Conservation Media 2011

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.

Photo Credit - Teeku Patel

Photo Credit to Rebekah Black

Today was yet another full day of learning and awesome experiences. After breakfast, we were joined by Andy Hill, editor of SWARA Magazine. SWARA is one of the top conservation magazines in East Africa, informing locals and also international readers of the environmental changes and problems East Africa is experiencing. Andy led a session on media training, teaching us the crucial aspects of what the media wants from us as citizens, the inner workings of media, and the importance of advocacy in creating change. His discussion with us was very interesting and helpful, especially since Andy is experienced in many fields and knows exactly what you need to do to be a successful journalist.

Our day continued with a visit to Soysambu Conservancy, a privately owned conservancy, covering a total of 48,000 acres around Elementaita Lake. Turning off the main road onto a road that puts New England potholes to shame, we spotted an African Long-Crested Eagle which has large black feathers on the top of its head. It was quite a site, especially being so close to a raptor we have not seen yet. We were met at the conservancy by Juliet Barnes, a writer and native Kenyan, who has lived there for twelve years. “Is it four-wheel drive?” she asked, referring to our van, which was not. “Well, that means we’ll have to push!” she joked, followed by a quaint laugh. Juliet joined us in our van, telling us about the conservancy while we snapped photos of the beautiful landscape and wildlife.

Elementaita Lake. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

Early in our adventure, Juliet spotted a dead pelican by the lake’s edge. The pelican showed no fatal wounds, which worried Juliet. Apparently there is a timber plant on the other side of the lake which seeps chemicals and toxins into the lake when the rains come. It’s not too hard to see that this seepage threatens the survival of many animals in Soysambu. Although deeply concerned by the image, Juliet was determined to show us the success of their conservation efforts. “Smell that. Green smell, isn’t it?” Juliet queried in the thick forest of Acacia trees. As we drove through the conservancy, we spotted impala, Lilac breasted rollers, flamingos, spoonbills, black-wing stilts, Augur buzzards, elands, water buffalo, southern ground horn-bills, water buck, crown-crested cranes, a black-shouldered kite, a silver-back jackal, and other species.

Crown-crested cranes. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

Lilac brested roller. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

In the middle of the lake are islands known as Pelican Islands which, as expected, attract vast numbers of pelicans. The site was truly amazing, seeing so many pelicans condensed into little compact islands, while hundreds of other birds were swarming around and creating a constant “CAWW!” The immense amount of land the conservancy covers limited our ability to spot any Rothschild’s giraffes, one of the main species Soysambu is dedicated to protecting in their conservation efforts. With thunder looming in the background and the onset of rain, another day in Kenya came to a close.

Black-shouldered kite. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

Pelicans on Pelican Island. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

Another early morning at Elsamere field study center!  We started our day at Hells Gate National Park.  Large cliffs perimeter the park and are also a very common nesting sights for raptors. Not until you stand next to the cliffs do you really appreciate its vastness.

Zebras grazing in front of the cliffs at Hell's Gate

In order to see the raptors in the cliffs, binoculars were needed and even then the birds were quite small.  The only way we could really see the birds well was through a telescope!  It was awesome watching the birds in their natural habitat.  We saw Verreaux’s eagles, Lanner falcons, harrier hawks, augur buzzards, and even Ruppell’s vultures.  Clearly, Hells Gate is a haven for raptors!
The park is also home to two gorges; an upper gorge and a lower gorge, which were formed in part to flooding and El Nino storms.  Lake Naivasha used to reach the top of the gorges; 100 meters higher than it now sits today!  A man named George, a member of the Massai tribe, guided us through the gorge.  George, who carried a walking stick made from camphor tree, was very knowledgeable about the area and aided us in climbing the tricky and slippery rocks.  The walk through the gorge was beautiful!  It’s amazing what nature can do.

View from inside the gorge during our hike

After our hike through the gorge, we got on the bus and headed to two of KenGen’s geothermal plants.  KenGen is an electricity company that produces geothermal, thermal, hydro, and wind energy.  This plant is the only energy plant in the world that lies in a national park.  Cyrus Karingithi, Assistant Manager of Resources Development at KenGen, guided us around the plant. The plant smelled strongly of sulfur and was very noisy. Although the plant was smelly and loud, it was fascinating to see the ins and outs of a power plant.
The group discussed energy usage in Kenya with Cyrus.  KenGen wants to increase their wind and geothermal usages.  In order to do so, they need to build more sources.  KenGen plans to build a geothermal plant at the exact spot that we set up a telescope today in the park viewing raptors.   Wind energy, although a very clean sources of energy, kills birds as they fly into the turbines.  Unfortunately, raptors are not the first priority for KenGen when deciding where to set up their next plant.  Hopefully someone can conince KenGen to take the raptors into consideration.  Maybe a student’s work can convince them!

View of a site being tested for a potential well at KenGen, very noisy!
What a great day all around! Looking forward to a lecture from the editor of Swara magazine and a trip to Soysambu!

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

White-headed Vulture by Meera Subramanian.

In less than a week, we’ll be heading out for SLU’s 2011 Conservation Media in Kenya course. Keep visiting to see the latest!

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