This morning, we were divided into two groups to trap and band birds on and around Lake Naivasha. The first group, led by Shiv and Meera, worked to catch African fish eagles on the lake, while the second group, led by Teeku and Munir, went for a long drive around the lake. The bumpy dirt roads, taking us through villages and past open fields, allowed us to slowly survey the area for Augur Buzzards.  We set out traps for the buzzards containing small white mice, aptly named Stuart and Little (and Stuart was clever–he kept trying to make a break for it!)

By the end of the day, we had spotted a total of thirteen Augur Buzzards, two unidentified raptors, an African long crested eagle, two unspecified vultures and a kite. We also had the opportunity to band a bird, number D1859, with Liz and Kaitlin taking the opportunity to hold and band the buzzard.

Tomorrow, the groups will switch locations, so everybody will have the opportunity to encounter the different species.

Once hooded, the African Fish Eagle is as docile as mourning dove.

Today, the students split into two groups to catch raptors for research. Dr. Muneer Virani, raptor biologist extraordinaire, took one group on the main road around Lake Naivasha along with Tiku, our expert photographer. In the other group, Shiv (one of Muneer’s best students), Meera (fearless environmental journalist), Eric (the colorado kid), John (the fiery red head), Jeremy (aka Big Cat) and myself (aka Rojjars) all went out on the lake today to catch and record data about the African Fish Eagle.

Shiv, John and Eric prepare the bait by gutting the fish and using floss and a needle to sow papyrus into the belly of the carp for bouyancy

Everyone was groggy from a late night of playing cards with the security guards, Robert and Moses. The sky was overcast and it was a chilly 55 degrees, but after tea and breakfast everyone piled in the boat bundled up and ready for action.First, Shiv bought a few small carp from some local fishing boats after a quick bout of haggling over prices. Next, our fishy friends were relieved of their fins and entrails with a sharp knife and scissors. After replacing the guts with a short stick of papyrus for buoyancy, the carp were stitched shut like grotesque piñatas  and laced with short wire nooses meant to snare the eagle’s talons. After anchoring the booby trapped carp to a short log with a nylon line and elastic rope, the plot was ready.

According to Shiv, this technique is as ancient as it is ingenuous and people have been trapping eagles for capture or consumption for thousands of years. Shiv was quick to point out, however, that he and other researchers have made some modifications in recent years that have dramatically increased the success rate.

That said, the first eagle to swoop down to our bait quickly freed its talons from the trap and flew away. A collective sound of dissapointment emanated from the boat as the big white and brown eagle flew away and shrieked in the tree on the bank. Yet no sooner had we reset the nooses on the bait that the same eagle, apparently un-phased by his first encounter, took the bait and became inexorably stuck to his would-be meal.

Our boat driver, Simon, quickly maneuvered up alongside the eagle that sat bobbing in the glassy water, glaring defiantly at us with golden eyes and a hooked yellow beak.  From the bow of our little blue-white boat, Shiv swiftly grabbed the legs of the eagle and turned it upside down to release the talons from the tightened snares. The boat was in awe and John was practically hyperventilating with excitement. Only from this close can one appreciate the size and power of an eagle. The talons were at least 3 inches long and reminded me of the way they opened and closed reminded me of the mechanical claws used by children to extract cheap toys from the quarter fed games one finds in the entry ways to malls and supermarkets.

Shiv wearily describes the long talons of the captured eagle.

After John applied a small leather hood to cover the eyes and calm the bird down, Shiv collected the tag number as well as the weight, height,  and length of talons. Once the data as recorded in the research journal, Meera was given the honor of releasing the bird and we cleared the front of the boat. As soon as the hood was pulled from the raptor’s eyes, Meera let go of the legs and the first Fish Eagle I had ever caught flew back to her nesting tree, appearing no worse for wear, if only slightly indignant about the whole affair.

The second capture happened after four more false captures at a location close by, but patience prevailed and before long, there was another giant bird in our boat, teaming with sharp extremities. This smaller male Fish Eagle was much feistier than the previous female and struggled considerably against Shiv’s well intended attempts to secure it. Once the bird became docile under the hood, however, Shiv allowed me to feel the fast beating heart and soft feathers of our new, temporary prisoner. As Shiv described it, the feathers smelled like a mix between a lake-water and fabric softener due to the powdery mineral found on the feathers that keeps the feathers relatively dry. Catching Eagles in the morning is better than coffee.

Both releases went off without a hitch and the eagles flew back to their partners uninjured.

After lunch, we were driven to the local public school down the road where we were scheduled to teach a class on conservation. In pairs, we planned out discussions and activities for the kids.

Tyler and I chose to teach the 8th graders who had written the essays on Lake Naivasha that we graded the previous day. Their handwriting was superb and though their English was a bit choppy, some of the ideas and arguments they conveyed in their essays seemed well thought out and persuasive.

Despite the fact that the school was paid for by the Olkaria power plant located near by, the class sizes were still large and I walked into the classroom faced with upwards of 40 young faces staring, bemused, up at me from their desks. They all stood up and greeted us at once and sat down in unison when the teacher gave the command. After introducing ourselves, Tyler and I began talking about Lake Naivasha and some of the conservation issues. Each time I would ask a question, they would all stare blankly at me until, at the teacher’s bequest, they would answer yes or no in unison. I could tell that the teachers here were very strict.

42 faces staring blankly at their "teachers"

After a few awkward minutes, the teacher made the intelligent decision to leave the classroom so that the kids would feel more comfortable. As soon as she and the other teacher in the room left, the kids began eagerly answering our questions and breaking out into laughter every time I mispronounced a word or name in Kiswahili. After briefly asking them about their favorite animals, we began talking about what they love about living on Lake Naivasha as opposed to Nairobi. When one girl remarked on the congestion and overpopulation of Nairobi, I  jumped into a story about driving from the airport and being scared by all the matotos (crazy vans, I thought) that were whizzing by our bus. I meant for the story to be a mild icebreaker, but when the whole class erupted into laughter, I was puzzled but oddly elated that I had evoked something other than “yes” or “no” from the class. matoto means child in Kiswahili; I had meant to say Matatu.

From here on, the kids eagerly answered our questions about everything from conservation around Lake Naivasha and the corrupt politics of Kenya.  When I asked how many children had parents working at the flower farms around the lake, just three hands shot up; when I asked if anyone was the son of a fisherman, they laughed raucously at the notion of someone actually making a living just on fishing; yet when I asked those whose parents worked at Ken Gen to raise their hands, the rest of class raised their hands.  When Tyler asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up, the answers were impressive as any you’d hear from a school in the U.S.: surgeon, game warden, lawyer, musician and pro athlete were among the few answers I got.

Despite the immense delight these kids seemed to get in listening to me butcher their national language, I was still very impressed and heartened at the breadth of knowledge these kids possessed that spanned politics, conservation and their economy. As large and insurmountable many of Kenya’s problems seem right now, I think my peers and I definitely came away with a sense of how powerful education can be in shaping the future of a country like Kenya.

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.

Up bright and early to enjoy the beautiful on Lake Naivasha, the bright-eyed group of students and life long learners sent out to count African Fish Eagles and Hippos.  On the Lake by 7:15 after a delicious breakfast, the group split into 2 different boats to attack each side of the lake.  The gorgeous sunny atmosphere allowed for easier identification and photographs.  The African Fish Eagles we abundant on the east side of the lake with a mixture of individuals, pairs, and juveniles present.  There was an interesting characteristic visible between the different behaviors of eagles acclimated to humans and those not a familiarized.  This was evident when our driver would attempt to bait the eagles for photos with a fish and the un acclimated eagles would stray away from the bait where as the familiarized birds would swoop down and catch the fish.

Towards the swampier area of the lake we saw a pair of African Fish Eagles attack a Pelican for its fish and succeed!

After meeting half way the groups headed straight across the lake back to Elsamere for lunch. After a full morning and a break for lunch we headed to both the indoor and outdoor classroom to enrich ourselves with knowledge on both birds of prey and journalism and photography techniques!

Right before dinner we got to speak with Mordecai.  He had very insightful ideas about conservation.  He had a very striking and truthful message that provided a overview of Kenya’s growing problems surrounding conservation.  The title It’s an Elephant was eluding to the message that we as conservationists can not have tunnel vision.  Animals are also not the only root of the problems that are occurring often times humans are in fact at the base of the catastrophic problems!

We can only sit in anxious anticipation for what is to come tomorrow as we head to Hells Gate!

Our eager group started off the day on Lake Naivasha. We split up into two groups to take boat rides across the lake, where we tempted African fish eagles with fish. Unfortunately, not many of us were able to get fantastic shots of the eagles, but we gained a quick hands-on lesson about how difficult it is to photograph moving birds.

Pelicans near the shore of Lake Naivasha

One of many of Naivasha's hippos

From the shores of Naivasha, we began our hike up Barton Hill, where we had the opportunity to witness wildlife literally with every step.

After lunch and a lecture about digital photography and Lake Naivasha, we piled into the van. We met with Simon Thomsett, who is currently studying cheetahs under the employ of National Geographic. As a hobby, he works to rehabilitate raptors. He showed us several species, including the tawny eagle and the African fish eagle, two of the birds that we are specializing in studying for this course.

Simon's tawny eagle

Dinner time!

Noticing our awe in these majestic birds, and Kenya in general, Thomsett cautioned, “I try to knock the awe out of whatever awestruck students I meet. Kenya is a beautiful place, but it has its fair share of problems.” This insightful message seems to foreshadow what we will learn over the course of the next two weeks.

View of afternoon landscape

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

Sunrise / Meera Subramanian

In the early morning, we visit Lake Oloiden, the small lake adjacent, and once part of, Lake Naivasha. Flamingos, mostly lesser, with a few greater popping up twice as large, form pink flocks along the shores. The water is a deep green, thick with algae. We keep a distance and run the engine low, but our presence is still mildly disturbing to the birds, which move in a synchronized counter-clockwise motion in unison. Some peel off in flight, the pale pink erupting into flaming florescent and black as their great wings unfold and lift off their pencil-thin bodies. Clunky black beaks pull them forward, a downward frown etched on their faces. Having boats on this lake doing tourism is a new thing and inspires Brian to write a piece about the complicated world of eco-tourism.

Flamingos flying / Arianwen Jones

Flamingos flying. / Arianwen Jones

Meera Subramanian

Lesser flamingo / Meera Subramanian

Cormorants / Meera Subramanian

Meera Subramanian

Rupert Wilson speaks after breakfast. Author of The African Baobob, he is a lawyer who trains in conflict resolution and points out that more and more environmental issues are ripe for facing with this approach. He says he doesn’t believe that the next wars will be fought over water, that it’s simply too necessary. He thinks that the increasing scarcity of the clean drinking water will foster cooperation, not conflict.

In the afternoon, we visit the Mvuke Primary School, a public school of 700 students within the KenGen compound of red-roofed houses, but students include children from surrounding settlements as well as staff kids. Miss Jane meets us, along with two other teachers, including the science teacher. We’re led into a classroom with nearly a hundred middle school students in white and gray uniforms contrasted with striking red ties.

Mvuke Primary School / Munir Virani

They give us a huge round of applause and we say “Hello!” and they all respond in unison. Meera tells them who we are and then tosses out questions to them. How do we protect the environment? (Don’t litter. Don’t cut down trees.) What kinds of birds do you have here? (Pelicans. Flamingos. Eagles. Ducks.) Why are trees important? (They help make rain.) They cheer madly when Munir does the African fish eagle call. Then they ask us questions, and Brian is our star responder. What is the deepest lake in America? (We’re stumped. It’s Crater Lake, we learn later.) What is the longest river? (The Missouri-Mississippi.) How many freshwater lakes do you have? (Who knows exactly, but just one state is called Land of 10,000 Lakes.) What kinds of trees do you have? (Maple. Oak. Pine. Fir. Redwoods.)

Afterward, we go to the home of Sarah Higgins, the local who came as a guest lecturer a few days ago. In addition to being a farmer, she also is a volunteer bird rehabilitator in a country that has no official support for injured birds. She shows us a Wahlberg’s eagle, a pair of crowned eagles, and a tawny eagle that we all fall in love with. It stands, golden as a retriever and nearly as soft looking, its feathers spiked a bit atop its head as it watches us with curiosity and caution both.

Sarah Higgins with a tawny eagle. / Meera Subramanian

A man in a green jumpuit comes out with meat and a falconry glove and lures Tornado to his fist. The bird is stunning. But there’s more. Marsh eagles. A one-winged fish eagle. A pair of augur buzzards. A pelican. A lilac-breasted roller recovering a hurt wing.

Meera Subramanian

And an eagle owl that might not make it.

Meera Subramanian

But Sarah is doing her best to see that at least it has a chance.

Sunrise / Meera Subramanian

With perfect light, we head out again in boats to put some of our new-found knowledge about photography to use.

Munir Virani

We toss some more fish for fish eagles…

African fish eagle / Arianwen Jones

African fish eagle / Arianwen Jones

Meera Subramanian

…and spot other birds as well.

Pied kingfishers / Arianwen Jones

We observe the human use of the lake.

Meera Subramanian

We apply sunscreen liberally.

Meera Subramanian

In the afternoon, Meera dug deeper into environmental journalism, as the class dissected Mark Seal’s Vanity Fair article “A Flowering Evil” about the murder of Joan Root and the impact of flower farms in Naivasha. Then guest lecturer Don Turner, former tourist operator and long-time resident of Lake Naivasha, joins us. His message is heavy. As an older man, he has seen the transformation that has happened in Kenya.

“It’s terrifying to realize that the population of my country has gone from two to 42 million in my lifetime,” he said.

In Naivasha alone, the population has increased a hundred times over in the past 20 years, from 5,000 to half a million. He described the staggering loss of forests, birds, animals, and ecosystems and wondered how we’ll ever be able to offset the carbon being produced in the rising Asian tiger nations.

It is an ongoing challenge for those in (and entering) the field of conservation biology, but we all hope to err on the side of optimism.

Another guest, Rupert Wilson, who will speak tomorrow morning, tried to interject “a spark of optimism”to the conversation.

“Yes, you would have seen more if you’d come ten years ago, but you’re seeing more than if you’d waited to come in another ten.”

We bemoan the loss, even as we watch the ibis perch overhead in the acacias, hear the fish eagle making its last cries of the day.

Among the flower farms, private landholdings, gated communities, and slums that surround Lake Naivasha lies Kedong Ranch. Started in 1974, the 60,000-hectare ranch — that’s a staggering 600 square kilometers — straddles Mount Longonot, Hell’s Gate and Lake Naivasha.  Here’s a satellite image. Hit hard by the drought last year, which killed much of their livestock, there are only 1200 head of cattle, goats and sheep currently grazing on the property. At least legally. Masai commonly bring their cattle onto the property to graze. With only 40 employees, it is impossible to monitor the entire ranch.

To generate income, the ranch runs a tourist lodge, the Longonot Ranch House, and leases some of their land for agricultural production.

Farms with Hell's Gate in the background. / Meera Subramanian

Meera Subramanian

A month after our visit, these same workers will go on strike, rallying for better wages they were promised.

Meera Subramanian

Power lines run through the property, carrying KenGen electricity to Kenya’s growing population and also creating a dangerous zone for birds. We see feathers whose shafts are cracked in a distinct way, showing electrocution.

Meera Subramanian

Later, we find the remains of a stork hanging on a line that must have caught its wing on the lines which are invisible to the fast-moving birds.

Meera Subramanian

Dr. Munir Virani is working on a paper warning about the impact on threatened bird species as electrification efforts increase in Kenya.

The ranch felt oddly empty, although there were some wild game, including zebras. Here, Arian inspects a broken water trough:

Meera Subramanian

Later in the day, Sarah Higgins, a local landowner and member of the Lake Naivasha Watershed Council comes to give a lecture.

Maria looks out across the plateau. / Meera Subramanian

On our first day off, Meera and the students decide to really rest up by getting up at dawn and climbing Mount Longonot, a nearby volcano that reaches an elevation of 2780 meters. The name derives from the Masai word oloonong’ot, meaning “mountains of many spurs” or “steep ridges”. The air is thin, sucking the oxygen out of our pumping blood, and we make it to various stages of elevation. Here’s the view down into the crater:

Meera Subramanian

And here’s a victory shot!

Meera Subramanian

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