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How Johnny the Crowned Eagle got his name

On the 30th June 2022 a first year male Crowned Eagle, who we later named ”Johnny”, was flown to us from Mweiga after its initial rescue. His wing was the immediate priority. He had a smashed humerus with maggots eating away at the flesh into the wound. Other problems he had were initially ignored because they were secondary, but some two months later these now take priority.

I was not well when he arrived but luckily I was not alone throughout this early period of Johnny’s convalescence, with Joni Overbosch and Sandy Gascoigne helping look after the eagle… and me. I suffered from high fever and zero physical strength but the insomnia helped, for I was able to get up and refill the eagle’s hot water bottle two to four times a night. He was very near death initially, lying down sometimes with his head laid sideways and both eyes closed. A few times I would have to shake him for over a minute to get signs of life.

Cause of injuries: direct persecution

This eagle was the victim of direct persecution. Direct persecution is a very significant factor in wildlife declines in Kenya. This is especially so for species not on the usual wildlife conservation agenda, such as small animals, snakes, invertebrates, and raptors. Raptors remain seen as “vermin” in the modern rural landscape. Persecution is often under-emphasised because of respect to local sensitivities. We do it ourselves, not wanting to appear to be too confrontational. But we can’t afford to remain so cautious. Our growing concern to state the problem as it is, is widely shared by a wide diaspora of Kenyans appalled by the conduct of some of our fellow countrymen who torture and kill animals and get away with it. What is more, many animals considered harmless and perfectly at home in urban and suburban areas elsewhere in the world have their equivalents routinely killed in Kenya. Everything from hedgehogs, shrews, lizards, toads, chameleons, owls, genets, legless skinks, mongoose, bushbabies, hyrax, bats, harmless snakes and raptors get killed, sometimes due to supposed threats to people or small livestock but as often because of some taboo associated with them. In a world where all knowledge is but a swipe away on a smartphone, you would have hoped such things have declined. They haven’t. Superstition as well as ignorance played a role in the capture and planned death of Johnny, the Crowned Eagle.

On the left is the photograph that circulated on social media and outraged so many. On right is the rescue team at Mweiga 30th June 2022 with from left to right Nick Sadron, David Gulden, the taxi driver, Alex Karuri and KWS AD Nyeri Paul Wambugu.

Alex Karuri was the first to circulate the news of the injured Crowned Eagle and was told by the villagers at Ithe Kahuno near Karatina (reported in the Nation newspaper) that the bird “fell from the nest”. Given that the multiple injuries did not indicate a fall, Alex said in the newspaper “I didn’t think the young eagle “accidently” fell from the tree”. Neither did KWS or ourselves. It certainly was the victim of persecution.

The first photo we received shows the eagle being held up by its wings, hanging above the ground and tied by one leg. It deliberately hadn’t been fed for over a week. Given that it was held hanging from an obviously badly fractured wing, the behaviour of the individual and those that were party to this was cruel by any standard. The image sickened many Kenyans. Its rescue by the sudden convergence of pilot, old friends, local conservationists and KWS to the site was very impressive because of the complete understanding by all that minutes mattered if it was to live. Its final evacuation to safety was heartening for most Kenyans who read about it in the newspaper.

Johnny being force fed by Mwanzia and myself. Joni warming up Johnny on a cold morning by holding his “hands” and clasping him close. When you don’t have electricity this is about the only effective way (other than hot water bottles) of warming up an eagle. Keeping him upright also helped him move fluids and food down from his crop into his guts.

Focus on keeping Johnny alive

During the first week at the Soysambu Raptor Centre the focus was on cleaning the wounds and keeping him alive. We didn’t know the extent of damage nor was it wise to explore because he could well have died. We had a visitation by a specialist wildlife vet from Israel, Dr Ariela Rosenzweig, who is very familiar with raptors who agreed on minimal invasive procedures until he was much better. We had to wait weeks before he was strong enough to get to Nakuru for an X-ray at the Nakuru Petcare Surgery, and what we saw was a very complicated massive fracture of the proximal part of the humerus. Johnny the eagle was never going to fly well ever again.

12 July 2022. Note the plastic pipe used to irrigate the wound in the x-ray and the need to pack antibiotic gauze into a ping pong sized hole previously excavated by maggots.

Secondary injuries reveal themselves

We had noted a glazed blank look from the eagle right at the start. Initially I’d put it down to him being so near to death that he could not react. Both his irises did respond to light and he did pull focus when a hand was placed close to his face. One could see the iris wrinkle in the middle in a perfect circle (unlike mammals). But if I swiped my hand towards his face he didn’t blink. He never voluntarily ate. Only on day 17 did he lean down and blindly try and eat his food out of a bowl. It was a big step for him. We were actively trying to get him to bend lower and pull at food. He would also stand on one foot or the other and we worried about spinal injury but later he scratched his ear, showing that not only did both legs work, he also had perfect balance. He quite literally was, and still is, being taught basic actions. This is rehabilitation as humans would understand it, teaching those after multiple injuries to regain function of their limbs and faculties.

We are almost certain he has brain injuries. His eyes on occasion seem to detect movement and at other times not. I suspect he sees a muddled array of images for at times he closes his eyes and cranes his head around. This alarming behaviour isn’t so prevalent as it once was and so there seems to be a slow and steady improvement. I have had birds before that didn’t see, and over months their vision returned. I reexamined his eyes with an ophthalmoscope and noted he has a thin fibrin haze in his right eye posterior to the lens but his left eye looks normal. Accordingly I assumed that his skull had had blunt trauma and his eye and brain are both damaged. I put him on Vit B supplements and hoped that this would promote nerve repair.

Four weeks elapsed before he could see enough to know when a dead rabbit was held before him. He could use this information to know it was food and he would grab it, stand on it and eat it. At times like this he looked perfectly normal.

Five weeks into his care he lost all of his flight feathers on his broken wing. This I have seen before and it’s due not so much to lack of proper blood supply but to an enforced period of extreme stress. To confirm this he then lost all the flight feathers from his good wing too.

Six weeks later he would detect someone’s approach and “mantle” his prey. This isn’t too much to be pleased about but it does mean that his ability to take in his environment, measure things up and act accordingly, were improving.

Look into the future

A few weeks ago a National Geographic TV production called Team Sayari filmed a young Kenyan girl overcome her initial fear of a massive eagle and hand feed Johnny. The film crew, the young lady’s mother, the driver…everybody (and I am sure the millions who will view the end product), were all enchanted by Johnny who has the kindest disposition. Despite his massive size and lion teeth-like talons we saw a fragile girl sit right next to him, wipe his bill and talk earnestly to camera about the need for us all in Kenya to care about eagles. Johnny has already done his bit for conservation and I have a feeling that he will continue to do so for the very fact he has such a sad story, yet like inspirational great people, overcame them.

Johnny outside in the morning sun on 29 August 2022. Note the drooping left wing and only one primary feather. Look closely and you can see that all the others are growing back. It won’t be easy making sure he won’t break them because they are all fragile but with luck he’ll have enough wings to fly a bit, or at least become more mobile.

It wasn’t an unexpected thing that when he was brought in many were keen he should be released as soon as possible. They little realise how long it takes for even a fit first year Crowned Eagle to be released and the enormity of pre-preparation, ground crew, vehicle back-up, VHF- GPRS monitoring, and months of work required to do it right. I was very pleased with the offers to help and locations given to release it, but it was premature. Then, when it became clear he could never be released, there came a bipolar view made by a few entertaining the consideration to euthanize him or let him go despite his problems. Of course the vast majority of opinion lies in the middle of these two extremes and advocate for his life spent enchanting all he meets regardless of how much more time and care he will require from us. Social media brings with it a wide opinion and we need to manage it carefully lest a majority opinion force the direction of what we do. The behind the scenes reality in wildlife conservation can be very graphic and very disturbing.

I’m the one who has to do the majority of Johnny’s day to day care and to ensure a succession plan in terms of securing long term structures and permissions and creating the wish to care among those who must take over; for Johnny will certainly outlive my generation. Fortunately the ethical dilemma as to quality of life may well be unnecessary as the veterinary sciences today can 1. Resolve his wing and 2. Improve his eyesight. We have more experience than any other country in the world when it comes to operating on Crowned Eagle eyes and if it comes to it we will explore it again. As for his lost flight feathers they, as predicted, are growing back…all at once. Johnny is in many ways another Rosy who I had to look after for 42 years. Like Rosy he has a very similar fracture and poor re-alignment, and like Rosy he will be another foundation stone; a thorn in one’s side if you like…for long term responsibility.

Johnny’s days are spent by being put out among the other hawks on the verandah where he enjoys the morning sun. He preens extensively and sits on one leg appearing to look about him. He will follow the movements of francolins and dik dik as they wander about “their house”. How I am not too sure. He sits as would a wild eagle only occasionally moving up and down his perch until the afternoon when he starts to “look” keenly towards my direction. I know he is signalling he wants food. He is a bit of a pig and loves rabbits (served dead of course) far more than day old chicks (served dead of course). Mwanzia, my staff for many years, has been recently joined by his son and I watch them from a distance. Father teaching son how to feed a Crowned Eagle, and I can't help but be moved at the sight. In the evening when the leopard witching hour commences I pick him up and move him inside. On cold nights I light the fire and he likes to doze off in front of it. I get great satisfaction from having him there, safe and well cared for, and partly because deep down I am horrified at humanity and the terrible things we do and as one, I feel we owe it to him to spoil him.

To educate people of the tragedy of war against his kind

Why is he called “Johnny”? He is named after a soldier in an anti war novel who lost all his limbs, his face and eyes, ears and mouth as a result of being blown up in the trenches of the First World War. “Johnny got his gun” by Dalton Trumbo 1939 was a classic both in literature and film. Johnny the soldier was to be paraded in a glass box to the public, and by use of Morse code he agreed to this, so as to educate people about the tragedy and stupidity of war. But the authorities denied him. He was left alone in his hospital bed and forgotten. Am I being too macabre or grotesque in giving him such a name? No, not at all, and if it shocks, so it should. Perhaps Johnny the eagle will never fully regain his sight and use of his limbs. The analogy doesn’t end there for perhaps Johnny the eagle will, unlike the soldier, be able to educate people of the tragedy of the ongoing war against his kind.

Neither does the bigger story end here. Ever since the first few weeks after Johnny arrived we have been getting feedback from the community that they will kill the adult pair of Crowned Eagles in the gazette (protected) forest adjacent to them, to retaliate their depredations on unprotected piglets. In having a presence at a rescue it is not unusual for communities to seize the opportunity to take hostages, and because we are ill equipped to counter overt disregard of the law we forwarded this to KWS AD Nyeri Paul Wambugu who immediately took action by conducting a wildlife education and awareness session. While encouraging, it does illustrate that direct persecution of raptors is very high and seen as something you can get away with.

Johnny asleep by the fire August 2022 Soysambu Raptor Centre.

You can help Johnny

The primary aim of our rescue and rehabilitation programme is to release the birds back into the wild. Unfortunately his is not always possible and these birds find their forever home in one of our raptor centres where they live happy lives, some even breeding and raising chicks that are released in the wild. All of them help us create awareness on raptor conservation. As you have read above, Johnny is such a bird. He has already done his bit for conservation and he will continue to do so for a long as he lives (which may be up to 50 years!).

You can help us pay for Johnny's daily care which includes food, enclosure maintenance, enrichments, medical care and salaries for staff to feed them and clean the enclosures. Every single donation helps us continue the care for Johnny and to fulfil our mission to understand, protect and restore raptor populations in Kenya’s .


Wish to learn more, visit our website and join us on Facebook and Instagram.

Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

Understand - Protect - Restore

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