Above: Steppe-Eagle.-Copyright-Shiv-Kapila-

Published: The East African Nation 30 April -6 May 2021

A few weeks ago in March, Simon Thomsett – Kenya’s raptor guru and co-founder of Kenya Bird of Prey Trust – is elated. He’s been tracing an eagle’s fly-path from Kenya to Russia on his smartphone. He reports, ‘The eagle has now landed’. Before releasing it, Thomsett had fitted the Steppe Eagle with a GPRS back-pack. Thomsett needs no introduction in the bird-world – he is one of the world’s top authorities on raptors.

This has been no ordinary release. The Steppe Eagle, a migrant from Russia would have died of poisoning if it had not been an urgent call from Eric ole Reson from Amboseli on the morning of 12 November 2021.

It was a devastating call. There were hundreds of vultures killed by poisoning. The poison wasn’t meant to kill the birds but for the hyenas that had preyed on the Maasai livestock killing some 100 goats and sheep.

Steppe Eagle in flight. Copyright Shiv Kapila

Ole Reson asked Thomsett to get to Amboseli urgently. At this point Thomsett was at Soysambu on the shores of Lake Elmenteita, 400 kilometres away. He is based at one of KBoPT’s three rescue centres with the other two in the Mara and Lake Naivasha. These sites have the big open skies and spaces to rehabilitate injured birds of prey.

Within minutes, Thomsett had sent an SOS for anyone with an aircraft willing to fly him there. In situations like these, time is critical – a matter of life and death.

By the time Thomsett arrived at 1.30 p.m., it was a devastating scene with tens of vultures lying dead by the poisoned carcass of a sheep.

“Poisoning has devastating consequences for vultures and other scavengers,” writes Thomsett in the KBoPT blog. “It is the primary reason for the vulture’s rapid population decline of 80% over three generations.”  Three generations is the equivalent of 50 years.

Hence all of Kenya’s six vulture species are listed as Endangered or Critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Steppe Eagle (IUCN endangered) death by collision on already existent pylons in Soysambu Conservancy October 2019. Holding it is Shiv Kapila. Copyright Simon Thomsett

The Rescue

A quick inspection revealed that amongst the dead were a Steppe Eagle and a White-backed Vulture, barely alive. Both birds eyes were wrinkled from staring at the sun – poisoned birds cannot blink. The birds were immediately moved into the shade. Later, a Lappet-faced Vulture was found amongst the dead and two more.

All five birds were flown to the raptor rescue centre at Soysambu and nursed back to health. The first 24 hours are the most critical where the birds are checked every three hours.

A few days later (November 2021), the Steppe Eagle, now treated back to health was released on Soysambu, to fly back home (to Russia) where it will spend the summer before returning to Kenya again this year in October or November.

“This rescue brought in a great many people from the Kenya Wildlife Service, Birdlife, Nature Kenya, Farmland Aviation and the Peregrine Fund,” comments Thomsett. It was truly a team effort.

Last year an Osprey that flew 6000 kilometres from Finland to Busia near the shores of Lake Victoria, was entangled in a fisherman’s net. It however did not survive the ordeal because help came too late.

Migrating Birds

Flight path of Steppe Eagle. Credit Kenya Bird of Prey Trust and The Peregrine Fund

Steppe Eagles, like a whole list of Eurasian birds that fly away from Europe and Asia during winter when there’s little food like insects and rodents for them to hunt, arrive in Africa’s warmer climes to eat, eat and eat. Well-fed and healthy, these birds return home to breed and return year after year. It’s one of nature’s most exciting journeys.

Kenya tops the list as one of the world’s most raptor rich countries, but numbers are dwindling rapidly due to poisoning, power lines and people.

As Kenya rapidly develops it is critical that the design of new infrastructure such as wind power turbines and power lines are well thought out, well placed and pass stringent Environmental Impact Assessments. Migrating birds have used their routes for thousands of years and when suddenly finding a power line or wind turbine in their path, large numbers are killed.

Follow the lives of birds of prey on the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust website -http://raptorrehabkenya.org/ –  and you will be truly awed by the amazing world of birds of prey.