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The Magic of Kwenia
Munir Virani — in East Africa Project    ShareNestled in the heart of the Kedong Valley is Kwenia—ome to the largest and most important colony of Ruppell’s Vultures in southern Kenya. My friend and partner in raptor conservation studies, Simon Thomsett discovered this spectacular site in 2002 during a helicopter flight to the Gol Mountains in northern Tanzania. Ruppell’s Vultures, along with four other species of vultures in East Africa have been placed in the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red Data List. This means that their populations need to be closely monitored to ascertain whether they will either (barely) survive or become extinct in the not-so-distant future. Lammergeyers or Bearded Vultures have almost completely disappeared from Kenya while Egyptian Vultures are listed as endangered species. The White-headed and Lappet-faced Vultures are only confined to the big game areas while there have been noticeable declines in numbers of the two species of Gyps vultures—African White-backed and Ruppell’s.
Kwenia cliffs (Photo by Munir Virani)
Kwenia cliffs (Photo by Munir Virani)

I have previously written about my hair-raising flight to Kwenia and have since then visited the site every year with Simon to monitor population trends and reproductive success of these near-threatened species. During that first visit, Simon and I made a gentleman’s pact whereby we pledged not to write extensively about this magnificent site but more importantly not to reveal its exact location. Every field biologist has his or her “secret spot” where they share their fieldwork, experiences, passion and enthusiasm with close and like-minded friends. Kwenia is one of those “secret spots”. While I will not reveal the location of the site, I would like to share with you my experience at Kwenia.

I usually have guests who accompany me and on this last visit a couple of weeks ago, I had Richard Jones, a wildlife film-maker who was interested in getting some footage of Ruppell’s Vultures leaving the site “en masse.” There was Corinne Kendall, a PhD student from Princeton University who will be commencing her fieldwork in Kenya on understanding the effects of human activities on avian scavenger community diversity, structure and function. In short—"what makes the vultures tick?” I was also privileged in having my cousin Yasser, a spinal surgeon from Russia who happened to be visiting Kenya at the time. Kwenia has a certain magic that simply cannot be put into words. It is a place that needs to be experienced, felt and savored. As one drives across desolate roads, overgrazed pastures, boulders and aardvark holes during the final approach, the habitat suddenly transformed into a golden-tinged grassland with gerenuk and Grant’s gazelles prancing amidst a hypnotic mountainous backdrop. Kori Bustards and Secretary Birds can be seen foraging in the distance while Button Quails flushed out from the spinning wheels of the car attract Lanner Falcons that perform entertaining displays of dives and swoops. The guano-splattered cliffs turn orange as the sun descends fast over the horizon. Apart from the dusk chorus of birds going to roost, there is strong breeze and an occasional distant thunder.

Ruppell’s Vulture in flight (photo by Munir Virani)
Ruppell’s Vulture in flight (photo by Munir Virani)

This last visit was a little unusual to say the least. Kenya is experiencing one of its worst droughts and we saw tens of livestock carcasses strewn along the sides of the road. The once “golden-tinged grassland,” were instead a parched overgrazed dustbowl with emaciated cows and somber donkeys hobbling helplessly toward our campsite. We pitched our tents under an Acacia tree, oblivious to the many scorpions and solifugids that live there. Attracted by the numerous moths, beetles and grasshoppers drawn in by the crackling campfire, Peli, the resident Pearl-spotted owlet, dropped bye to say hi. Under the starry sky, my guests were silent—soaking themselves in the experience. Dinner was a combination of spicy chicken tikka, naan bread and chips packed in foil paper and carefully placed by the campfire cinders to warm gently. This has always been tradition. Conversation around the campfire dropped to a minimum as the tikka spice wreaked havoc on the human palate. Chocolate became the dessert of choice and necessity. As we get into our tents to retire, the rustling of Acacia bushes and distant calls of hyenas made us appreciate this untamed part of Africa.

Peli, the resident Pearl-spotted Owlet at Kwenia <br />(photo by Munir Virani)
Peli, the resident Pearl-spotted Owlet at Kwenia
(photo by Munir Virani)
At dawn, after a freshly brewed cup of coffee, we began counting numbers of nests and vultures on the cliffs. Richard explored the screes to see whether he could find a suitable spot for filming the vultures leaving in the morning. The vulture numbers are the same as they have been for the last seven years. This does not mean that the population is not declining. Ruppell’s Vulture cliffs, particularly these ones at Kwenia are of superb quality. They have phenomenal “real estate” value and if a bird gets killed while foraging, then any empty ledge will invariably get taken over by another bird. Having marked birds at this site would help answer the question of whether Kwenia is a “sink” for Ruppell’s Vultures. This means that birds may be dying but because others are drawn in, one is not easily able to establish whether the population is declining or not. Simon and I have thought about wing-tagging some resident vultures at Kwenia to ascertain whether they use the same nests year after year. Given how far and remote this site is, this will require lots of planning and volunteer support. Walk-in traps for vultures have been successfully used in South Africa and Israel, but the process is labor intensive, costly and requires months of patiently baiting the birds to carcasses.

After finishing our vulture count, we returned to camp. I stopped en route to take a picture of a fresh leopard track on the path. Overhead, the sky was filled with vulture activity. A kettle of approximately 100 Ruppell’s Vultures began circling effortlessly in search of rising air currents. The birds were headed directly west – we could only speculate that they were headed towards the Mara-Serengeti complex. This is where nearly one and half million wildebeest reside and provide a huge food source for vultures. Given the drought that Kenya is currently undergoing, it seemed unlikely that the vultures would have to travel far to get food. We met a slightly disappointed Richard near the car. “This is a great site, Munir,” he said. “Unfortunately, the light is the wrong way and so I don’t think I will get the shot that I want,” he said forlornly. My thoughts were afar —thinking about knowing exactly where these birds forage. Hopefully Corinne’s study on the vultures will help unravel the mysteries about their movements in Kenya.

Munir with Mama Kai and her grand daughter Damaris<br />(Photo by Jon Smallie)
Munir with Mama Kai and her grand daughter Damaris
(Photo by Jon Smallie)
I whipped out the cooler box and took out some eggs to make breakfast for everyone while Richard volunteered to make the coffee. A Masai herdsman stood in the distance with his cattle. There were more cattle here than I had ever seen. Not a good sign. Hopefully the rains would come and the roaming herdsmen and their cattle would return to their home areas far from Kwenia. After packing our stuff in the car we drove bye Mama Kai’s manyatta (Masai homestead). Mama Kai is this sweet Masai lady who owns some of the land where we did our vulture work. “Sopa,” (greetings) she said excitedly and gave me a huge hug. Little Masai children (her grandchildren) hovered around us offering their heads for us to bless. I introduced my guests to her and updated her about what we found at the vulture cliffs. Whenever we meet, Mama Kai usually has a twinkle in her eyes but that day she looked sad. She complained bitterly about the drought and lack of water in the area. It is a hard life for the Masai of Kwenia as the land is semi-arid, barren with little or no water. On the one hand, cattle are the lifeline of the Masai, symbolizing their status and wealth. On the other, they ravage the grasslands and exert stress and economic pressure on families struggling to survive drought conditions. We dropped off a carton of maize meal for Mama Kai and left her with all the water that we had. After bidding our goodbyes, we began the long journey back to Nairobi. Overhead, I saw some vultures returning to the cliffs. They had already found food and will continue to enjoy this drought phase for many months to come.

Find more articles about Egyptian Vulture, Lappet-faced Vulture, Rüppell's Vulture, Africa

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