An unsuccessful rescue of a Bateleur
11:42 - 20 March 2023. Darcy Ogada left a message saying there was an injured Bateleur at Shaba. She gave the name of a man known as Mike. This ringed a bell as we had worked with Mike with to rescue a hooded vulture years ago. I put out the call on our Managers group.
12:00 Nick Trent put it out on his pilots group and we had Donno Dunn volunteer to go.
12:10 Joni in the Netherlands makes a Bateleur rescue group and sends basic first aid information to Mike. We had a few photos. The Bateleur was an adult female and she looked in very bad shape though still standing.
The photos sent by Mike. Notice the pile of gravel. This alerted us to the probability of an impact of a car on the road.
12:15 I drove to a hill top to phone Mike and when Donno said he was good to go I raced back home, got the first Aid kit and as I was high tailing it for the airfield 40 mins away Donno messaged if it would save time if he landed closer. I said yes, veered off the dirt road to get to the new airfield destination while my thumbs tried their best to write messages and answer questions while attempting to avoid rocks and pig holes.
Despite the chaos I had time to ponder why all of us all over the globe suddenly came together even though each of us was extremely busy. The reason was that very few raptors are as precious as the Bateleur and they mean a great deal to us. They have vanished from most of East Africa’s skies and we know they are one of the species most sensitive to land fragmentation, disturbance and change. They suffer from poisoning just as much as do vultures, explaining their extirpation in much of South Africa during the height of their Jackal/Caracal/Hyena poisoning campaigns. They tend to perch on high perches such as the cross-arm of a power pole with disastrous consequences. Because they cruise at high speed looking down (rather like a Lammergeyer) they are more prone to hitting high cables such as pylon wires which are at exactly the preferred height they fly. They like small animal road kill and as more and more high speed tarmac roads get put through our Protected Areas, collision with cars is more frequent than with most other eagles. Add to all this they have also been subjected to an unusually high amount of export to zoos and “bird shows” in Europe and USA. In the early 1990s we heard of an entrepreneur at the coast who was shipping out Cycads and Bateleurs to Italy. There was talk of some 50 Bateleurs being shipped out. Given that the methods of capture are appalling and the husbandry thereafter abysmal I came up with a ratio of survivors based on paltry evidence but logical deduction. Long ago during the wildlife export era that persisted long after the no take anti-hunting era during the 1980s, I thought about 1 in 10 actually made it to their destinations. For 50 arriving alive in Europe, some 450 died. That’s more than all of Tsavo’s Bateleurs. While certainly far less of an issue compared to electrocution, poisoning and roads this form of direct persecution isn’t welcomed.
Here in Africa we have almost zero respect for most of those Bird Shows in the so called “Western World” that take our raptors and do nothing to reciprocate the loss in Africa. Once they said it was good for them, that they educated the public (in foreign lands…never where it is needed) but now they are not so vocal. And Bateleurs are not easy birds to have in captivity. Some redemption could be found in the dawning recognition that many African raptors destined for extinction in some Africa countries could one day receive those raptors breeding in safe havens overseas. Only then, I believe, could we raise the correct level of public and government concern to turn things around.
Adult male. Dark brown patches may indicate it is just shy of 5 years
Once, Bateleurs constantly patrolled about 100m above the earth and at 60-75 kph over lands that had a mix of wildlife and carnivores. They don’t do well at all over farmlands of any description, cereal crops (although I have seen a few over the vast cereal growing lands in Ethiopia and over huge sisal plantations near Pangani in north eastern coastal Tanzania) or areas with anything other than low human densities. Conservancies and Protected Areas under 100,000 acres are not sufficient unless they can “hop” to other Protected Areas in their daily foraging rounds. They tend to have a central core pair nesting space surrounded by vast and shared foraging space. They defend boundaries by dramatic walloping wing beats accompanied by a barking “wow” with the head thrown back and legs dropped in mid air. They will chase juveniles and sub-adults and while really riled up finishing a territory dispute they will come into land with a rapidly repeated side to side (Lilac breasted Roller-like) landing. Yet when with their mates they are tender and will offer the back of their crest to be nibbled by their partner. With humans it can take only a few weeks for them to also offer to have their heads caressed. With their big doe eyes and a crest that rises and falls according to their mood they seem to look intelligently upon life.
We were lucky to save one last year from poisoning and were able to oblige a stipulation to tag it and have seen him do his expected patrols at high speed over the Mara and parts of the Serengeti. Leslie Brown accredited the Bateleur as covering some 200 miles a day and self deprecatingly he pointed out that it was not he who “discovered” the very distinct difference between male and female but Waembere honey hunters in Embu.
Left: Adult female with a Fish! Right: Adult male picking up the pieces after the carnivores and vultures have gone.
They are built very differently to other raptors. They have virtually no functioning tail (and thus minimal drag) and so they must canter from side to side in what looks like an unstable glide (their name allegedly means “tightrope-walker’ in old French). They have to hold their not-so-long wings in a dihedral and keep a low center of gravity to maintain some stability. By using their mid wing bulge in the 25 secondaries served by a very large brachial nerve they make subtle wing twisting movements rather like the wing warp in the Wright Brothers plane. Each secondary is mounted on uniquely high profile bone spurs on the ulna. The extensor metacarpi radialis, a long thin muscle from the distal humerus head to the “hand”, has a very profound spur on the humerus unlike others. The sharp-tipped high aspect-ratio wing and broad secondaries catch the slightest local thermal updraughts and they propel themselves forward at high speeds with almost no need for flapping flight.
Their quest is for small carrion and fragments of carnivore kills, as well as small to medium sized prey from lizards, game birds, hornbills, hares, etc. I recall seeing one come straight down the road near Hunter’s Lodge chasing vervet monkeys, one of which the driver hit. The eagle immediately landed on it and I can’t help but think it chased them into the car deliberately, for in those days cars on the Mombasa road were rare. No open landscape in the 1980s, be it in a national park or outside, was without them. I have seen them on the moorlands of the Aberdare’s Mountains at over 10,000ft, eating a lizard on a sand dune in the Chalbi desert and standing in the ocean surf on a crab. In the lifetime of my female Crowned Eagle sitting outside they used to nest in sub-urban Nairobi, at Syd Downey’s (of Kerr and Downey Safaris) for example, in a forest in Langata which today is in the depth of a bursting metropolis. Around that time I remembered one female kept by Peter and Grete Davey called Kibalala (the Kikamba name for the species) and another brought in that had survived a venomous bite from a snake that was later released. They reminded me of the old days, of pipe tobacco smoke (in the days when people smoked pipes), and long safaris on empty roads.
Contrary to what most believe, the Bateleur is not fond of snakes despite being an offshoot of the Snake Eagle group. It has a long middle toe which has evolved in other raptors for two maybe three purposes: one to catch birds in mid air, the other is to provide a cantilevered mechanical support in a 45° pull on large carrion. Few raptors biologists have thought about why all Gyps and Torgos-type vultures have very long middle toes, but then again most haven’t had the benefit of having them as captives and watching them very closely. And they haven’t really thought of the third either. In the absence of a tail their toes, and the middle one especially, stick out (some 6cm behind the tail) and thus give some wind-cock lateral stability. Gyps vultures are somewhat similar too in this respect.
The Bateleur has a specific role in the large vulture guild by being the first arrival. It is up early before the thermals really start to brew and create enough energy to lift heavier, less efficient flying vultures aloft. At first it hardly ever lands, but on seeing a carcass it drops a wing and banks hard round looking straight down. It is funny to watch as it’s an exaggerated move meant, I believe, to get the attention of other vultures and eagles, hyenas and jackals. It then zooms off and if watched carefully it will do the same manoeuvre and sure enough directly beneath it will be another “kill”. And off it goes again, while the less flying proficient vultures finish their morning preening ritual and toilet. They haven’t overlooked the Bateleur though, nor have the Tawny Eagles. The Lappet faced Vulture, precisely because it is so large (it has a massive surface area and is less heavily wing loaded than the Rüppell’s Vulture), can be the first vulture to get aloft. Each vulture and each eagle species then depart, depending upon the weather conditions as the earth heats up, to the places the Bateleur first “scouted”. It is not all chaos on the plains, somewhere there is an air traffic control and things are well organised.
Why, one would ask, would a Bateleur give the game away? Surely it loses out? For small tidbit pieces of carrion, a piece dropped by a hyena or jackal overnight, a piece of a Martial Eagle kill, or (significantly) a road killed hare or power line killed bird it doesn’t pay to give the location away and they do not. They land surreptitiously and feed and go without drawing attention. But for big kills they need the others to tear it to shreds and then later during the day, when all the bad table mannered vultures have done their job, they will land and walk around picking up small bits. Rarely it makes its own kills, but it is quite capable of taking hares, hornbills, gamebirds and even fish.
Adult male red backed Bateleur
None of the above segregation of avian scavengers on the plains, their flight adaptations and specific Times of Departure actually amount to much when in landscapes that have a profusion of carrion such as the Serengeti and Mara during the migration. There vultures in the near darkness or false dawn will fly from their perches in a line straight to where they heard a kill take place. Yes, there is a vulture foraging strategy unspoken about but important, in which vultures can use high energy direct flapping flight a metre or two off the ground and see in remarkably low light conditions and use their ears to detect food. I have evidence of very good night vision too but that’s for another day.
Where was I?
Donno made a long down-wind landing, I jumped in, clipped in and double checked the door and as we were “rotating” my phone was deluged with everyone wanting tiny details and answers. In mid air we confirmed our destination airfield and GPS position and then headed for some stormy weather on the north Aberdares. An hour later after hitting some tremendous wind, and dust storms in front of the first rain on tragically abused overgrazed, barren ground beneath we started to drop towards Shaba. Looking down, Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba were all bisected by common access highways, powerlines and sprawling unplanned developments. There on the river bank was one lone elephant and on the other bank a huge lodge with spotlights aimlessly beaming in the bright sun.
Mike Lesiil, senior ranger at Samburu National Reserve and guide, holding the Bateleur and his colleagues Joseph, Samwel and Julias, guides at Twende Development and Travel to whom we are all grateful.
13:36 On landing we were met by Mike Lesiil and his colleagues, as well as four young American women one of which was a human doctor and there in Mike’s arms was the Bateleur. Everyone in authority had been made aware and they were happy that we came so quickly. On quick inspection her left eye was bulging and the iris distorted by intense ocular pressure. The eye was sure to never see properly again. She was to be a captive for life if she made it. Her left humerus was like a bag of crisps, the bone shards crunched under my exam all the way to the shoulder. I had no idea then how bad it was and gave a brave prognosis to all those standing there looking very concerned and in need of something upbeat and encouraging. We gave her water, strapped her and said thanks and goodbye and headed home to Soysambu
14:47 We landed at Soysambu and I drove her home. The first rule is “Get a Life”. That means fluids followed by food. Nothing else. Stabilising a shattered humerus with a figure 8 vet wrap bandage isn’t possible as each “flap” grinds the stump of the humerus against the bones held static. The result is often worse than if the wing is left unhindered. That night I was up changing her water bottle and making sure she lay chest down.
From start to finish it had taken us about 5 hours, from the first message to being back at Soysambu and treating her. Thanks are owed to Donno Dunn and Mike Lesliil especially for making this happen so quickly.
Day 2 - 21 March 2023 I had to make a tough decision because in the morning her wing had turned at right angles and now lay on her back. I couldn’t make out why there was no blood at all as I examined her wing. The hollow end of the humerus pressed up against the skin and, given that the bandage was not working, I pinned the wing, found a fragment of bone (sequestrum) large enough to bridge and open the gap of missing bone and wired it in. Three external pins and one internal IM pin offered some stability and I was surprised at minimal blood loss. This was not a good sign. The surgery was a relatively neat job, but these are always risky with so sick a patient. I thought to find her a blood donor though I have only done this once before, unsuccessfully. The eyelid was sewn shut in order to stop her abrading the bulging cornea. Gave antibiotics and dexamethasone (to help against swelling) and 6 hours afterwards she ate quite well, readily accepting the pieces I offered. That night she slept lying down in a good position all night.
Day 3 - 22 March 2023 She took a long time to get going and so we moved her box out into the morning sun. The external pin was effectively stabilising the wing until we could get bone cement. She stood and looked around with one eye. She fixated on the one winged, one legged Tawny who sat smiling on his perch 20 meters away. The fact that she recognised a threat was reassuring as she had shown so little attention to us I thought she was blind. Her one eye blinked very slowly. I put eye drops in her good eye and tended to her all day. In the afternoon she started to go down. She refused to eat, and threw up her food. I worried about her having a “cast”, a lump of undigested feathers and fur, that meant I should delay feeding. The inside of her mouth went light grey and her normal red face and feet had patches of pale yellow. A sure sign of anaemia and problems. In the middle of that night I heard her knock about in her box and found her lying upside down. This meant she had flapped her wings. And that meant the broken ends of the bone had reopened whatever had begun to heal. She didn’t look good and I renewed her hot water bottle.
Day 4 - 23 March 2023. Early next morning, just a few hours later, I was relieved to see she was still alive. But her eye blinked very slowly and her body temperature had dropped despite the still warm hot water bottle. I have been through this a hundred times and now everything I did went on autopilot. Somehow a shield had to go up between my heart and my actions. I knew she was dying, but I have seen raptors turn around and come back so I persevered. I gave her subcutaneous fluids, not that she needed it as her stools had a lot of water in them. Then to my surprise she stood up and struggled to cast a pellet. That made me much happier as the pellet, made mostly of guineafowl feathers, must have been her last meal in Shaba. This meant that food now was much more easily digested.
It was a colder than usual morning and the hot water bottle just wasn’t getting her body temperature up fast enough so I carried her into the front seat of my car that sat in the morning sun. Here the temperature was already more than blood warm and we sat while I stroked the back of her crest which was raised. Bateleurs love this but I doubt she was aware. She blinked and encouraged I got out to go to the kitchen but on coming back I saw her stretch, her pupil expand and I had the coldness of heart to video the moment of her death. Why? Because someone had to pay for this. The insanity of high speed roads through protected areas has one outcome and someone needs to know and be shocked.
After she died I sat in the car with her on my lap still stroking the back of her head. I was crushed. I always am. Although I had no real relationship with this eagle her loss was particularly personal. Bateleurs may soon never cross Kenyan skies and we will have lost more than the lion, a species forever safe in zoos, small parks and circuses. Conserving raptors in situ is very much more challenging today especially as the basic first steps in raptor conservation widely accepted elsewhere, and previously done here in Kenya, apparently need a whole new set of strategic plans, umpteenth workshops abroad and much pontification. All the hopelessness of trying to do one's best and all the institutionalised adversity we face in trying to conserve raptors comes to the fore at a moment like this and woe betide anyone interrupting this fury. Increasingly one isn’t able to assume a sense of responsibility for the destiny of raptors for social reasons that bar it. It passed but I was depressed.
I did a small post mortem so as not to desecrate her immaculate feathers. The shoulder to mid humerus was exactly as I had previously described - a bag of crisps. Very little blood was present. I doubt that there were many operable blood vessels and it was likely that the wing would have died at the shoulder and she would not have survived. That said there was some new bone growth and this hinted that she had actually been on the ground in Shaba longer than we thought.
The next day I let those who had helped know that she had died. A great deal of solace came from all saying how sorry they were. There are people that care. Care enough to drop everything and scramble to rescue and expedite her rescue. There are too few but they are growing and one day it will be they who will demand change.
All photos of wild Bateleur above are by Laila Bahaa el Din, 2009.
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