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Vultures are that important

On the 7th July 2023 we got notified that some vultures at Mugie Conservancy were grounded. The video we received showed a Rüppell’s vulture that acted exactly as would a poisoned vulture. It flayed about, trying to escape the person filming it. The wings “oared” into the ground and the legs just didn’t keep up. Typical “ataxia”…in other words it behaved like it was intoxicated. It’s sobering to think that being drunk is very much the same symptom as being poisoned and fighting for your life.

Left: first report of a grounded Rüppell’s vulture at Mugie Conservancy. Right: a white-backed vulture that was found grounded shortly after the first one.

I shouted out for Dr Juliet Waiyaki, doing a vet internship with us, who without a word packed what we needed. We are not as exactly well oiled as a fire brigade yet, and I sincerely doubt if I could make it down a pole and straight into the car seat, but we are getting there. It was already getting dark and no plane let alone a car could get us to Mugie in time to find downed vultures in the dark. That one vulture had to spend the night out. Early next morning we were on the road in the Probox, the contraband car every cop stops. And sure enough we had to suffer that repeated indignity and on top of that GSU security guys, armed like there was going to be no tomorrow, waved us down. Rescuing vultures in a Probox is a bad idea except that it flies, is very economical and has 1.5 times more room than a Land cruiser.

Mugie is further than you think and it sits at the beginning of an altitude drop still hanging onto large Cape Olives, a feature of the highlands behind us. It is graced with artesian fresh water pans of origins that are not too clear. This makes it a wildlife haven, one foot in a highland eco-type and the other edging towards the dry lowlands. We met Anne Wambui at the ranch HQ and we drove on to the vulture restaurant where the vulture had been seen last night. It was immediately evident from the thick bush that it would be a one in a hundred chance of finding it again. Meanwhile, as is the case with all poisonings, another call came in from one of the guides that another vulture had been found. Then we met up at the lodge run by Governors' Camp Collection, already good supporters of our work. Here we were ushered into a small room with two sick vultures by George van Wyk, who I have met before as he is an avid ex falconer from Zimbabwe. Juliet and I set about forcing fluids down the two birds, one a juvenile White-backed and the other an adult Rüppell’s vulture that had been found far away near the water pans. We jabbed them with atropine and put the sickest in a large carry box. Secluded light and silence are very important when brain cells are being assaulted by overstimulation. It’s a bit like a hangover when one really appreciates no stimulus, but the results can be deadly when you have a nerve poison in you.

Forcing fluids down and applying atropine. Pictures by Frankie Adamson, Governors' Camp Collection

We looked around for a temporary holding pen, which they put up with amazing speed as we watched. The birds were best left in situ as the return journey in the Probox was going to be tough on the sick vultures and also because expertise was available onsite. Conservancy management contacted KWS and everything was in order very quickly. George was very familiar with handling raptors, the guides were also very competent and keen to help and Mugie Conservancy was already on the vulture conservation radar thanks to a joint project with The Peregrine Fund. Juliet and I gave a quick poisoning refresher course. Leaving behind feeding tubes, large 50ml syringes, hood and atropine, and after a great meal at the lodge, we hit the road.I was worried about Girl, my female Crowned Eagle back at Soysambu with cataracts because no-one could handle her. I had put out Girl early morning before leaving and I had to put her back in her “mews” in the evening.

We raced back home trying to beat the night. We didn’t, not by a long shot. Mwanzia had to put Girl to bed and had a tale to tell. Juliet and I were confident that the two vultures at Mugie would recover and glad we had decided to leave them rather than taking them on the long drive. If other poisoned vultures would be found, George and the others at Mugie knew what to do. If necessary we, or Juliet alone, would go back up the next day. Vultures are that important.

Later that week George released the Rüppell’s and White-backed vultures and we have proof that the Rüppell’s did well as we have an agreement with KWS to monitor releases of these critically endangered vultures when possible. Sure enough the Rüppell’s Vulture after heading out across a broad swath of northern Kenya headed to a known cliff colony just north of Maralal. While we had cause to celebrate we also knew other vultures had died. How many we would not know. And the absence of the adult Rüppell’s from its cliff colony would have been too long for a chick to survive with one parent.

Ruppell's vulture being fitted with a gps tracker and later released by George van Wyk. Pictures by Frankie Adamson, Governors' Camp Collection

A week later looking up from my phone I brief Juliet of the news of another “downed” vulture. Juliet wordlessly gets the gear and we are off to Narok to meet a car (another Probox!) with a White-backed vulture that had been “brutally mauled” by a hyena (in the words of the Naibosho rangers).

It was a wreck and there was no time to spare when we got home. After a five hour operation in which we pinned the shattered humerus and wired fragments to solid bone cement, we emerged in the dark. Juliet is certainly getting first hand veterinary experience, from the problem in the “field”, the hazards of transporting to the eclectic gamut of treatments as well as the laborious boring and heart-wringing aftercare. It may take weeks before a bird is “out of the woods'', and you really cannot let it out of your sight. Few understand the need for all these elements, from reporting and rescue in the field, permissions, transport away from the site, treatments, housing and feeding, to work together. Fortunately we have a large team to help, especially in the Mara with Lemein Par and Duncan Njapit of our Mara Raptor Project. There too is Governors' Camp Collection helping support the costs of feeding the birds at the Naivasha and Soysambu Raptor Centres. Despite this it can be hard, long hours. A whole day on the road and in surgery and for the next 3 nights I had to get up three times a night to change the vulture's hot bottle.

Thing is after surgery the vulture took 4 days to partially recover. This does happen. The bird had bled a great deal from the hyena bite and the operation was very prolonged. But I suspected the bone cement had a liquid much like acetone and a strong smell. The humerus is joined to the air sac and perhaps this was “doping” it for days until the cement dried. During these days it lay worryingly inert in its box. Throughout the day all it could handle was glucose and water. You had to shake it to wake it up otherwise the throat would not work. I thought it would die. But I had a sneaky idea that it was “Playing Possum”. Opossums, a weird giant rat like marsupial in the new world, suddenly fall off their sides and act dead if prodded or threatened by a carnivore. I have seen a vulture do this when under the paw of a lion. The lion was fed up with it and about to tear its head off when it grimaced at the limp “dead” bird and walked away. When the lion was far enough away the vulture carefully opened one eye and jumped up and flew away. I put the poor sick vulture out in the sun next to the workshop and Kyalo and I went about our business. He’d lie there one eye open. He was doing better and even accepted food shoved down his throat.

I needed to sharpen three pangas and a sword and without thinking I got my grinder out and set about the task. Over the horrible noise Kyalo nodded in the direction of where the vulture lay and smiled. I looked behind me and the long dying master of shaming had bolted out the compound and into the car park area. I was foolish to think he would not go far and finished one of the blades. Walking out, the vulture was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately my ears are still good and alarmingly far I heard the bushes crack. I ran; I doubled what I thought a fit vulture would do and then I ran some more. There he was crashing full tilt through the bush. We grabbed him much relieved and took him back. This guy is 24 hr care. He was either at death’s door or doing a sprint for freedom.

We put him in the large shed, set aside in theory as a quarantine area, but in which are now one Lappet-faced and two Rüppell’s Vultures. Here with cohorts, he stood up, brushed himself off and settled in. But when things are quiet and he can’t see anyone he does still sleep a great deal. He has a good five weeks of immobilisation before his bandages come off. That wing was smashed like a bag of crisps. But I think if all goes well he may even fly.

Grounded Rüppell’s vulture turns to be a naive juvenile.

A few days later another downed vulture was reported in Nairobi Park but we were not in time to get it and do not know what happened to it.

A few days passed and again we received a message from the Mara. Yet again the poison group came together but this time thankfully it appeared to be a young naïve Rüppell’s Vulture just out of the nest. It will go to Nathan at Olderikesi who has saved 17 vultures previously and at some point soon we will have to go down there and see if it’s ok.

Vulture rescues are just one of a group of raptors we deal with and sometimes I question why we focus so much on them for there are other raptors in much more dire need. One reason we do is that vultures are appealing underdog characters and yes I know that’s not a science infused justification; but it is one shared by most of the team.


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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

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