It’s a very Darwinian truth, often forgotten, that we are animals. We are part of the animal kingdom; evolved over millions of years, within complex ecological systems as part of them. We were not given dominion over these systems, but have (through our ever-increasing sophistication and efficiency of our technological advances) wrested that position, and elevated ourselves into that situation. Our species has survived our ignorance in its first two million years, but may not persist in our post-industrial era of intelligence. Our wanton destruction and obliteration of these ancient processes may prove too much a challenge to endure.
Our current pandemic displays that perfectly – the more we destroy, the more we suffer. Every creature, from the largest to the microscopic, has a part to play, and if this carefully crafted equilibrium is disturbed, things go wrong. We have to re-evaluate our relationship with nature since we depend on its health, for the health of our own species.
This rings true in a raptor-centric sense too.
Birds of prey, as is true for all birds, are the descendants of dinosaurs; evolved over the last 250 million years. All our species of raptors (103 in Kenya), have found their own role to play, because they have exploited the need to fill a space where required.
As is my wont, I must begin with vultures, as they are probably the most important group to us in the context of human health. They provide an efficient and free clean up service (70% of all dead ungulates in savannah ecosystems are consumed by them, not lions or hyaenas), that will be under-appreciated until it’s gone. They control a multitude of diseases that are extremely volatile: botulism, anthrax, cholera…as well as indirectly controlling rabies by outcompeting and thus controlling populations of its vectors (rabies is a disease transmitted by mammalian contact that is 100% fatal after symptoms occur).
Parallels must be recognised with the Asian Vulture Crisis that began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where 99.97% of their vultures were wiped out as a result of unintentional poisoning by diclofenac-contaminated carcasses of domestic livestock. The drug is harmless to humans and mammals, and used on a daily basis in analgesics and anti-inflammatories, but lethal to birds that consume it and then later die of visceral gout and kidney failure. ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’ is a saying that’s worth remembering. As a void was created by the near extinction of these birds, feral dogs filled it with gusto. They have been allowed, almost unchecked, to continue to transmit rabies to humans, canine distemper to each other, and so on at a far greater rate than before. The Indian government has spent tens of billions of dollars to manage this epidemic, and tens of thousands of human lives are lost every year, quite needlessly.
If this is replicated in Kenya, we will see huge increases in hyaena, jackal and dog numbers as well as the pathogens of which they are vectors.
Our rodent and small mammal hunters (which comprise a major chunk of our raptor species), are just as important. The Augur Buzzards that may take the occasional chicken also control rats that could easily give you the plague, known as the Black Death for a reason. Widely maligned, Owls do the same. They are attracted to human habitation specifically because our lifestyles create the ideal habitats and the supplies of food for their preferred prey of rodents. I often get calls from concerned citizens in Nairobi, Nakuru etc., where the conversation usually takes the following course:
Caller: I have Owls nesting in my roof. They’re noisy and smelly. Please come and remove them.
SK: Do you have rats?
Caller: Yes, of course.
SK: What would happen to your rat issue if I took away those owls?
SK: Are you still there?
Caller: Can you send me a design for an owl box for them to move into?
Large eagles like the Crowned and Martial, who may take the occasional goat kid, serve to control monkeys that could easily transmit monkey pox – there’s a current outbreak of that in the US, UK and Spain (and there are other microscopic nasties included in their prey species that we’d rather not find out about). Falcons and Accipiters that are infrequent culprits of chicken loss usually target the weakest of their natural prey of gamebirds, doves and songbirds, keeping their populations healthy.
Our latest, and most dangerous threat is our new energy transmission infrastructure, put in place at an alarming rate to keep up with the power demands of a burgeoning Kenyan population. The new concrete power-poles seem to be specifically designed to be harmful to raptors, other large birds, as well as to giraffe! A recent study (of with the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust was a contributor) shows that wild raptor populations are being devastated by electrocutions – declines are great in perch-hunting birds, the raptors that like hunting from a vantage point.
These are the valuable rodent eating buzzards, chanting goshawks, smaller eagles, falcons, et cetera. Snake Eagles, another group of raptors that frequently use power poles to hunt, eat snakes as their name suggests. Snake bites are still a major cause of mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, and these eagles readily kill venomous snakes such as puff-adders and cobras, often close to human habitation that these poles supply with power. Most of the aforementioned raptors are likely (or at least should be) to be uplisted to Threatened or Endangered – something unthinkable as recently as 10-15 years ago.
Other infrastructure such as wind farms and continent-crossing highways and power pylon networks will destroy our large eagle communities (‘communities’ in the sense that they interact and compete, but all contribute to keeping their prey as diverse and healthy as possible, holistically speaking). This destruction, and possible extinction, is happening very rapidly as the birds cannot adapt and evolve to threats that have arrived in a blink of an eye compared to their millions of years-long evolutionary histories. Current rates of animal extinctions are 1000 times faster than before we rocked up on the scene with our stuff.
If we are to live in harmony with our wildlife, and our raptors, and enjoy the myriad benefits that they confer, we must make changes. Our government must make changes. As with climate change, deforestation, persecution, poisoning, poaching, energy production and its distribution will have to be radically altered and reduced to not only keep up with the times, but allow a way to be part of a shared future for all.
Lappet-faced Vulture, Spotted Eagle-Owl, Martial Eagle and Western-banded Snake-Eagle - all raptors that help control a multitude of diseases, populations of vectors of these diseases and direct threats to human health.
Evidence of widespread declines in Kenya’s raptor populations over a 40-year period
by Darcy Ogada, Munir Z. Virani, Jean Marc Thiollay, Corinne J. Kendall, Simon Thomsett, Martin Odino, Shiv Kapila, Teeku Patel, Peter Wairasho, Leah Dunn and Phil Shaw
Kenya Bird of Prey Trust
Understand - Protect - Restore