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.

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!

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

On day two of the surveys, we take opposite sides of the lake. The wildlife is abundant.

Cape Buffalo among invasive hyacinth. / Meera Subramanian

Maria leads the pack. / Teeku Patel
Maria leads the pack with a grin. / Teeku Patel

A waterbuck lets us get a close look. / Meera Subramanian

Hippos snort up water in agitation when we get too close. / Meera Subramanian

While we get surprisingly close to wildlife, we also see that flower farm greenhouses also come much too close to the shore. Human impact has greatly altered the lake’s ecosystem. Papyrus that once ringed the lake and created floating islands of filtration are now mostly gone, replaced with invasive hyacinth. Native fish are also long gone, replaced by numerous introduced species including crayfish, tilapia, carp, and large-mouthed bass (introduced for the pleasure of President Roosevelt in 1927).

Flower farm greenhouses / Arianwen Jones

Greenhouses up close / Meera Subramanian

Lunch was late, by the time one of our boats found their way out of a papyrus thicket that nearly sucked up their vessel! Oh, and once they got out, they ran out of gas in the middle of the lake. Luckily, the second boat had some spare fuel. All in a day’s field work!

Evan and Chris looking a bit dejected. / Munir Virani

Evan and Chris looking a bit dejected, as Drew learns to "live with the papyrus." 🙂 / Munir Virani

In the afternoon, Meera leads the students into the world of environmental journalism.

Lake Naivasha in the early morning light. / Arianwen Jones

Lake Naivasha is nearly 200 square kilometers in size, so we split into two groups and climb into boats to travel the shoreline, counting hippos and African fish eagles. In one boat, Arian takes the clipboard and Maria the map, and note numbers and GPS location as we spot pods of snorting (and scary to us, in our thin aluminum boat) hippos and the distinct white spot among the green acacia trees that indicate a fish eagle.

Arian keeps track of numbers. / Meera Subramanian

Shiv is our guide. He tosses out fish we’ve brought to lure the eagles toward us and we get our first opportunities to practice our wildlife photography, shooting fast and hoping we can focus well enough to get a clear shot of whether the large raptors (which resemble American bald eagles) have a ring on their leg.

African fish eagle / Meera Subramanian

Monitoring the movement and pairing of the birds is helping to understand their conservation status. Here’s a short video that Munir did for The Peregrine Fund:

We meet the other boat halfway around the lake and return over the now-choppy water, fairly soaked by the time we arrive back at Elsamere for a nice hot lunch.

In the afternoon, Munir gives an introduction to Kenya’s birds of prey and Teeku talks about how to work with your photographic subject.