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.
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.
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.