Engaging local communities to conserve the Kwenia cliffs vulture breeding sites

In the semi-arid landscape of Kajiado County, about 95km south of Nairobi, lies Kwenia: a place of ‘massive cliffs and intimidating valleys‘. Besides their alluring scenery and hiking appeal, the cliffs of Kwenia play a crucial role in keeping one of Africa’s most threatened birds alive. The Critically Endangered Rüppell’s Vultures breed in these cliffs.

“These cliffs are important to vultures and other birds of prey,” says Jackson William from Kilonito, who is familiar with the cliffs and appreciates their role in vulture conservation.

William is one of the two community members Nature Kenya is engaging to enhance vulture conservation efforts in the Kwenia Important Bird Area (IBA). These community members, referred to as vulture volunteers, assist in collecting information on vulture sightings, breeding and nesting and wildlife poisoning.

“Working closely with communities at key vulture sites like Kwenia, one of the nesting sites for Rüppell’s Vultures, is critical to our conservation work. The communities are better placed to relay first-hand information on vultures given that they live there,” says Paul Gacheru, the Nature Kenya Species and Sites manager. Data gathered from vulture volunteers is used to inform future conservation actions, adds Gacheru.

In July, William and the other Kwenia community members were taken through a four-day exercise to induct them into site monitoring activities that was organized by Nature Kenya. During the four days, this team traveled through Kwenia IBA and identified eight potential places for future monitoring. These were Empalulu, Igulukotk Naiboro, Kwenia, Kilonito, Inaudat, Paranae and Singerine cliffs. Rüppell’s and Egyptian vultures and other birds of prey, including Martial and Verreaux’s eagles, were sighted in some areas.

Vulture were observed perched and flying above three cliffs: Empalulu, Kwenia and Kilonito. Kwenia Cliff had the highest number of Rüppell’s Vultures recorded. Little vulture activity was observed in Paranae and Igulukotk Naiboro cliffs, though they exhibited potential for roosting and breeding for Rüppell’s Vultures.

William’s knowledge of the Kwenia terrain came in handy in directing the team to potential vulture nesting and roosting sites. Jackson also took time to explain the importance of conserving vultures and the threats facing them to Maasai herders that the team encountered along the way.

“It is important to educate the community about vultures, especially here in Kwenia where they breed. This area is a good habitat for vultures. I am happy to be part of the positive change Nature Kenya is bringing to this area to save these special birds,” says William.

Nature Kenya is engaging 65 vulture volunteers in Kwenia, Amboseli, Mosiro and Maasai Mara landscapes in Kajiado and Narok counties. The vulture volunteers have been trained and equipped with binoculars and smartphones to gather vulture-related information. These individuals also conduct anti-wildlife poisoning awareness creation activities at their sites. Poisoning of carnivores after an attack on livestock has been singled out as the main cause of vulture deaths in Kenya, with six out of eight species found here facing extinction.

Bioblitz in Gigiri

Last month, Nature Kenya, in partnership with the Embassy of Sweden, conducted a ‘bioblitz’ biodiversity survey at the Swedish Ambassador’s residence in Gigiri, Nairobi. A bioblitz is an event that focuses on finding, identifying and documenting as many species as possible in a specific area within a short period of time.

A team of experts from Nature Kenya, National Museums of Kenya and the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) engaged 43 Kenyan and Swedish students to find, identify and document birds, insects, plants, reptiles and amphibians at the residence. Among the day’s highlights were the discovery of an African Fish Eagle nest and crayfish within the compound.

Understanding Key Biodiversity Areas

Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) are sites of global biodiversity conservation importance identified using internationally agreed, objective, quantitative and scientifically defensible criteria adopted in 2016. These sites significantly contribute to the survival of global biodiversity.  

KBAs include terrestrial, fresh water and marine water habitats, ranging from rainforests to reefs, mountains to marshes, deserts to grasslands and the deepest ocean floors. KBAs are crucial tools for guiding decisions on conservation and sustainable management as they ensure that efforts are focused on places likely to have the greatest conservation impact. 

Governments may use KBA data during planning for development projects to avoid damaging ecologically-sensitive areas. The KBA designation promotes site-based conservation efforts and seeks to ensures that nature’s most fragile habitats are given precedence.

Globally, more than 16,356 KBAs have been identified, with 43 percent occurring in protected and conserved areas. Nature Kenya and partners have identified 67 KBAs in Kenya, so far based on Important Bird Areas (IBAs). Thirty of these KBAs are protected (gazetted forests, national parks and reserves). The remaining 37 lack formal protection. A fraction of these sites is under private ownership and community management. 

Identification and designation of IBAs relied entirely on bird data. The 2016 shift of focus from IBAs to KBAs broadened the scope to include other taxonomic groups in identifying sites deemed important to biodiversity.   

All IBAs are KBAs, but some KBAs are not IBAs (i.e. they are significant for the conservation of other taxa, but not birds). Nonetheless, the IBA network has proved to be a good approximation to the overall network of KBAs, as it includes the bulk of other target species and the most significant sites.

Birds have unique characteristics that make them an easy target taxonomic group. Birds are common, occur in most of the habitats in Kenya, are diverse and easy to identify compared to other taxonomic groups. They are relatively large, conspicuous, easy to observe, appealing and well-studied. IBAs therefore offer an excellent starting point for immediate conservation action, as the addition of other sites to complete the KBA network progresses with data made available. 

KBAs need to be prioritesed for nature to continue to thrive. Appropriate identification, correct documentation, effective management, sufficient resourcing and adequate safeguarding of KBAs present the best option of preventing biodiversity loss and extinction of species. Realization of the KBA dream, however, requires a combined effort. 

We call upon taxon experts from government and non-governmental organizations, individuals, groups, societies and volunteers from all walks of life to support the KBA initiative in whichever way possible. Do you know a site with viable populations of unique and threatened species? Please send detailed information to CPO2@naturekenya.org and we will work together to see if it qualifies as a new KBA.

Flying trash or extraordinary bird?

After days of overcast skies in Nairobi, no one anticipated our Sunday birdwatch on 21st August, 2022 at Ngong Road Forest Sanctuary would deliver great sightings. 

By 7:30 am, we had already checked in at the sanctuary. Unlike the previous few days, the sun had risen unhindered by clouds. At the sanctuary, we met Nicholas Akach, a ranger and fellow birder, who briefed us on his recent sightings in the forest. They included a white morph African Paradise Flycatcher and a White-crested Helmetshrike: an exciting line-up to inspire our birding day.

A few meters from the car park along the Commonwealth Cemetery fence, one of our participants spotted an all-white flamboyant-looking bird. As she was describing the bird to us, a white morph African Paradise Flycatcher flew past in pursuit of what appeared to be a butterfly. The flycatcher’s long dangling white tail attracted everyone’s attention. 

Our list grew as birds came out in numbers to take advantage of the morning warmth. In the list were Kikuyu (Montane) White-eye, Chinspot Batis, Yellow-whiskered Greenbul, Cabanis’s Greenbul, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Three-banded Plover and others. One elusive forest specialist, the Narina Trogon, was missing, but we remained optimistic.  

We manoeuvred through the forest, occasionally bending to avoid low-hanging climbers and branches. Some team members walked along the forest edge. Ooops!… Something must have been startled from high grass on the ground. It flew up and down again. Was it a bird?… a tattered trash?… No one could tell since it dragged long strap-like attachments.  

We scanned through where the unusual ‘thing’ landed. Under the bush lay a bird facing us. It was a nightjar! But which one? As we debated, the bird decided to ‘clear’ our doubts! It flew out, displaying its extraordinary long wing-projections, affirming its identity as a Pennant-winged Nightjar. The bird kept dodging our camera lenses while in flight. Eventually, Matt McIlvenna managed to get a clear shot of it on the ground. It was an incredible sighting!  

Nightjars are active from dusk all through the night to dawn. They spend their entire day hiding on the ground, some up on trees. Pennant-winged Nightjars breed in southern Africa, from southern Tanzania. They spend the non-breeding season to the north of us, and are occasionally seen on their way south to their breeding grounds in August.

It was a great bird walk, having bagged 48 species in our list, including the unexpected and extraordinary nightjar.