I don’t consider vultures the most beautiful birds. But they are more than their looks. Dubbed ‘nature’s clean-up crew’, vultures perform a vital role in the ecosystem by cleaning up carcasses and organic waste from the environment. They likely help limit disease transmission from animal carcasses to humans and other animals. However, African vultures are now in danger of extinction.
In 2015 Birdlife International made an announcement that sent shockwaves throughout the conservation community: The numbers of Africa’s vultures are on a steep slide. Six of Africa’s 11 vulture species were placed in a higher extinction risk category – reflecting sharp population declines. According to conservationists, one species – the bearded vulture – has less than five individuals remaining in Kenya.
And indeed, they have become quite rare. When I moved to Nairobi, Kenya, five years ago, I would spot them near Nyayo Stadium, a few kilometres from Nairobi Central District. They had identified a slaughterhouse, commonly known as ‘Bama’, where they would feast on the remains of slaughtered cows, goats and sheep. As the years progressed, however, I noticed their steady decline.
I set out to trace the remains of Kenya’s vulture populations and began in Kajiado County, south of Nairobi, once known for its affluent wildlife populations. My first stop is Isinya. Due to the vastness of the county, I continue my search with the help of 24-year-old Paul Kimani, who picks me up with his motorbike and takes me around.
Born and raised in Kajiado, Paul loves his home area. But the county he grew up in is not the same anymore. “We used to have so many animals walking around, mostly Zebras, Impalas and Hippopotamus,” Paul remembers, smiling a bit at the warm memories.
Kajiado has vast open land, mostly public but also privately owned, full of acacia trees and scarce grass. We pass by several nomads, moving their cattle in search of water. It is a dry season, over five months of no rain, and it is evident. Once in a while, we catch sight of Impalas in the distant bush, nothing more in terms of other animals.
There used to be so many wild animals.
It gets really windy and cold here, really cold. My teeth chatter. We reach a spot Paul calls “corner baridi” (cold corner), only a few kilometres from Kiserian. It is stunning, but there are no animals in sight.
“There used to be so many wild animals that roamed this area. At this spot, you would never miss at least three to ten animals just grazing or sometimes looking for water,” Paul says.
“Mostly Impalas and Zebras, and no tree would miss a family of birds. There were birds everywhere, and vultures were among them. I would not travel a kilometre before spotting at least four or five vultures,” he says, adding: “They were part of the community. I personally love vultures.”
An article published in February 2022 in the Biological Conservation journal detailing the widespread decline of Kenya’s raptors over the past 40 years confirms Paul’s observation. Numbers of common kestrels were down by 95 percent, secretary birds and long-crested eagles by 94 percent, lesser kestrels by 93 percent and augur buzzards down 91 percent. Both hooded vultures and Montagu’s harriers saw an 88 percent decline.
Habitat fragmentation due to infrastructure development, widespread deforestation, a sharp rise in human population growth, and agriculture and livestock development have also led to degraded ecosystems unable to sustain wildlife. The critically endangered vultures in Kenya are also threatened by illegal wildlife poisoning.
“Years ago, there was an incident, two impalas had been killed, and beside the decaying meat, there were around eight vultures dead,” remembers Paul. “But it was just the beginning. It became a norm. You would come across several zebras or impalas dead, and vultures would not miss at the sight.”
To make things worse for Paul, two by then friends of his were involved. They had met some unscrupulous people interested in buying the animals for game meat and body parts. It seemed they used a particular poison that killed the vultures on the spot. He never got in touch with them again, and he does not know if they ever stopped poaching completely.
Paul says that even though his friends were arrested and fined, others committed wildlife crimes that led to even more dead vultures. No one really cared about the vultures at that point. Soon only a few animals were left, and the government brought in some animal wardens, who helped curb the poaching, but perhaps a little too late.
According to the WildEye East Africa data map by InfoNile and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, although there have been several cases of arrests and convictions resulting from wildlife crime in Kenya, only one case has involved vultures. Between 2000 and 2020, 257 poisoning cases involving the death of 8,172 wild animals were recorded. Vultures accounted for 49 percent.
I guess the vultures migrated.
My journey with Paul at this point bore no fruits. No vulture in sight. I parted with Paul, overcome with sadness, thinking about the birds’ and animals’ fate. A fate forced on them because of greed and negligence.
My next stop was Aberdare National Park, a protected area in the Aberdare Mountain Range in Central Kenya located East of the East African Rift Valley.
I met with Abdi Mohammed, a warden at Aberdare National Park. He says there was a time he saw vultures in the park. “Not the most loved birds, but they are not to be ignored. Sad there are not as many left now,” he adds. He never witnessed poachers himself, but his colleagues did.
“This side of Aberdares, there are not many wild animals left. Most have declined due to poaching and natural causes. We only have countable elephants, leopards, gazelles and hyenas, and some bird species,” Abdi says, adding: “I guess the vultures migrated to the upper Aberdares where there are still several animals under conservation, and there, they get meat.”
Hoping to see vultures finally, I part with Abdi to follow another lead. In a remote place deep in Kajiado County, there is a vulture protector, a 34-year-old hero in fact, passionate about wildlife management, ornithology and conserving raptors, particularly vultures. Robert Kaai holds a master’s degree in Conservation Biology.
His calling developed way back when he was 14 years old. One day while herding livestock on his family land near Kwenia Cliffs – considered a vulture paradise – he met two ornithologists, Munir Virani and Simon Thomset, who would become his second family. They supported his education at Egerton University, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science. He then collected data for them.
In 2021 Robert went into vulture conservation by partnering with Kenya Birds of Prey Trust and creating the first-ever, and only Vultures Sanctuary in Africa called Kwenia Vultures Sanctuary. The sanctuary is home to Ruppell’s griffon vultures, white-backed vultures, Egyptian vultures, lappet-faced vultures, hooded vultures and eagles.
We need these incredible birds.
“I love vultures because they help reduce the spread of zoonotic diseases. I am amazed by the fact that they can travel up to thousands of kilometres,” Robert says, adding: “They live in small spaces in the ecosystems and, honestly, we need these incredible birds more than they do [need us].”
Robert says that vultures are critically endangered species due to their feeding habits. They feed on carrions and therefore easily get poisoned. Besides, they live on cliffs that are prone to anthropogenic disturbances.
“Flying vultures are a major signal of dead animals somewhere, killed by either other animals or poached. So poachers are poisoning them to protect themselves from being seen by authorities. Vultures can sometimes be poached to have their feathers used to make arrows, and some even believe vulture feathers can be used to cleanse their clients in superstition practices,” explains Robert.
Robert wishes the government would invest more into vulture conservation by enforcing stringent laws on poisoning, speeding up the registration process for vulture protection areas and helping by hiring and allocating vulture guardians across the country. Besides, says Robert, “Kenyans need to be more informed, especially communities that live closer to wild animals and birds. Together we can help save these birds.”
I agree with Robert, and the time for action has come. After finally having seen some vultures, I was ready to return home to Nairobi, wishing we would have more people like Robert with a fierce passion for protecting and preserving. We need the vultures, the wild animals need the vultures, and their survival solely depends on eradicating poaching and more conservation. So let us all activate the Robert in us and take action.