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!

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.

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.

Not far from Elsamere and Lake Naivasha is Hell’s Gate National Park, named after a narrow chasm among striking red cliffs that was once a tributary to a prehistoric lake in the Great Rift Valley. We begin on foot, and after days of cloudy weather and a bit of rain, the morning is clear and glowing with light that is perfect for photography. Our feet kick up fine dust, the remains of ash from nearby Mt. Longonot, which is dormant. Chunks of obsidian are shiny beneath the dirt.

Fischer Tower, inspiration for Pride Rock of Lion King fame. / Meera Subramanian

Fischer Tower, inspiration for Pride Rock of Lion King fame. / Meera Subramanian

In the distance, steam spurts from the horizon accompanied by a loud hum that indicate the Olkaria Geothermal Station, the first of its kind in Africa, established in 1981 and operated by KenGen, the leading power company in Kenya. There’s a huge push underway in Kenya to use renewable energy, but even this comes at a price. The water needed to operate the plant came from Lake Naivasha until the company began to dig boreholes. All power, ultimately, comes at some price.

Olkaria geothermal station / Meera Subramanian

The natural geothermal energy heats up spring water, which seeps from crevices and cascades down in small waterfalls, smelling strongly of sulfur. We explore the canyon, learning new plants, insects and amphibians.

Meera Subramanian

Hell’s Gate is a heaven for birds of prey. Munir tells us about Simon Thomsett’s attempt to reintroduce bearded vultures back to the park and shows us the remains of the hacking site. A pair of Verreaux’s eagles cruise together across the sky to the north, back to the south, over to the west, landing briefly on the ground at a ridgetop near their nest before heading off again, coasting on the wind. We see a lanner falcon, perched near its nest at the top of a sheer cliff.

Site of failed lammergier vulture reintroduction, but we see a lanner falcon perched near its nest. / Meera Subramanian

Bearded vulture hack site and lanner falcon nest. / Meera Subramanian

Evan and Shiv watch the falcon. / Munir Virani

We also learn how poorly designed watering holes can be fatal for birds of prey.

Meera Subramanian

We climb in the Land Cruiser to head deeper into the canyon, pausing to have a tea break under the tree where famous raptor biologist Leslie Brown sat to study a colony of cliff-nesting Ruppell’s vultures. The cliff is covered with whitewash, but there are only so many ledges. There are vultures on nests and vultures flying on wide plank-like wings eight feet tip-to-tip. Munir has counted up to 60-70 birds at a time at this site. Teeku sets up his 600mm lens and we take turns getting close-ups of the birds from a great distance, then we climb up to the base of the cliffs, searching for prey remains and feathers and eggshell fragments. We also get a spectacular view, spotting giraffes, marred only by the billows of steam and noise rising from the KenGen plant.We discuss how a park that is only 60 square kilometers can be so rich in raptors and plains game but also at odds with surrounding agricultural, pastoral and horticulture pressure.

Ruppell's vultures / Meera Subramanian

Ruppell's vultures on their cliff nests. / Meera Subramanian

We then hike down into the chasm of the canyon itself.

Munir Virani

The rockclimbers of the group (Chris, Brian and Drew), cannot contain themselves!

Chris takes a leap on his way down. / Munir Virani

Chris takes a leap on his way down. / Meera Subramanian