Changing Planet

On the Slow Train to Find Vultures in Northern Kenya

RUVU heading toward cliff. Photo by Darcy Ogada.
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Photo by Darcy Ogada.

My 1985 Toyota Landcruiser can’t swim. So when the mud-coloured lake that was once a road started pouring through my doors I knew it was time to get the heck outta there. Our only alternative route was through the mud. The thought of spending the next couple of days stuck 20 km from nowhere was forefront in my mind.

We ultimately landed safely at our destination in northern Kenya to survey nesting cliffs of Ruppell’s Vultures. Naively, I hadn’t feared the journey. I was told the final leg would be on the ‘new’ road to Opiroi. Seventeen kilometers took 2.5 hours. Ouch! I’ve lived over a decade in Kenya, but surely this ‘new’ road reached new lows. After nearly an hour spent in first gear, I dared not stare at the sheer drop into oblivion out my window. My guide, noting my squeamishness, said with a laugh, ‘Now THIS is Africa’.

A view from the top. Photo by Darcy Ogada.

Driving on the slow train to nowhere did allow me to fully absorb the irony of the scenery. Endless green, rising mist, and vast mountains amid a landscape surrounded by Acacia trees, thirsty camels, and wrinkled people.

Photo by Darcy Ogada.

The following day I knew I was in trouble. Our team had grown to include five largely young Samburu men, and me, a middle-aged, largely sedentary arm-chair biologist. One thing you soon get to know about pastoralist people, you never ask them for directions. They will always tell you, ‘it is not far’. For them a four hour walk is a stroll in the park that would take you eight hours to complete.

Our destination was up, up, up. Vultures don’t nest on hills. You’d be better off donning a Spiderman costume and playing the part. The half-day slog was well worth it. From our rooftop vantage point we discovered nests, eggs and fluffy vulture chicks. We also confirmed the perils of being nature’s numero uno scavenger. As history has shown, predators and people largely don’t mix. Unfortunately it’s the scavengers who bear the brunt of this conflict by consuming carcasses laced with poisons that kill indiscriminately. Nature’s premiere cleaning crew deserve an environment free from highly toxic pesticides and other harmful chemicals, and so do we.

NEXT: How to Hold a Vulture While in the Grip of a Jackal

Darcy has worked for The Peregrine Fund’s Africa Program since 2010 and is based in central Kenya. Most of her current work focuses on the conservation of vultures and owls. She is particularly passionate about ending the scourge of wildlife poisoning and stopping the illegal trafficking of owl eggs for belief-based uses in East Africa. Prior to joining The Peregrine Fund she undertook a post-doctoral fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution based at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya. She has studied Mackinder’s Eagle Owls in central Kenya and conducted other research on birds and rodents. She volunteered for the Peace Corps in Niger in 1995 and got her start studying wildlife as a Bald Eagle Nestwatcher for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. She came to Kenya in 2000 where she has lived ever since. Before moving to Kenya she was an avid skier and ice hockey player, now she spends her free time swimming, birding, and hiking and exploring Africa’s mountains with her son. She’s actively involved in a host of local conservation issues as a member of Nature Kenya’s Bird Committee and the Kenya Wildlife Service Bird Taskforce.

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