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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Environmental Education in Kenya
Marta Curti — in East Africa Project    ShareIt is probably every wildlife lover’s dream to visit the “dark continent”—a magical place where hippos laze languidly in shallow waters; where zebras, elephants and giraffes graze quietly in loose herds; and a pride of lions can be seen with relative ease sleeping belly-up in the afternoon sun alongside the road, so close you feel as if you could almost touch them. If you are really lucky you may also get to see the sleek spotted coat of a leopard as it slinks quietly into the tall grass, or a catch a rare view of a serval cat pouncing on unsuspecting lizards just beside your car. For those who have a particular affinity for raptors, Kenya is high on the list of places to visit. This east-African country is home to more species of raptors than almost any other country on the planet and more than 1,000 species of birds.

But, coupled with the beauty and diversity of the land, human pressures are mounting and wildlife and wild places are beginning to buckle beneath the weight. As one travels the bumpy and often dusty roads that crisscross this breathtakingly beautiful country, it is hard to miss the signs.

Upon our arrival in Nairobi, the nation’s capital, Yeray Seminario, also a biologist for The Peregrine Fund, and I traveled to Lake Naivasha with Munir Virani (the one-man team who heads up The Peregrine Fund’s Pan African Project) in order to trap and band African Fish Eagles. We were accompanied by Shiv Kapila (a graduate student working on his Masters degree under the careful tutelage of Munir) and Karim Kara a videographer and budding film-maker with a mounting passion for birds and wildlife. As we neared the lake, we began to see rows and rows of earth-colored greenhouses dotting the landscape. Munir explained that this is where thousands of flowers are grown each year for use in the commercial floral industry; in fact Kenya is the largest flower producer in Africa for the European market. And it all sounds lovely—after all, who doesn’t like fresh cut flowers and perfectly red, red roses?—until you learn that the growers are draining the country’s lakes of water faster than it can be replenished, a serious problem that threatens the livelihood of humans and wildlife alike.

But still, when we arrived at Lake Naivasha (a two hour drive from Nairobi that takes you through the unparalleled Rift Valley and past the entrance to Hell’s Gate National Park) to my untrained eye, everything seemed perfect. Greater Flamingoes lolled about the lake, their pink, downward-curving beaks skimming the water for food; Egyptian Geese paddled slowly alongside our boat; and flocks of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Great and Long-tailed Cormorants flew past on rapid wing beats. As for the eagles, pairs of them could be seen every several hundred yards or so. There was even a bright rainbow arcing in a perfect crescent over the lake when we arrived.

Greater Flamingo at Lake Naivasha
Greater Flamingo at Lake Naivasha
But to Munir, Shiv, and Karim, who know better, this lake is slowly dying. As we walked down to the jetty where a boat was waiting to take us across the lake, Munir pointed out a stump several hundred feet from the water’s edge. “This is where the lake was early this year,” he said, further proof that the waters are being drained at an alarming rate, and the persistent drought that the country has been experiencing of late isn’t helping. He also pointed out that the sludgy brown color of the water “is not normal” but the result of run-off from local flower farms and introduced bottom-feeding fish. How much longer this lake will continue to provide precious habitat and water to the wildlife and the humans who depend on it is anybody’s guess.

It is not just the lakes that are in trouble. As we visited more areas of the country, from the world-famous Masai Mara to the lesser known Lukenya Mountain in the Athi-Kitengela plains, we saw further evidence of the struggles of the natural landscape to maintain a foothold in a world more and more overrun with humans.

Simon Thomsett, an avid wildlife conservationist and former Peregrine Fund employee who has spent the better part of his life in battle (sometimes literally) to protect Kenya’s dwindling raptor populations and the habitat they so depend on, took us to see a nesting pair of Verraux’s Eagles. It took us a while to spot them, however, as two of their old nests had been removed by rock climbers annoyed by the presence of these raptors in “their” climbing spot. In other areas cattle carcasses in various stages of decomposition littered the fields; some of these had been set out by cattle ranchers as poisoned bait to kill the occasional lion or cheetah that may prey on their livestock—a lethal solution that ends up poisoning a host of other smaller predators and scavengers including jackals, vultures, storks, and eagles. And still in other areas, we saw individuals tending to their cattle as they roamed and fed well within the boundaries of national parks, wreaking havoc on the vegetation that wild ungulates rely on.

African Fish Eagle
African Fish Eagle
It is not only wildlife that struggles. Though the country has settled down since the riots over election results in early 2008, those displaced from their homes still live in make-shift refugee camps and depend on hunting wild game for their survival. And for the more than one million people living in poverty in Kenya life is unbearably hard, though they have no choice but to bear it just the same. This was perhaps most evident in the area of the Samburu Game Reserve. Local villagers who live on the outskirts of the park reside in huts no bigger than a tool shed made of sticks and covered with garbage bags to keep out the rain (when it does rain—otherwise water is hard to come by and villagers must walk great distances in lung-crushing heat to reach the nearest stream). While within the park, only a few miles away, foreigners lounge in five-star resorts, taking refreshing dips in the swimming pool, and eating more food in a day than the locals see, perhaps, in week or even a month.

Violence, beauty, poverty, and a wealth of wildlife are just some of the contradictions that make Kenya such a challenging place to carry out conservation programs, but the kind of place where this type of effort is most needed.

I have had the pleasure of working on The Peregrine Fund’s Environmental Education project in Panama for the past seven years. During that time, I was a first-hand witness to the fact that education really can work in changing people’s attitudes and actions for the better when it comes to land and wildlife conservation. More recently, I have been working closely with Munir to try to develop an environmental education strategy to complement The Peregrine Fund’s conservation work in Kenya, which focuses on protecting land and water quality for humans and for wildlife (particularly the African Fish Eagle and several species of vultures). In particular, Munir and I have been working on translating into English (and eventually Swahili) an education guide on raptors that was originally written for teachers in Panama. The guide contains six chapters on the biology, importance, conservation challenges, and characteristics of raptors, as well as educational activities to be used in the classroom. It focuses on individual raptor species found in Kenya and Madagascar (home to another Peregrine Fund project). We hope to eventually find a way to publish this guide and then make it available to teachers while at the same time train them to use it through a series of workshops.

Before I left Kenya, I had the pleasure of giving a presentation at the National History Museum in Nairobi on the education work we had done in Panama and to discuss ideas as to how to get an education program started in Kenya. The presentation went well and there were many questions at the end—making it clear that effective conservation education programs are desperately needed.

One thing is for sure—environmental education and conservation projects, without effective social programs, won’t be sufficient to curtail the destruction of wildlife populations in the long run. It is not until the human population is lifted from poverty—not until they have access to clean water, sufficient food, sturdy homes, and a proper education—that real changes can be made to preserve the culture, beauty, wildlife, and wild places of one of the most compelling places on earth. For perhaps, no where else is it as evident that the health of the human landscape is so inextricably intertwined with that of the natural landscape and that the only way to save one is to save them both.

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