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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field

"Notes from the Field" provides frequent updates and pictures from our biologists and students who are working in the field or at our headquarters, the World Center for Birds of Prey.

•  Complete Lappet-faced Vulture data on GRIN

Found 28 entries matching your request:

A Birth at a Carcass

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

I was admiring the usual hoopla of twenty vultures grappling for a small kill when a few of the Marabou storks wandered behind the vehicle. They seemed to have found something more interesting than the meat in front of them and I turned around to see what they were up to. A small black lump sat on the ground about 100 meters behind us and the Marabous rushed it in their usual excitement to have found a new food source. But their joy was short lived as an angry Thompson gazelle mother, tail still raised from the pain of having just given birth, came rushing at the much larger birds. Tiny horns pointed forward she chased the birds away from her very new calf. As the Marabou storks scattered, a Lappet-faced vulture landed to see what the commotion was about. It too was chased off within moments. Predators evaded, the mother now stood licking her newborn, pushing it to stand as she cleaned it of the afterbirth. The calf seemed tired but alert and tried straightening its little legs in a hapless effort to get up. It took nearly forty minutes, but the calf finally found the strength, motivated it seemed by the swollen teats of its mother that hung just behind its reach, and stood wobbly for the first time. It latched on and suckled as its mother continued her cleansing.

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Happy Reunion

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

For the past three years, I have been adamant that it would be impossible to re-trap a tagged vulture. The birds simply go too far – spending much of the year outside of the Mara in areas where I can’t trap – too quickly and are thus difficult to locate even when a backpack is sending you their location. Today I proved myself wrong.

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Pile of Vultures

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

It isn’t often that you get to watch a carcass from start to finish, but I got lucky. We came upon a single lioness finishing off a fresh wildebeest kill. On her own, she was only able to consume perhaps a quarter of the carcass and with vultures, hyenas, and jackals gathering around the lion was beginning to feel the pressure. So she left. Two hyenas moved in first feeding for a half hour they ate the bulk of the carcass with the occasional jackal or vulture rushing in to steal a soft piece of organs. Then it was the jackal’s turn. The pair rushed the vultures viciously, leaping and snarling to keep them away. The little dogs fed greedily, but their small stomaches were soon rounded and they slowly moved away. Down to the last half, the vultures swarmed, forming perhaps the most perfect pile I am yet to have seen. The wriggling brown mass of wings bounced above its prey as all fifty heads vanished into the food. Occassionally a full bird would eject itself from the mass standing on top of its comrades to gain enough leverage to leap away. Even with the mammals gone, the feeding frenzy of White-backed vultures was soon interrupted by their larger brethren, the Lappet-faced vultures. A pair jumped onto the mass, biting down on the backs of the birds beneath it. Once removed, the damage to the carcass was clear, perhaps only ten percent remained. The Lappet-faced vultures fed slowly and laboriously, ripping and tearing the last few tough pieces of tissue, while Hooded vultures wandered the edges of the carcass finding small treasures in the intestinal remnants. A pair of Tawny eagles made a brief appearance, but could do little more than steal a small piece of organs to fly away with as the vultures so clearly dominated the scene.

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Banded Attack

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

Carcasses are interesting because you never quite know who will show up. This morning I found a nearly finished carcass with a few jackals gnawing away at the bones and some vultures waiting nearby. The jackals looked full and I knew that soon it would be the vultures turn to eat. In the distance (and seemingly unrelated) were a small group of banded mongoose. The loose knit group of mongoose were wandering and foraging as one often sees them doing and appeared to be unaware of the birds just ahead of them. Martial eagles and other raptors will happily feed on mongoose and typically the “sentinel” mongoose who is keeping watch is quick to sound the alarm is such dangerous predators are seen nearby. But can mongoose tell the difference between an eagle and a vulture? Certainly Lappet-faced vultures are of comparable size to Martial and somewhat similar in coloration and shape. I was about to find out.

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Love Bite

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

Vultures aren’t generally known for their affection, but on rare occasions you do see acts of kindness. Merely the fact that vultures spend so much time at the carcass long after they are full is perhaps a sign of how much they enjoy each other’s company. Allopreening, when one animal cleans another, is surprisingly common and I have know seen it between members of the same species for all five species present in the Mara. Lappet-faced vulture pairs will lovingly comb through the feathers of their mate and juvenile White-backed vultures will preen each other as they stand on a mound near a carcass waiting their turn to feed. Today was the first time I had seen “preening” between species. A full juvenile Lappet-faced vulture stood next some other successful birds of the White-backed variety. She tilted her head and eyed them carefully as if this was perhaps her first close glance at one. She inspected the neighboring bird with interest. Then she reached towards it, gently, not in the typical aggressive style of feeding birds, but simply so that she might touch the other bird with her beak. The White-back stood by calmly, closing its eyes during the tender embrace. But then the inspection got a bit too personal. Perhaps enticed by the red (carcass-like) patches on the White-backs shoulders, the young Lappet went in for a nibble, testing to see if these “pieces of meat” might come off. In offense, the White-backed scooted back just out of reach of the next love bite.

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Meet Lucy, Lucifer, and Linnaeus

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

Trapping Lappet-faced vultures is never easy. Yet this time it was. We caught three birds in just four days and I have never been so happy or relieved in all my life. In the past we have trapped several Lappets, but because two of them were poisioned in the first few months and three of them had GSM-GPS units that happened to fail in the first month, we still know very little about their movement. It is certainly less than that of the African white-backed or Ruppell’s vultures, but just as variable with some birds leaving the Mara to spend a month in Ngorogoro Conservation Area, some hanging out in Athi River, and others just sticking close to home in the Mara through almost the entire year. Unfortunately almost all the Lappets we have trapped in the past seem to spend an enormous amount of time in the areas bordering the park – the exact areas where so much of the poisoning seems to take place. I guess it is no surprise that of four Lappet-faced vultures tagged our first year, we lost 50% to poisoning.

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The Unexpected Carcasses

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

It is the wet season (although we haven’t actually had any rain yet) so I wasn’t really expecting to find many carcasses – and I haven’t. But what I have found has been particularly interesting. A zebra carcass with three dogs and a handful of vultures, a hyena carcass with eight Lappet-faced vultures, two lion kills in a day (both of which got eaten by lions, not vultures), and the mutilated mass of a cow that was partially eaten by hyenas, then slaughtered for human consumption, and finally nibbled on by the birds.
With all of these it has been reassuring to find that my observations and my predictions are coming closer together. First, vultures are much more afraid of dogs than jackals, so the implications of having more dogs or dogs in certain areas are very different than more natural predators. Second, vultures will eat anything including hyenas. I have to say watching them eat the hyena did make me a little nervous as you never know how such an animal has been killed. Given the proximity to the villages, though it was in the park, I was a bit concerned the hyena could have been poisoned. But none of the vultures dropped dead and upon closer inspection once the hyena researchers arrived (they gather the heads of hyenas to study the jaws, so I gave them a call when I realized what the carcass was; bit of a conflict of interest since we had to chase the vultures off to salvage the hyena, but seemed like it was going to be more valuable data for them than me) we found that the hyena had huge claw marks around its neck and was likely killed by lions. Third, vultures get very little food from predator kills, especially this time of year when food is so valuable. A large pride of lions (with eight females and seven cubs) killed a zebra and a topi in the same day. They totally abandoned the topi so they could all work together to finish the zebra. Despite this both animals were entirely consumed by the lions by morning meaning that the patiently waiting Hooded vultures got very little to eat. Finally, certain species of vultures are more likely to avoid feeding in settlement areas than others. The cow had been killed just outside the park, right next to my camp (in fact on land owned by Ilkeliani). Herders were thus passing it frequently throughout the day and actually took most of the meat for their own consumption. As a result the carcass was mainly consumed by the less shy species – Hooded vultures, Tawny eagles, and Marabou storks. A few white-backs landed but they hardly ate anything with all the disturbance and Lappet-faced vultures and even a pair of the rare White-headed vulture passed over but were unwilling to land in such uncertain territory. Interesting indeed!

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The Last Bird

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

With three units to go and not too much longer in Kenya, I was starting to get nervous. Would we be able to catch all the birds in time? I had my hopes set on one more Lappet (at least), one more adult African white-backed vulture, and perhaps another juvenile Ruppell’s. For this last set of trapping I was to work with a Ugandan student who wanted to learn how to trap vultures. Hoping to begin a large research project (possibly the makings of his PhD) on Lappet-faced vultures, Richard wanted to know how to trap, handle, attach units, and draw blood from these majestic birds. I had explained to Richard that Lappet-faced vultures could be quite difficult to catch and that I couldn’t guarantee we would get one during his stay, given my ever-tightening schedule. I was soon eating my words.

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Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 3)

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

It was the last carcass of the day. Our last chance, but also our best chance. This Lappet looked hungry. We put down the traps and within minutes, I was shouting with joy as we raced towards our second Lappet-faced vulture of the season.

biologists with vulture

Keith and John handle our second Lappet-faced vulture

The bird was so pre-occupied with feeding and attacking the White-backed vultures surrounding it that it didn’t seem to notice the blue beast sneaking up on it. The noose was clearly on its leg, so there was no need to wait. When we finally came up on the side of the carcass and jumped out of the car, the Lappet finally reacted. Wings stretched it was only able to move a few feet away, its foot firmly entangled and attached to the dead wildebeest on which it had been feeding.

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Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 2)

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

We awoke early. Today had to be the day. After so many near misses, I couldn’t imagine us going another day without trapping a Lappet-faced vulture. The evening before we had managed to stag an adult Lappet, but with its brute strength (and probably poor snaring), it had been able to pull the noose and get away before we could grab it. With one unit left, at least from our initial delivery of five (10 would arrive later in the week), I really wanted to get this one on this most elusive of vultures.

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Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 1)

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

In any field project, there is nothing more exhilarating, exhausting, and time-consuming than trapping animals. Vultures are no exception. Two and half busy weeks and I am still three vultures short. That said, it has been an amazing time and we have been able to put out 12 GSM-GPS units onto seven Ruppell’s vultures, three African white-backed vultures, and two Lappet-faced vultures. As usual, the Lappet-faced vultures continue to be the trickiest to trap. Not only are there fewer of them, but they prefer smaller carcasses (which are more difficult to trap at), they arrive late (which means you are more likely to catch someone else first), and they are a bit more shy. The key with Lappets is to find some really hungry, aggressive individual, but in and of itself that is rather tricky.

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Lappet Attack

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

I was watching some vultures at a carcass as I so often do, when three birds broke off into a separate group. Two Lappet-faced vultures had been feeding on the head of a carcass for about thirty minutes when a new pair of Lappets arrived. There wasn't much left and both feeding Lappets moved off the carcass and flew away without any confrontation. One of the Lappets that had been feeding landed about fifty meters away from the carcass.

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Another victim of poison: Lolly, a Lappet-faced vulture

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

LollyCatching a Lappet-faced vulture is always a struggle. At a typical large carcass you often find that these red-headed birds are outnumbered by their smaller white-backed cousins, sometimes with a single Lappet-faced vulture trying to fight for a scrap of wildebeest meat with over fifty African white-backed vultures. This makes capturing one a rare event. You can improve your odds by focusing on small carcasses or by putting the trap near the head of the carcass (a favorite area for these strong, large beaked scavengers), but even then you just have to get lucky.

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Heading home

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

Sitting in Nairobi as I prepare for my flight back to the US, I can hardly believe it has been three months. The Mara and its vultures have once again kept me busy with too much to see and do. I already miss the rolling hills, expansive plains, and forested rivers that have surrounded me throughout the stay. I miss the cries of the African white-backed vultures, the gentle chirp of the massive Lappet-faced vultures, and the giggles of the hyenas that have come to steal the vultures’ find.

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Naivasha Notes 2

Evan Buechley — in East Africa Project

Having become familiarized with the study area and with the biking legs warmed into prime shape, data is starting to pour in regarding the Augur buzzard presence around Lake Naivasha, Kenya. With 85 independent visuals on the buzzards in as many as 23 different territories over the past 16 days, a picture of the species’ presence in the area is starting to come into focus. So far, I feel highly confident about the existence of 7 different active breeding territories, while an additional 10 territories are very likely active, pending further observations. At least one territory documented by Munir Virani in the mid 90’s seems to have been abandoned by the buzzards. However, with so many territories still being observed, it is too early to draw any conclusions regarding the affects of habitat alterations on the population in the area.

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Mara Moments

Munir Virani — in East Africa Project

I have just returned from a visit to the Masai Mara where I had gone to help Corinne Kendall (see Tracking Mara’s Vultures) tag and release some more vultures. Corinne has now been in the Mara for two and a half months and has been working incredibly hard on her transects and carcass watches. Last week, with the help of her field assistant, Wilson Masek, she managed to trap and attach two more GSM units on Lappet-faced Vultures, the largest and heaviest of the vultures in Africa. The reason for my trip to the Mara was to carry a newly designed unit that Corinne will test that has been kindly donated by Henrick Rasmussen, from Savannah Tracking Ltd (a company based in Nairobi that makes telemetry equipment).

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What a day!

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

What a day! Let me start from the beginning. I woke up this morning at 5 AM. It was day two of trapping. Day one had been less than successful and I was beginning to wonder if I had been crazy to think that I could trap vultures during the low season. You see when the wildebeest come to Masai Mara in July so do the vultures. For three months, the park is overflowing with carcasses and scavengers. Trapping is made easy during this time, at least trapping African white-backed and Ruppell’s vultures, which are exceedingly common with upwards of sixty birds at each wildebeest carcass. But trapping Lappet-faced vultures is tricky. Only a few birds come to each carcass, they come late which means they are less likely to get trapped (since you have to put the trap down at the beginning and can’t go back and add it to a carcass without scaring all the birds), and they just tend to be a bit more cautious. So I had the “brilliant” idea that the low season would be the ideal time to trap Lappet-faced vultures with fewer African white-backs and Ruppell’s around. But after spending all of yesterday trying to trap with no success, I was starting to worry if I could trap anything this time of year. Nonetheless I awoke with a feeling of mixed panic and hope and set out to trap.

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Rumble in the Jungle

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

Large carcasses are scarce this time of year. With the tall grass, the herbivores have plenty to eat and the big cats and hyenas have a hard time catching their prey, who have freedom to roam wherever they please. The cheetahs seem to be the only ones having any great success, perhaps because they rely more on speed than stealth. There also aren’t a lot of animals dying this time of year, precisely because there is so much lush food and water to go around. There are still calves being born, some of whom won’t make it and the occasional diseased or injured animal that might keel over. Needless to say, the vultures have to work hard to find their food and when they do discover something, they work even harder to ensure they get a bit.

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The Mara

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

I’ve reached the point where I really know the Mara. Everyday we drive through different areas and I look for the elephant herd with the little calf or the warthog family with the six piglets that have somehow made it through the last two months. Each geographical entity – each river crossing, fig tree, and termite mound – has significance – that was where I saw the cheetah kill a few weeks ago or there is the tree where I trapped my first Lappet-faced vulture (I couldn’t stop smiling as I held the soft, feathery beast). I know all the landmarks and the hiding places of each little herd or creature.

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The world is a scavenger’s stage

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

We sat at a carcass for nearly five hours yesterday. Not because nothing came, but because the vultures refused to leave. Jackals found our carcass early and I’m afraid the birds didn’t get much, but it didn’t stop them from coming. We had 11 African white-backed vultures, 5 Lappet-faced vultures, and a couple of Hooded vultures. The white-headed vultures have been noticeably absent but the Hoodeds seem to be coming back this year.

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Lions, hyenas, and dogs, oh my

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

The sky is speaking. It grumbles and rumbles and crackles, squealing with rage like a toddler unable to get its way. Then finally it breaks like the thunder that accompanies it, the rain crashed to earth and splatters the floor. Luckily, I am done for the day. For some reason, it has been raining mainly in the afternoons. This is good news for me since the rain virtually shuts down vulture activity. As is I have time for my carcass experiments and transects in the morning and seem to get done just as the sky is threatening to fall. It is a hard rain and I sit outside under canvas surrounded by the droplets. Within seconds pools of mud form and I can only wonder what the roads will be like tomorrow. Oh my God, it is hailing!! I can’t believe it. At first, it looked like little frogs were jumping around magically erupting from the soil (which they are, one just joined me under the tent), but that was actually hail. I just got up and grabbed a piece to confirm and indeed, ice just fell from the sky in Africa. Be amazed! But now it is just raining again.

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Laila's first flight

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

Laila, the Lappet-faced vulture fledgling, finally took her first flight. It was a short trip—she only travelled out about 500 m, but it was a start. She spent a few hours away and then quickly returned to the nest, exhausted for her initial use of her powerful wings. Each day the flights got a little longer, but for a while the direction didn't change. She had decided to go north and so each day she took her baby flights, slowly moving farther and farther away from the nest. After a week, she had gone as far as two miles from her home, but continued to find her way back to the nest. This seemed to build her confidence and she tried some short movements in a few other directions, going northeast for a few flights and then west for a few trips. Then suddenly, she went north again, this time she pushed her limits, taking her longest day trip yet and traveling out nearly four miles. I wonder if she knows that someday she might travel more than ten times this distance in a single day. (When you look at the map, the nest is at one of the southernmost points where several points are lumped.)
Laila's flights

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Learning to fly

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

Lappet-faced Vultures nest in trees. For the first several months of their life, the tree, the nest, and their parents are all a Lappet-faced chick knows. Each morning a chick awakes alone as the parents go search for food. From only a few meters off the ground sitting at the top of a bush or tree, often on top of a small hill, the chick might survey the area. Perhaps the chick will see a lion walk by or an acrobatic Bateleur Eagle teeter left and right overhead. They will feel the wind and the rain, if there is any, beat down upon their soft white feathers. In the afternoon, the parents will hide the chick from view, spreading their six-foot wingspan to shade the chick from the hot African sun. With few feathers and nowhere to go, the chick could burn without the defense of its parent. For the first few months, this is the world of a Lappet-faced chick and yet soon all of this will change.

As the long black flight feathers grow out, the chick has become a fledgling. Soon it must learn to fly. One can imagine leaping from a tree and being expected to take flight would be hard enough, but where would you go. The parents are unlikely to lead the fledgling out. Instead this young bird must discover the savanna on its own. And if it wishes to return to the nest, it must navigate its own path and find its way home.

After putting a tag on a Lappet-faced fledgling, I waited for her to take her first flight. Where would she go? How far would she venture out? What might she see as she began her new independent life—no longer in the trees, but above them?

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Vulture travel updates

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

When last we left our intrepid traveling vultures, we had noted the amazing differences between the small, gregarious African white-backed vulture, the cliff-nesting Ruppell's Vulture, and the large and solitary Lappet-faced Vulture. During the last two weeks, Homer, our African White-backed Vulture has continued his movements from Masai Mara to the Tsavo National Park and even moved east of the large parks towards the border of Tanzania. Roger, the Ruppell's Vulture has returned from the north. Recently, he has stayed dangerously far from the safety of the national parks and other protected areas, choosing to home in on the Athi River and Magadi area, a beautiful place of tall Acacias and flowing streams.

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Vulture travels

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

While Roger wandered northwest, other birds seemed to stay at home for the holidays or took their travels between two of the best parks in Kenya, Masai Mara National Reserve and Tsavo. Homer, one of the first adult African White-backed Vultures we tagged, went from Tsavo to Masai Mara and back this last month. Unlike Roger, the Ruppell's vulture, who spread his movement fairly evenly, Homer tended to travel quickly going from one destination to the other in only three to five days (not bad given that it is nearly 300 km each way).

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Where do the vultures go when the wildebeest leave Masai Mara?

Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project

Each year from July to October, Masai Mara National Reserve springs to life as over a million wildebeest enter the park, followed by thousands of zebras and Thompson's gazelles. During this migratory period, this smorgasbord of food brings new life to the carnivores; cheetahs, lions, hyenas, and leopards abound as they are able to support their cubs, thanks to the wildebeest moveable feast. The migratory animals that are suddenly densely packed in the less than 2000 square kilometer reserve ensure a reliable supply of carcasses. Vultures fly in from hundreds of kilometers to take advantage of it.

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East Africa’s Vultures—Unsung Heroes

Munir Virani — in East Africa Project

Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is unequivocally rated as one of the world’s premier wildlife destinations. Every year between July and September, approximately 1.2 million grunting wildebeest cross over into the Mara from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The wildebeest provide an unparalleled culinary feast to crocodiles, lions, and a myriad of other predators that prowl the Mara’s magical plains. However for one group of animals, the wildebeest migration in the Mara becomes a prolonged period of festivity—these are the vultures—nature’s unsung heroes. I’d like to think of them however as Africa’s most efficient clean-up crew.

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The Magic of Kwenia

Munir Virani — in East Africa Project

Nestled 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.

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