Rescue and release of a Rüppell's Vulture on Rukinga Ranch

Guest blog by Bernard Amakobe


On 30th September I was all set for my wildlife transect fieldwork and had just completed the surveys then received a call. Paul the technician who deals with everything electrical be it company trucks, fridges, solar installations had called me and I was sure it had something to do with the inverters at our camp. But the urgency in his voice and apprehension put me on edge. In his own words, they had found the largest bird he had ever seen which seemed to have difficulty flying. They had secured it professionally (a rag tied to the flight wings to discourage it from flapping) and taken it to our research camp to wait for the expert. Of course I believed the crew was exaggerating. Nevertheless, we drove back some 70 kms so I could attend to the bird.


I usually do ringing of birds and I have handled upwards of an African Goshawk and African Wood Owl in the raptor world. But what awaited me at the camp was beyond my imagination. In fact, the ‘air’ of a professional that I had suddenly acquired failed me. Before me was the biggest raptor I have ever laid my eyes upon. They had rescued a Rüppell's Vulture.

A Rüppell's vulture can reach a height of 101 cm. Photo Credits: Simon Thomsett.

We gave it water and grudgingly shared our cooked beef. I was relieved when it drunk and gobbled the pieces of meat. I contacted Nick Trent and Simon Thomsett of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust, both raptor specialists. They immediately advised on giving Coke!! (Yes, the fizzled drink) which I did but of course drunk the last sip myself.


As Simon was some 500km away in Naivasha and very tired after a gruelling 2-week tagging activity, I was left to my own devices! The bird looked okay but as we had no idea what had brought it down, we suspected mild poisoning or a collision with a power line. We consulted and decided I should keep it for a further 5 days!! It was not a big deal to host the bird, but I had not bargained for the expenses in terms of food, time, room service and the most demanding – laundry! This dude can shell! And one shell can be propelled 1.25 meters away!


And I guess Simon wanted me to know what he and Shiv of the Naivasha Raptor Center go through every day. He recommended a kilo of lean beef each day for the guy (and not cut into pieces, meaning I couldn’t shot-change it) and a goat’s head. Amazingly, the rascal ate everything diligently each day. We kept a close check each day with Simon sending voice-overs via WhatsApp each day and me sending back daily videos so that he could check on its progress. I was very relieved when WhatsApp crashed! We kept checking on the progress because we were not sure if it had internal injury or if one of the wings was damaged.


On day 3 Simon advised me to look for a worn tyre and make a swing for the bird. At first I thought he’s being foolish but when I checked upon the guy at midnight and saw him perched blissfully on the swing roosting, my respect for this Raptor Man went a notch higher. I was also in a biology lab as I noted any time I opened the door to check on the bird it would throw up. This Simon said is very normal in the species.

The rescued Rüppell's Vulture throwing up when checked on by Bernard Amakobe


On 5th October we decided that even if the bird was not fully healed, I should try a release. This was a big gamble as we were not sure if the wings had injuries. I was supposed to hood the bird and carry it to a point where it can “taxi” and to create a video clip for Simon to decide if the dude was okay. Firstly, hooding a Rüppell's is no mean feat! The bird is almost my height and that ivory-coloured bill and the huge talons made me think twice about this mission. Furthermore, it flew right into the ceiling and hid somewhere up there.

Portrait of a Rüppell's Vulture showing the ivory-coloured bill. Photo credit: Shiv Kapila

We changed tack immediately, left the door open and implored it to come out at his volition by meowing! Indeed the guy came out, but instead of a limping or weak-flight attempt, it charged towards me and I had to duck for dear life. Before I could recover the fellow had already started taxiing and began its flight to freedom. I was left huffing and puffing, taking the video as Simon’s instructions were very precise… take a video or you take full responsibility for it all as the Rüppell's Vulture is listed as Critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. I guess the release was a huge success as to get this response from Simon which is akin to winning a Gold Medal: “Looks like it flew away fine, congrats”.


The successful release of the rescued Rüppell's Vulture


About Bernard Amakobe


Bernard Amakobe is a Research Scientist for Wildlife Works and specialises in monitoring biodiversity impacts through conducting research and recording data. Bernard and his team conduct road, aerial and charcoal monitoring transects, as well as daily logging monitoring and camera trapping.


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