This past week our group traveled to Nakuru and Naivasha to learn about various aspects of conservation and problems the parks in the area are currently facing. We took many trips driving around Lake Nakuru National Park, as well as visiting a raptor rehabilitation center, Lake Naivasha, Interplant Flower Farm, and Hell’s Gate National Park. The game drives were certainly a highlight of the trip, and it was quite interesting to learn about all of the issues wildlife and locals are facing today.
The first day of our week in Nakuru brought us to the Naivasha Raptor Center. We were welcomed by owner and avian enthusiast, Shiv, outside of the bird’s enclosures. We first observed and learned about the vultures, the African White Back vulture and the Hooded vulture. These species, along with others in Kenya are at high risk of becoming functionally extinct, meaning a species still exists but is unable to play any role in the ecosystem due to population decline or disruption in their gene flow.
There are many human factors influencing the survival of vultures in Kenya, including wind turbines, geothermal power plants, and poisonings. According to Shiv, a wind turbine farm was constructed in one of the three worst locations in Kenya, just ten kilometers away from the rehabilitation center. The vultures are unable to sense the danger of the turbines as they fly through the area to scavenge. The blades of the turbines turn at 230 miles per hour and can slice a vulture in half. Turbines in Hell’s Gate National Park, we visited the park on Tuesday, were placed roughly 300 meters away from a vulture colony and killed five of the twenty-five ledge colonies which have been around for thousands of years.
As for the impact of geothermal energy, power plants are located in protected areas where vultures nest. KenGen, Kenya Electricity Generating Company, does geothermal drilling which has resulted in tapped ground leaks and superheated water that floods over, destroying habitat, specifically of vulture nests. These nests, tucked in cliff ledges, are many generations old and have high significance to vulture survival and reproduction. A final human impact on vultures is the poisoning of vultures as a result of the birds feeding on carcasses that have been poisoned by humans. One of the African White Back vultures at the rehabilitation center had been poisoned with a sublethal dose due to feeding on a carcass.
These issues are problematic for the reproduction of the species as a whole, as the birds pair monogamously for life and produce only one to two eggs per year. Of those couple eggs, the egg is often not fertile and if it is fertile it does not always hatch, and if it does hatch the hatchling is not always able to leave the nest because of predation. Those factors, combined with a 70% mortality rate in the bird’s first year, results in the parents needing to breed for forty to fifty years in order to replace themselves. If the vultures suffer from injures or death, it is unlikely that they will have been able to successfully reproduce. Therefore, the conservation and protection of vultures’ lifespans is important to the species’ continuation. If the vultures are able to reproduce at the rehabilitation center, it will be the first time they are ever successfully bred in Africa.
Many negative factors result from the loss of vultures, including a loss of biodiversity in the Kenyan and East African ecosystems and an increase in feral dog numbers and therefore rabies. Vultures also contribute the equivalent of $11,000 a year, per vulture, in cleaning up the environment. Shiv talked about the lack of awareness of and sympathy for vultures, and all birds, and how awareness needs to increase significantly in order for human interaction and development to positively impact birds.
In addition to the vultures, the rehabilitation center also has hawks, owls, and eagles of various types. We had a special experience going into the vulture enclosure and having a hands-on experience with the large birds. Afterwards, Shiv brought Phil, a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, out for each of us to hold. The Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl is the largest owl in Africa. As we interacted with Phil, Shiv talked about owls being a bad omen in traditional African culture. Many Africans think that if an owl is found calling outside of their house, someone in the house will die. This belief is a miss translation of an ancient story in which an owl was a messenger from God when one had sinned. An owl would come to the house and warm you of your sin, giving you a second chance before harm would come to you. This myth, along with every other piece of information from Shiv, was very beneficial to our understanding of and perspective on Nakuru National Park and the ways of conservation in Kenya.
On Monday, we had a short lecture from Mr. Edebe, a researcher with Kenya Wildlife Services, about some of the environmental issues Lake Nakuru National Park is currently facing. Around 30% of the park is covered by the lake, which is very well known for its flamingo population. Unfortunately, this population has been declining due to the impact of climate change.
Increased rainfall has impacted both water level as well as the salinity of Lake Nakuru. From 2010 to 2020, the area of the lake has increased from 43.3km2 to 61.3km2, and the perimeter has increased from 29.6km2 to 34.9km2. While the lake is expanding, the saline concentration has started to dilute which greatly impacts the biodiversity surrounding the lake. There has recently been a new species of tilapia, that typically only survive in saltwater, that are now able to survive in the lake. They have also seen an increase in the number of freshwater birds that now live around the perimeter of the lake. The increase in water level, however, has been destroying habitats of animals that use to live right outside of the lake. We unfortunately did not see any leopards, for example, because they have now moved strictly to the forest since there has been a decrease in land area.
On Wednesday we visited the Interplant Flower Farm, a farm for research and development in Naivasha. Flowers have become an important economic export, and Kenya is now the fourth largest flower producer in the world. Interplant is famous for its spray roses, or roses with multiple blooms per stem. The Naivasha farm is focused on developing and testing new species of roses to potentially grow and sell in Europe and other world markets.
This week in Nakuru was filled with animal sightings, interesting lectures, and lots of personal reflection. From the first day at the raptor rehabilitation center, our entire group couldn’t stop thinking about how much we had never thought about these issues. After the raptors, we went on many game drives and learned so much about the park from Mr. Edebe and Sinnary. Interplant gave us a glimpse into the flower farming industry in Naivasha, while Hell’s Gate and Lake Naivasha taught us more about the different issues affecting parks in the area. We each learned so much this week, and couldn’t have asked for a better program of activities.
Hope Olson: In reflecting on our week in Nakuru, I am especially grateful for the time we had in Nakuru National Park. We had previously talked about and learned about the Park in our biodiversity course taught by Sinnary and I really enjoyed visiting the place, seeing so much of what we had discussed, and imagining what the land might have looked like prior to negative human impact. It was incredible to be within such close proximity to animals that I had not yet seen in the wild, especially the giraffes, hyenas, rhinos, and lions. I am grateful for the tours we had in and around Nakuru, giving me a multi-perspective view of the city.
Brenden Bready: This week in Nakuru was without a doubt one of the best weeks of the program so far. I learned so much throughout the week about so many issues I never would have thought of, such as the importance of vultures for removing animal waste, as well as how changing the salinity of a lake can affect not only the fish but also the species around it. While it was amazing to learn so much, seeing all of the animals in the wild was certainly a highlight of the trip. I didn’t think I would actually ever see a lion, but being able to watch them hunt was certainly a treat. This trip went perfectly with everything we’ve been learning about in our biodiversity class with Sinnary, and I’m very excited to continue learning about more and more issues I wouldn’t have even thought about without these amazing visits.