The afternoon of the second day of fish eagle and roadside raptor catching, we were visited by long time Lake Naivasha resident Don Turner. Over the years he has amassed an extensive bird sighting list, having the world record for most bird species sighted in 48 hours. Similar to many of our guest lecturers, he did not have a positive outlook for the Lake, Kenya, or the global climate. He stressed the problems that have started to rise over his lifetime with the Kenyan population increasing from five to forty million, global population doubling, and ocean levels rising faster than the expected one meter in the next thirty years. In the past 25 years since the flower farms moved in, the population around the lake has exploded from 10,000 to half a million, local tourism has steadily decreased, and the lake level has fallen by four meters. As a local, he has seen first hand how the lake ecosystem from one of the top 10 freshwater lakes in the world to what he described as a sewage pond.

Some of the farms take no responsibility for the state of the lake or the condition that the workers live in, often simple shacks made from scrap metal. There is little control over the farm development and no legal action has been taken against them as flowers are one of the largest sources for foreign exchange. When a Management Plan was agreed on with the local municipality for regulating the industry and brought into law, a court injunction was put into place by residents backed by powerful farms. With farm workers only receiving two dollars a day to support themselves as well as their entire dependent family, inflation and monthly increases in food costs forces many people to rely on consuming illegally caught fish and bush meat. Many people rely on charcoal that has been harvested from protected forests, degrading the lake’s watershed and reducing the already low national forest cover of 1.2%, down from 10% in the 1960’s. With such a large unemployed population trying every day for part time labor outside each farm gate, crime has steadily increased. Don recounted a chilling event where three men with assault rifles broke into a compound and stole expensive cameras and laptops from tourists who had been blatant about their wealth.

That evening we visited the Homegrown flower farm, not far from our campsite. Driving through the farm each greenhouse had signs warning of the chemical sprays in progress, most listed as level two on the WHO scale of hazardous material. Much of the blame for the degradation of the lake is placed on increased population, farm worker activities, and deforestation in the surrounding watersheds. On the farm they had a natural water treatment system to filter the water used in the bathrooms. While this filtered around 45 cubic meters of water a day, pumping from the lake is still necessary.

Overall it felt like a very controlled tour, we only went into one greenhouse and did not walk anywhere else besides the water filtration site, compared to KenGen where we visited as much of the facility as possible, the Assistant Manager for Resource Development going out of his way to describe the process. Another interesting day, can’t wait for the next week in the Mara.

After a couple of days rest in Nairobi, and time to start working on final papers and journalism articles, not to mention laundry, we headed back out of the city to Game Reserve Limited, or GRL. Owned by John Hopcraft, the 20,000-acre land is just an hour from the city in the Athi Plains and has been in the Hopcraft family since 1906 when J.D. Hopcraft, arrived from South Africa after fighting in the Boer War. Once, this land provided a tremendous amount of “bush meat,” animal from game meat of impala, gazelle, oryx and more, until the practice was made illegal seven years ago. Today, they struggle with how to make the land a viable ranch while protecting the land and wildlife contained within, including  280 species of birds and 20 species of animal. Protecting places like this is crucial, given that 80% of Kenya’s wild animals live outside of the country’s protected reserves.

Lukenya cliffs / Meera Subramanian

We spent the last two days here, learning from Sandy Simpson and Nashon about the work to make this land an official conservancy and their hopes to raise the money needed to fully enclose the land with an electric fence that will keep poachers out. (An ongoing problem, for example eland poachers were once caught on this land and are now serving five-year jail sentences.) Ideally, a conservancy could be created in collaboration with other neighboring private landholders, potentially creating a 50,000-acre block of land. Without the protections, hope for the animals that live within the ranch is limited. Even within the expansive Nairobi National Park, which is enclosed on three sides, the fourth side has all but been lost for migrating animals due to extensive human settlement, poaching and poisoning/killing in response to human-animal conflicts (ranchers losing livestock or farmers losing crops to wild animals).

White-backed vultures / Meera Subramanian

The land supports a healthy colony of white-backed vultures, and we also see black-shouldered kites, martial eagles, bustards and more. But surrounding the land is extensive development, including major flower farms and a new concrete factory right next door.

An ostrich with a backdrop of neighboring greenhouses. / Meera Subramanian

Wild giraffes... / Meera Subramanian

...live among cattle whose meat will be sold to the Middle East. / Meera Subramanian

sunset / Meera Subramanian

Arian and Munir around the campfire. / Meera Subramanian

Drew turned 21! And we celebrated with cake and his first (legal) Tusker.

Happy Birthday, Drew! / Teeku Patel

And we did a nighttime safari with Nashon, entering a whole different world inhabited by bush babies, bat-eared foxes, spring hares, African hares, and grey nightjars, as well seeing — in the bright beam of Nashon’s flood light — a huge pack of 20 hyenas.

It seems miraculous that this, like Nairobi National Park, can exist so close to the exploding city of Nairobi, now estimated to be inhabited by 3 million people.

We spent the last two days trapping birds on and around Lake Naivasha. One group loaded up in the van and drove the road that circumnavigates the lake to do a road count of resident raptors with the hopes of trapping and banding some while the other group climbed into boats armed with fish to trap African fish eagles. The next day, we switched.

A brave little mouse was our lure on land. Safe within its cage that was set with fine fishing line snares, an augur buzzard immediately descended, got tangled, and Munir and Evan jumped to release him.

Munir and Evan band an augur buzzard / Meera Subramanian

Banding, or ringing, of birds helps biologists track bird populations over time and geography.

Maria holds the augur buzzard before releasing it. / Meera Subramanian

It’s also a chance to experience and learn about the birds up close.

Augur buzzard / Meera Subramanian

As its mate waits in a nearby tree, the buzzard calmly lets us affix the ring to its leg.

Drew releases the next bird, in perfect form, as a curious local looks on. / Meera Subramanian

Meanwhile, on the water, Shiv leads the African fish eagle trapping. First, Shiv shows us how to get our hands dirty, using a carp fish as a lure and setting snare lines through it.

Shiv holds a carp with snares. / Meera Subramanian

Shiv holds a fish eagle, calm with its eyes covered. / Meera Subramanian

Fish eagle populations are doing well at Lake Naivasha, but only more studies will determine whether they are being effected by pollution, changes in the ecosystem and water quality, or the lead that remains from decades of bird hunting on this lake.

Maria and Drew watch as Shiv bands a bird held by Chege. / Meera Subramanian

In the afternoon, we visit two flower farms to see their wetlands water filtration system. Homegrown produces both flowers and vegetables.  Oserian is one of, if not the largest flower farm company in Kenya, and a major player in the Naivasha region. Representatives from Oserian came to Elsamere to make a presentation about their company’s ethics, mission and policies. Both companies raise interesting questions about fair trade certification and what it really means. Oserian was proud that they are paying their full-time workers 7,900 shillings per month, which is about a hundred dollars US. Some workers also receive housing, school for their children and health care, but a hundred dollars is still not much money for a month’s labor.

As for their environmental practices, both companies claim to not use WHO Class I pesticides, listed as extremely hazardous. Oserian opts for Integrated Pesticide Management (IPM) instead. What chemicals they are using to produce a million stems of cut flowers each day, though, they refuse to reveal. Both site visits displayed a small area with a series of water containment areas that were filtering not the water coming from the flower production area, but the water from the kitchens, laundries, etc. It was impressive, visually, going from this:

First intake pool. / Meera Subramanian

To this:

Last pool. / Meera Subramanian

Last pool. / Meera Subramanian

But where is the rest of the water that makes it back to Lake Naivasha, untreated and unfiltered? And what, exactly does it contain? What might be in the bodies of the fish that are caught and eaten from the lake? No one, at this point, seems to know.

Oserian shows us their wetlands. / Meera Subramanian

We’ve arrived at Elsamere on the shores of Lake Naivasha. Soon after first light, we climb into a narrow boat to cross the water to Barton Hill. Time to take a good look at our surroundings.

Munir Virani

We’re joined by two other young biologists who are specializing on birds of prey work. Evan Buechley has worked with condors in the American Southwest for The Peregrine Fund (Munir Directs the Africa and South Asia programs for The Peregrine Fund) and is now studying the augur buzzard population of Lake Naivasha.  Shiv Kapila is a young Kenyan studying the African fish eagles on the lake. Both are following up on studies previously done by Dr. Munir Virani.

We climb Barton Hill, which is on private land. Yellow fever trees ring the shoreline and, as we move uphill, we pass zebra, giraffe, warthog, Thomson’s gazelles and eland (Kenya’s largest antelope whose bulls display their sexual prowess by clicking their knees!). Flocks of cormorants fly overhead and an occasional African fish eagle and augur buzzard pass by, below us once we are on top of the hill.

Munir Virani

Lake Naivasha is an area made famous in the time between the World Wars as a place of colonial excess. Today, we can see the endless hoops of plastic-covered greenhouses that grow a third of all of the cut flowers sold on the European market. Luckily, the rains returned this year, after years of drought, raising the lake levels again, but the water has been compromised as it leaves and as it returns to the basin. Flower farms and the human populations that live in the area to labor within them both need tremendous amounts of water, which is extracted from the lake without regulation. They also return sewage, toxins, and other pollutants that have turned the water into an algal soup. We’ll be learning a lot about this in the days to come.

Zebras wth greenhouses in background / Meera Subramanian

In the afternoon, Munir gives a lecture about Lake Naivasha and Teeku invites us into the world of digital photography. Susan is one of many wonderful staff at Elsamere.

Susan from Elsamere. / Meera Subramanian

Susan on Elsamere's dock. / Meera Subramanian