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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
A trip down memory lane in Hell’s Gate National Park
Munir Virani — in East Africa Project    ShareLast year, when Chris Parish, The Peregine Fund’s California Condor Director wrote to me about Evan Buechley (a staff member on the California Condor Project) wishing to volunteer in Kenya, I jumped at the opportunity. Having worked on Augur Buzzards in the south Lake Naivasha area for my PhD in the mid 1990s, I revisited these sites in 2005 and documented marked declines in Augur Buzzard territories that ranged from 18 to 50% over different land-use areas. The southern Lake Naivasha area is the hub of Kenya’s horticultural industry with annual revenue close to five hundred million US dollars a year. Naturally, with the prolific growth of the horticultural industry, comes loss of foraging ground for the Augur Buzzards. Also, the human population has increased fifty fold from 7,000 people in 1969 to nearly 300,000 people presently. Given the changes that have taken place in Kenya especially over the last five years, I was interested to know whether the species has further declined or remained stable.

Because I am currently involved in a myriad of raptor projects in East Africa as well as in South Asia, it was virtually impossible for me to spend a large chunk of time to re-visit all the Augur Buzzard territories. This is where I thought Evan would be perfect to help identify and mark all the pairs that I worked on earlier. Evan had just come from Spain where he had spent three months tracking and monitoring Bearded Vultures, a species that is also in jeopardy in Africa. Fortunately, Evan arrived on the very last flight after which Europe’s airspace was shut down because of the Icelandic volcanic eruption and ash over the skies of Europe.

After spending a week with me, I finally took Evan down to Naivasha yesterday to show him my Augur Buzzard pairs and nest locations at Hell’s Gate (we had made a trip last Friday where I introduced him to some of the land-owners of the south Lake Naivasha area). It was really a trip down memory lane for me. Hell’s Gate National Park looked lush green as the towering cliffs displayed their golden sheen in the morning.

A view of Hell's Gate National Park
A view of Hell's Gate National Park
Hell’s Gate is one of the smallest parks in Kenya covering an area of only 65 km2 and one of the few parks in Kenya where one can walk freely amidst herds of ungulates. We saw three pairs of Augur Buzzards, plus a pair of Lanner Falcons displaying. Vultures soaring across an azure blue sky, combined with the colors and sounds of golden cliffs, chirping Cicadas, and lush green grasslands made Hell’s Gate look like a Garden of Eden. Kenya has just recovered from one of its worst droughts ever and it will still be a while before populations of small mammals such as mole-rats (the staple food of Augur Buzzards) bounce back. Nevertheless, showing Evan my old stomping grounds at Hell’s Gate National park gave me a lot of pleasure. We stopped at the Ol Dubai campsite to have some tea and samosas (Indian savories stuffed with spicy ground vegetables). I couldn’t help but realize how incredibly lucky I was to have spent four years of my life in this wonderful park which is still a very important habitat for raptors. I could see Evan was almost hypnotized by the ambience of the park which I must re-emphasize was just simply superb and beyond words! Herds of zebra, impala and gazelles stampeded past our car whilst a lone giraffe provided the quintessential photograph by providing the backdrop of Mount Longonot.
A giraffe in front of Mount Longonot
A giraffe in front of Mount Longonot
As we drove past the vulture cliffs in the western part of the park, we counted approximately 17 occupied nests of Rüppell’s Vultures, mainly incubating. Interestingly, their chicks will fledge around the same time when nearly a million wildebeest come across to the Masai Mara National Reserve, thus ensuring that their chicks will have food.

We dropped Evan at the Elsamere Field Study Center where he will be based for a period of about three months. The Elsa Trust Ltd has been a wonderful collaborator over the years and continues to help support our raptor projects at Lake Naivasha. It has been 15 years since I did my Augur Buzzard and African Fish Eagle work at Lake Naivasha, and I am really excited to have Evan be there to help evaluate the current status of Augur Buzzards in the South Lake Naivasha area. Watch out for updates from him.

Close up of Acacia xanthophloeae bark
Close up of Acacia xanthophloeae bark

Augur Buzzard taking off
Augur Buzzard taking off

One of the cliffs in Hell's Gate National Park
One of the cliffs in Hell's Gate National Park

Ruppell's vulture
Ruppell's vulture

Whitewash at Vulture Cliffs (Hell's Gate)
Whitewash at Vulture Cliffs (Hell's Gate)

A wildflower at Lake Naivasha
A wildflower at Lake Naivasha

Another wildflower at Lake Naivasha
Another wildflower at Lake Naivasha

Find more articles about African Fish Eagle, Augur Buzzard, California Condor, Rüppell's Vulture, Africa

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