“Hey mzungu,” was the shout that greeted me, accompanied by two surprised faces, as I darted outside to lock the hubs of my vehicle for four-wheel drive. Rain splattered the windscreen, black cement-like mud engulfed my feet, and migrating Amur falcons zoomed past in their furious bid to reach the southern regions of Africa in the coming days.
The voices came from beneath the slim sheltering eaves of the only building within eyesight, which was dwarfed by the mighty communication towers shouting their presence from the top of this expansive, treeless ridge. Why two men were huddled outside this tin building in this weather was anyone’s guess. After a quick nod of acknowledgement I jumped back into my vehicle and continued my slog upward into the darkening evening sky.
My journey was taking me into the heart of Africa’s newest source of “green energy” and probably its most misunderstood one too.
Wind energy projects have begun to sweep across the continent. East Africa’s Rift Valley is a prime target as the wind energy generated along its vast ridges would make any engineer think he’s struck the proverbial pot of gold at the end of this tropical rainbow.
There are others attracted by these ridges as well. Migrating raptors rely on thermals—rising currents of warm air that are produced when the sun differentially heats the earth’s surface. The steep cliffs and high temperatures of East Africa’s Rift Valley produce ideal conditions for thermals and by extension create a huge flyway used by over one million migratory birds such as cranes, eagles, falcons, and storks.
The misunderstanding comes as the world’s leaders tout wind energy as ‘green’ energy without any hint of the serious collision risk imposed by gigantic spinning blades thrust into the airspace of aerial specialists. Ask any bird or bat about wind energy and if they could they’d surely tell you it’s the coming of the apocalypse. To many species already threatened by habitat loss, deforestation, and poisoning, wind turbines represent yet another nail in their coffin. A recent study estimated that 573,000 birds (including 83,000 raptors) and 888,000 bats were killed in a single year through collisions with turbines in the U.S.
At the top of the hill I was greeted by a Frenchman, who asked “Have you just gotten off a plane from America?” An accent is a most peculiar thing, like a label written across your forehead that only others can see. While I certainly wasn’t in America, nor had I just come from there, the surrounding landscape reminded me of exactly that. There was a distinct resemblance to Hawk Mountain in the eastern U.S., the world’s first refuge for birds of prey and one of the leading places in the world to watch the annual migration of tens of thousands of raptors to warmer climes further south. As I stood among the boulders waiting for clusters of amur falcons to float up the side of the ridge and glide swiftly overhead, I couldn’t help but think this is a fantastic site for a hawk watch, not for a wind farm!
Despite the hundreds of Palearctic falcons and eagles that migrated past that day, I was actually there to gauge the impact of a proposed wind farm on a nearby colony of critically endangered Rüppell’s vultures. So imperiled is this species, it has been projected to decline by 97 percent over the next three generations (approximately 50 years) due mainly to illicit poisoning. The second largest colony of Rüppell’s vultures in Kenya, numbering close to 70 breeding pairs, lies less than 15 km away from the proposed site where 67 turbines are to be erected along the ridgeline. Wind turbines are notoriously deadly for raptors and other large birds that collide with the high-speed revolving blades as their eyes are designed to focus below them while in flight, scanning for food or water bodies, and not along their flight path directly ahead of them. For a species already on the brink, wind turbines erected in their flight path could deal a fatal blow.
The following morning found me among the local team counting birds of prey at designated points along the ridge. Since the project has to ensure no net loss of a critically endangered species (and preferably a gain), these teams were out assessing this likelihood by counting and identifying every passing raptor, and noting its direction of travel and flight height along the ridge in relation to a map of the proposed locations of the turbines. It was hectic work as the airspace became increasingly crowded with eagles, kestrels, and two species of critically endangered vultures, Rüppell’s and white-backed. Soon I had seen enough to know the peril of placing wind turbines along this ridge that the vultures reliably used as a thermal-producing launching off point for their daily foraging bouts.
That the ridgeline is an important flyway for critically endangered vultures is not in doubt. Even tracking data from individual Rüppell’s vultures roosting at the nearby colony shows the importance of the ridge in question as a flyway for these birds. Yet, despite many meetings with those representing the developers of the wind farm and stating explicitly that this site is not appropriate for turbines and would likely have serious impacts on the vultures, the project still stands to go ahead. When experts from across Africa have voiced their concerns over this project to no avail, one wonders how the voiceless vultures and other endangered raptors will ever have a future.
Tracking data was provided by C. Kendall of North Carolina Zoo.