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.