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Ngala the Southern Banded Snake Eagle’s release

To recap, this small snake eagle was rescued from a septic tank at Gede National Monument by the monuments curator Mr. Hussein Aden, together with his team members Ong’ayo Michael and Kalama Ali Gona, who collaborated with Leslie Kadane from Primate Global to alert us of its predicament on 1st November 2023.


The eagle was found dehydrated, near starvation, exhausted, moments from drowning, and with a broken lower jaw. The lower jaw is made, like ours, of two bones - both were broken and one was not attached by bone. Fortunately, the blood supply was still keeping the distal parts alive.



The eagle then received the attention of a number of people from the Gede National Monument NMK, KWS, Primate Global, A Rocha Kenya and Roy Bealey, who took it away to be cleaned, dried, given fluids and fed. Feeding was difficult as the jaw was a mess, so it had to be force fed. Had it not been for the jaw it would have been easily rehabilitated by Roy who is very familiar with raptor care. The days ticked by as we all tried to organise a flight up to Soysambu where Dr Juliet Waiyaki and Simon Thomsett would try to resolve the fractures. Some private flights were in the offing but unfortunately didn’t come through. We then approached Safarilink and thanks to their understanding of the importance of this very special eagle, we were able to get the bird booked on a flight and get permission from KWS to fly him inland.


The Southern Banded Snake Eagle (Circaetus fasciolatus) has an odd east African coastal forest distribution from Somalia to north east South Africa. They are increasingly confined to fragmented coastal forest patches and no doubt are endangered throughout their range. Very little is known about this species, especially within our region. It replaces the Western Banded Snake Eagle, which has less barring starting at the belly button (yes birds have belly buttons!) and may be generally larger. They are both forest adapted with short wings and long tails. While sharing a close affinity to the larger longer-winged savannah snake eagles, there is something about the scales of the feet, the laterally compressed bill, large eyes and floppy crests that makes them resemble the Indo-Asian snake eagles of the genus Spilornis.


We named the eagle Ngala after one of the most prominent forest conservationists David Ngala who died in a tragic Boda boda accident soon before this eagle's arrival. We beg David’s forgiveness if Ngala turns out to be a female…and I’m sure he’d laugh because he too, despite his great knowledge of the species, would readily admit that it is very difficult to know.


Ngala had to go through some fairly complicated surgery, made all the more difficult because the areas to be fixed and stabilised with metal pins were about 3.5mm by 8mm and 4mm by 5mm. We used 25 and 21 gauge needles as stents to act as miniature facio-maxillary plates. The needles were used to guide the thin wire exactly, within an accuracy of less than 0.5mm, into the bone and out the other side. The wires would need very thin but stable support and this would be achieved by the outer sheath of the needle laid across the fracture. For those less squeamish, have a look at the photos to get some idea of how careful the surgery had to be.


Top left shows the fractured jaw that would have soon resulted in the eagle starving to death. Middle shows the method used to stabilise the fracture. The needle is passed through the (2.5mm) bone and the cerclage wire inserted inside and drawn through, then the needle itself is cut to form a splint or stabilising plate. Top right shows the left side of the jaw, which was more challenging as this needed to be re-broken, aligned under tension and have bone autografts pushed in as wedges to get the correct angle and bring the distal tip of the bill into perfect alignment with the upper bill tip.


Rehabilitation is that period of time after treatment or surgery in which a patient recovers. Most people think the first part is more important, difficult and costly, but that’s not true. Ngala had to have four special enclosures, starting from an ICU box in which hot water bottles were provided throughout the night (to keep him warm in the absence of electricity), to a 2m by 2.5m walled in enclosure, to a 3.5m by 3.5m by 3m high shed, to a 15m by 18m by 4m high fully enclosed flight pen. Interspersed with that, he spent some of his time complete with jesses, swivel and leash on the glove in a falconry manner. This management option is ideal because it allowed him to be closely monitored, fed easily and have long days perched in a tree in my courtyard, but it was very work intensive. With a broken jaw, his first few weeks required that he have his food by-pass his bill and be placed behind his tongue. You can imagine that chasing him around a pen to catch him for each meal was going to ruin him. But when managed with jesses it was a very simple matter to offer him pea sized pieces of food on forceps while he sat on the glove or on his perch.


The last few weeks Ngala spent at the Soysambu Raptor Centre were accompanied by three augur buzzards and one dark chanting goshawk in a large flight enclosure. He was fully healed and rearing to go. The reason for housing him with other species was to make very sure he was aware of his surroundings and aware of potential threats while also developing some muscle tone in the larger enclosure. He turned out to be a bit of a bully, stealing food from all but the chanting goshawk, with whom he spent much time perched together.


17th Dec 2023 - Ngala is seen here in his favourite tree outside of the enclosure, jessed and beginning his exercise regime. The bill is almost perfect.


Ngala was to spend months awaiting his trip to the coast. Months too long especially as it was likely his mate at Gede would replace him with another if he was absent for too long. We also had to be very sure that he had perfect accommodation awaiting him at Watamu as he needed a period of rest from his travel to recuperate before the release. With many thanks to Bea Andersen Schipper, we now have excellent enclosures available at the coast and Ngala was their first special guest.


We had also been asked by KWS to make sure our releases were monitored, and as luck would have it, the monitoring GPS device failed us a few days before the initial planned release date.


The wait proved to be worth it though, as the new rehab enclosures in Watamu needed to be finished and inspected by KWS. Days after inspection we rapidly put things in motion. By this time we had Colin Jackson of A Rocha, one of Kenya’s foremost ornithologists, Eric Kinoti, one of his team members and Roy Bealey get the necessary KWS approvals and flights organised with Safarilink. The new GPS device, donated to us by Ralph Buij of the Peregrine Fund, arrived and was tested, and before we knew it Dr Juliet Waiyaki was on her way with the eagle to the coast courtesy of Safarilink who thankfully provided seamless support of the transfer.


After spending two nights recovering from travels in the new Watamu enclosures, the following morning Ngala was transported back home to the Gede National Monument. There he was met with a very impressive welcoming committee that included the local KWS Senior Warden Collins Ochieng, some of his team and many of the people involved in saving Ngala together with a crowd of interested Watamu locals from all walks of life. Ngala was handed over to the warden and his hood removed before being launched into the sky and flying off to a high tree while onlookers cheered. The reception at Gede, the enthusiasm and the cooperation by so many people and organisations was very heartening to those present. This was a fabulous example of a successful team effort, for which we sincerely thank all the people and organisations involved. Behind the scenes is also a support team that includes all the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust staff and those that have contributed to us. Without them we could not afford what can sometimes be a costly exercise.


Photos from Ngala’s release day showing the welcoming committee, KWS Senior Warden Collins Ochieng preparing for release with Dr Juliet Waiyaki, Ngala flying high and fast towards his freedom.


Ngala perched in a forest tree with his GPS tracker on show, preening and calmly surveying the forest.


Sadly I was unable to attend as I had a new electrocuted martial eagle, a new white backed vulture and other birds to attend to. Thanks to the wonders of social media though, I was able to attend virtually. It was fun to see yet more appreciation coming in for this small and unknown eagle.


In case you think that the story is over, it isn’t. Release is just the beginning. The nail biting stuff now starts in earnest. Hard unmonitored releases are generally unwise and nearly always accompanied by high risk of mortality. Now the team at the coast have to keep their eye on him with the tracker that is designed to detach after some months and intervene should anything go awry. We really hope Ngala will thrive, stay within the forest surrounding the beautiful Gede National Monument, reunite with his mate, and provide visitors to the monument with even more fascinating things to see.

 


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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

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Wonderful work and splendid results. I love reading the stories you post. Thank you.

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