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Saving Rüppell’s Vultures, One Breeding Cliff at a Time

As Africa’s vultures decline, protecting their remaining breeding sites magnifies in importance.

The road to Kwenia is long and dilapidated. As the miles accumulate, the potholes grow in circumference and number until swerving across the road ceases to be an option. Unflinching donkeys stand defiant across the center of the road, while emaciated cows seek out roadside grass courtesy of the just-begun rains.

The stunning landscape and cliff at Photo C. Hamilton James
The stunning landscape and cliff at Kwenia. Photo by C. Hamilton James

In this little-travelled region of southwestern Kenya the railway cars still carry salt from the nearby Magadi Soda Company, the children wave exuberantly as if you are a rock star, and the storm clouds race across the horizon teasing the perennially thirsty landscape. One can imagine this scenario has withstood the test of time.

Vulture's eye view from atop the cliff at Kwenia. Photo C. Hamilton James
Vulture’s eye view from atop the cliff at Kwenia. Photo by C. Hamilton James

The vultures too have persevered. Over the previous century their predecessors reaped from the bountiful losses caused by the rinderpest epidemic. The most recent generation has watched as the masses of grazing gazelles and zebras dwindled into the present day masses of cattle and goats, and as the tin buildings have proliferated from the foundations of the traditional manyatta.

For the critically endangered Rüppell’s vultures that raise their young on the heights of the surrounding 300-foot cliff, this is a change they have endured—at least until recently. From their nests scattered across the cliff face, the location of which is strikingly obvious thanks to the prolific whitewash, Rüppell’s Vultures continue to come and go daily in search of food.

Magnificent wingspan of a Ruppell's vulture. Photo M. Virani
Magnificent flight of a Ruppell’s vulture. Photo by M. Virani

Where they go is becoming less and less of a mystery thanks to new technology that allows scientists to track their movements using lightweight transmitters attached to the vultures’ backs. Kwenia’s vultures often forage in the Masai Mara Reserve on the remains of wildebeest, zebras, and the like that have perished due to disease, predation, or the travails of a long migration from the Serengeti plains. This is also where the vultures have increasingly found themselves on the wrong end of conflict between livestock farmers and predators such as lions and hyenas.

Given the rapid decline of Rüppell’s vultures, protecting important breeding cliffs like Kwenia is increasingly urgent. Unfortunately, the land surrounding the breeding cliffs at Kwenia has been sold to private developers who have begun large-scale agriculture and other developments that further threaten this population. We have begun discussions with the Kenya Wildlife Service and other stakeholders as we are all keen that this Important Bird Area be formally protected.

But as I write this, a new threat in the form of wind turbines to generate power is planned for an area approximately 15 miles to the east of Kwenia. In terms of the range of a vulture, that’s right next door, and turbines are well known to be lethal to vultures because they can’t see the spinning blades.

The visual field of a number of birds is well designed for seeing below them while in flight (to find prey or water bodies), to survey the airspace laterally, and to block out harmful rays of the sun, but it is poorly designed to see directly in front of them. This makes them vulnerable to intrusions, such as wind turbines, that appear in an otherwise empty airspace.

Based on tracking and monitoring data, Rüppell’s and White-backed vultures frequently fly over the proposed site for the wind farm making individuals vulnerable to collisions with any turbines that go up.

Large-scale agriculture and other development threatens the breeding cliff at Kwenia. Photo C. Hamilton James
Large-scale agriculture (in foreground) and other development threatens the breeding cliff at Kwenia. Photo by C. Hamilton James

With these new challenges arising, and plenty of old ones still a threat, our work to save these majestic and charismatic birds continues, one breeding cliff at a time.

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