From the heights of Mt. Marsabit in northern Kenya everything is downhill. When I arrived for a recent 10-day expedition, even my expectations paralleled the topography. In short, we knew security was a problem, we hadn’t seen many vultures in the area during our survey the previous year, and a journey into the complete unknown is always filled with trepidation.
Mt. Marsabit is a lone vertical island of green emerging from the overbaked and overgrazed lowlands that characterize this region. As we descended, ring-necked doves replaced red-eyed doves, and cows turned to camels. Livestock is the lifeblood. Cows and donkeys compete for sparse blades of grass, while the goats, camels, and even the sheep browse.
No one, nor no animal, is fat. All are just surviving the harsh conditions. Every day involves a trek—to water, to food, to shade. Dust and heat are a mainstay, and insecurity hovers like the flies that perpetuate your waking hours.
For the first time, I left an emergency phone contact behind—such is the notorious state of insecurity in this region. But the near-daily security briefings were a surprising juxtaposition to the warmth of the local Borana people. Perhaps somewhat naively, we felt safe among them. The vultures did too.
We came to deploy tracking units on vultures to follow their movements over this huge area where after decades of isolation a new paved road and vast expanses of land are leading to a 21st-century gold rush of sorts. Development is knocking on every corner of this landscape, and the list of pending large-scale developments reads like an eight-year old’s list to Santa Claus—long and growing. It includes damming of the Omo River, oil extraction, the largest wind farm in sub-Saharan Africa, high voltage power lines, and a dam called Crocodile Jaws. Where the unique biodiversity and cultures of this region fit into the government’s developmental footprint remains to be seen. In the meantime, gathering crucial data on the important foraging and nesting areas of critically endangered vultures has become a priority.
And the vultures showed up. Every day was filled with a flying parade of characters. And they didn’t just come in their tens, as we had expected, they came in their hundreds every day.
The numbers of hoodies (hooded vultures), lappets (lappet-faced vultures), Egyptians, white-headeds, white-backeds, and Rüppell’s vultures made the hours slip easily by. We could barely finish one Digestive biscuit before another bird showed up. Any glance at the sky revealed tens of birds zipping about in all directions. “Excitement” was the word of every day. It was quite simply a vulture lover’s paradise. Even more refreshingly the locals were wonderfully helpful and keen to engage us. We learned so much about the area over long conversations while sharing priceless water reserves.
The five vultures that we managed to tag and release are now showing us the vital areas they need for their survival. For the moment these birds are profiting from the excessive livestock deaths that are common to this region. Other wildlife species are less fortunate. Most are desperately eking out a means of survival in this rugged landscape that is bursting at the seams with livestock and a growing human population that the area’s meager natural resources struggle to support. However, the local communities have always co-existed within the confines of climate and natural resources, and given their educated background, we hope a balance will prevail that will see culture, biodiversity, and development equally garnering their respective seats at the table.
The author sincerely thanks Jaldessa Conservancy for hosting the team and Northern Rangelands Trust for help in coordinating this expedition. She thanks Martin Odino for field assistance. Funding for this research and for Darcy’s larger project to conserve vultures in northern Kenya comes from AZA Conservation Grants Fund, National Geographic Society, San Diego Zoo Global, Detroit Zoo, Bowling for Rhinos, Hawk Conservancy Trust, Abilene Zoo, San Diego Safari Park, Puget Sound Chapter of AAZK, Chester Zoo, Raptor Research Foundation, Halycon Media, North Star Science, and American Bird Conservancy.