tanzania. She can see Ol Donyo Lengai, and even Ngorongoro, past the vast expanse of Lake Natron. In Tanzania, the Bearded vulture is still present, and these distant hills do still have nesting pairs. It is highly likely that Bearded Vultures still fly up and down the Nguruman’s hills and pass directly over her shed.

simon and mutt
Simon and Mutt

We even searched the bare rocks in front of her shed to see if there were any smashed bone fragments from wild Bearded Vultures. Of all the possible locations within Kenya, this is certainly the best. It has not only the likelihood of other wild Bearded Vultures, but also it has the commitment of Ol Donyo Laro and 24-hour guard and eminence. The site is secure in this respect. The habitat, too, is likely to be much healthier. Poisoning seldom occurs within this region, and if she ventures into northern Tanzania, the habitat there is much more favourable than in much of central and northern Kenya.

view from mutt’s shed
View from Mutt’s shed

After taking a few pictures, we put her in her shed, where she stood on shaky legs from the effects of the sedative. I felt very happy in knowing that she has such a great home. Here she must stay and get focused on new home, prior to release. It is wise to let her stay some months so that she can imprint on her location and return when she is released.

Mutt the Bearded Vulture finds a new home

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.

mutt the bearded vulture
Mutt the Bearded Vulture

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.

Laila and Mutt on way to airport
Mutt on her way to the airport

Mutt deserves a little fame for her species – Digg this story!