Enhancing vulture conservation in the Mara and beyond

By Brian Otiego and David Odhiambo

Often misunderstood and unappreciated, vultures play a crucial role in scavenging and disposing of carcasses and consequently preventing zoonotic disease outbreaks. Despite their importance, many vulture species have recorded population declines. Kenya hosts eight vulture species: White-backed, White-headed, Rüppell’s, Lappet-faced, Hooded, Egyptian, Bearded (Lammergeier) and Palm-nut vultures. Four species (White-backed, White-headed, Rüppell’s and Hooded vultures) face extinction.


On September 2, the world marked the International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD), a day dedicated to creating vulture conservation awareness. In Kenya, Nature Kenya, in conjunction with Maasai Mara Wildlife Ambassadors – the site support group (SSG) for Maasai Mara Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) – held a public event at Ereyiet-Oltome village to mark IVAD. The event aimed to sensitize communities on the importance of vultures in the Mara ecosystem and highlight the dangers posed by wildlife poisoning. About 130 participants attended the event, including community members, representatives from the Mara Predators Conservation Programme, Olkinyei Conservancy, the local administration and two local radio stations – Mayian and Sidai FM.


Human-wildlife conflict is of great concern in the Maasai Mara ecosystem. Wildlife poisoning, triggered by human-wildlife conflict, is the leading cause of vulture deaths in Kenya. When livestock is preyed on by predators such as lions or hyenas, herders often resort to lacing carcasses with poison in retaliation, aiming to kill the rogue predators. Vultures often fall victim to these wildlife poisoning incidents since they feed on carcasses in large numbers.


Through support and capacity building, Nature Kenya has been empowering local communities in the Maasai Maraecosystem to advocate against wildlife poisoning for the protection of vultures. Maasai Mara Wildlife Ambassadors have been at the forefront of this. The SSG is restructuring to enhance its ability to deliver local conservation actions and extend its reach across the vast Mara landscape. The community group, through its vulture volunteers, monitors, responds to and reports wildlife poisoning incidents. It also carries out public awareness and environmental education. To broaden its vulture conservation reach, the SSG is also engaging the local administration and two local radio stations.


Vulture Liaison Officers (VLOs) from Nature Kenya and the vulture volunteers have so far managed to reach out to 94,732 people through community gatherings, village meetings, chief’s barazas, and market outreaches.


To further enhance vulture conservation efforts, Nature Kenya, The Peregrine Fund, Kenya Wildlife Service, Wildlife Research Training Institute, National Museums of Kenya, Kenya Birds of Prey Trust and the Raptor Rehabilitation Centre are developing a National Vulture Multi-species Action Plan. The action plan seeks to mainstream vulture conservation into existing wildlife-related legislation, including the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013, to improve the legal protection of vultures in Kenya, among other objectives.

What a Morning! Birding in Dakatcha Woodland KBA in June

By Fleur Ng’weno and Adam Scott Kennedy

Clarke’s Weaver, Ploceus golandi, also called Kilifi Weaver because it’s only found in Kilifi County, had not been seen – or at least reported – in 2023. On the Global Big Day of birding in May, it was missing both in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Dakatcha Woodland. After five seasons of drought, we feared the worst.

Then on June 14th at the Kibaoni Nature Reserve near Marafa, Maxwell Issa, a bird guide from Dakatcha Woodland Conservation Group, Edwin Utumbi of Nature Kenya, and Japhet Masha of Kibaoni, finally saw a flock of Clarke’s Weavers, males and females! The next day, Maxwell Issa and Julio Mwambire found more Kilifi Weavers in the nearby Munyenzeni wetland, also called Bore wetland.

Adam Scott Kennedy picks up the story: 

I heard the news from James Apolloh on Thursday morning and immediately booked my flights! I flew into Malindi on Friday afternoon, met with Apolloh then drove straight to Marafa where we spent the night. Next morning, around 5am, Julio and Maxwell took us to the wetland site. First weaver flies by at around 6am, and our small group located at least 25 weavers at the wetland before 9am.

At the same site, at least 10 Madagascar Pond Herons (it has been a long time since a double-figure site count of this endangered species was last recorded in Kenya), a Dwarf Bittern, a busy pair of Little Bitterns flying back and forth, several vocal and reed-jumping Allen’s Gallinule, and healthy numbers of confiding Red-headed Quelea with recently fledged young. Then the heavens gifted us 4 Mascarene Martins – vagrants from Madagascar – circling over the swamp!  Unbelievable.

Around 9am we moved from the wetland to the woodland at the Nature Kenya Kibaoni Nature Reserve, where we observed another c.25 Kilifi Weavers, plus both coastal helmetshrikes and a Mombasa Woodpecker. All this before lunchtime – a truly remarkable morning.

Conserving the Kaya forests of Dakatcha Woodland

To many, the Kaya forests represent the rich traditional Mijikenda culture. The word Kaya, in most Mijikenda languages, means home. Kaya forests are blocks of pristine forest scattered across the Kenyan coast. They once contained hidden fortified villages where Mijikenda communities took refuge from their enemies when they first moved to the region. A specific Mijikenda sub-group occupied each of the Kaya forests that bore cultural and historical significance.

Dakatcha Woodland – the northernmost Miombo (Brachystegia) forest and the breeding site for the Kilifi (Clarke’s) Weaver – hosts five Kaya forests: Singwaya (Kauma), Dagamra (Chonyi), Bura (Kambe), Bate and Mayowe (Kambe).

“These Kaya forests had shrines that were considered sacred. One had to fulfil certain traditional rites before being allowed to enter the forests,” says Shadrack Mwarabu, a Kaya elder and chairperson of Kaya Singwaya.

Every year, before the onset of the rainy season, Kaya elders would go to the shrines to pray for rainfall and a good crop, adds Mwarabu. Some of the cultural beliefs and practices encouraged the conservation of Kaya forests. For example, the strict rules for accessing the forests significantly minimized disturbances. Trespassing into the Kaya forests was believed to attract the wrath of ancestral spirits. This fear served as a deterrent to would-be poachers, illegal herders and firewood collectors. Damaging any part of the sacred forests would also draw reprimand from Kaya elders.

Over the years, a lot has changed. The once-respected traditional practices associated with the Kayas are declining, exposing the forests to degradation. In Dakatcha, only a handful of elders, like Mwarabu, maintain a cultural connection with the Kaya forests.

“Many elders have abandoned their Kaya traditional roles after being falsely accused of practising sorcery and other harmful things. We risk losing our sacred forests and rich Mijikenda cultural heritage,” says Mwarabu.

Currently, a new Kaya committee exists in Dakatcha. The committee acts as a consultative forum and has overseen the establishment of non-cultural local conservation groups for the five Kaya forests in Dakatcha. These community-led groups are championing the conservation of sacred forests and their unique biodiversity. Working closely with Nature Kenya, the groups are conducting environmental education and awareness, linking communities to conservation partners and promoting the adoption of sustainable nature-based enteprises like beekeeping and climate-smart agriculture to boost community livelihoods.

To enhance the sustainable use of Kaya forests, the conservation groups have established apiaries in some forest sections. Plans are also underway to re-establish some of the Kaya cultural practices and to seek formal protection of the sites as national monuments.

The Kaya forests in Dakatcha host several coastal birds and mammals. They include Fischer’s Turaco, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, the Golden-rumped Sengi and others.

Rare plant in Kilifi is under threat from limestone mining

Coastal Kenya holds many secrets. Among them is the rocky outcrop of Cha Simba in Kilifi County, which shelters some of the world’s most iconic and rarest plants.

Hidden below the trees that cling to the rock outcrops is one of Africa’s most famous plants, the African violet, generally known as Saintpaulia. The plants at Cha Simba are now specifically classified as Streptocarpus ionanthus subspecies rupicola. This subspecies is found in the wild only in Kenya, nowhere else in the world.

“African violets are popular house plants. But only three populations of this subspecies are known in the wild, only in Kilifi, and all of them are in danger of extinction,” notes Dr Cornelius Kyalo, a botanist who has studied the genetics and ecology of the African violet at Cha Simba.

Thirty other plant species clinging to Cha Simba rocky outcrop are classified as threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

And now extinction is a real prospect! A mining company, Mashujaa Q&M PLC, is planning to mine the Cha Simba rock outcrop for limestone. The company and its Environmental and Social Impact Assessment submitted to National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) are apparently unaware of the unique natural heritage threatened by their project.

Every extinction is tragic. An African violet and the other Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable plants do not need to be sacrificed for a little cement.

“It is critical that Kenya is seen to meet its obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity,” says Paul Matiku, Director of Nature Kenya. “Under this convention, it is Kenya’s obligation to protect all globally threatened species that occur in Kenya. The proposed limestone mining will wipe out this subspecies.”

Nature Kenya is appealing to the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage, the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, the National Environment Management Authority and the County Government of Kilifi to stop this move to extinction!

Nature Kenya is also urging the government to place Cha Simba rock outcrop under official protection and requesting mining companies to avoid Coastal limestone outcrops with unique plant species.

Tales from the Wild: In Pursuit of the Sokoke Scops Owl

It was on a Friday, the last day of our community-led Sokoke Scops Owl survey, and my colleagues and I drove smoothly up the wide and well-surfaced Malindi-Tsavo East road towards Jilore. Our mission was to find a forest track and lay transects for the survey.

“Only three more transects to go,” I encouraged my colleagues.

We came to a stop adjacent to the famous Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, parked and locked up the vehicle. An electric fence separated us from the forest, so we crawled under. Once inside, we walked parallel to the fence, looking for a track.

After trekking for a while, we came to a clear track running deep into the forest. I, playing the role of supervisor this night, alerted the local forester of our presence and we ventured further inward, even as dusk was rapidly falling. Nothing could have prepared us for what was coming.

The Endangered Sokoke Scops Owl is one of six unique species of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. This diminutive owl is a habitat specialist. It has only been recorded in Cynometra webberi/Brachylaena huillensis forests and woodlands on the East African coast, from Dakatcha Woodland on Kenya’s north coast to the Usambara Mountains in north-eastern Tanzania.

Like the other 16 owl species found in Kenya, Sokoke Scops Owls, are predominantly nocturnal, active from dusk to dawn. Their large forward-facing eyes give them superior vision at night. This, combined with their sharp hearing, enable them to spot prey in darkness. Unlike other owls that feed on arthropods, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds, the Sokoke Scops Owl’s diet consists mainly of insects. Beetles and weevils are favorites. Grasshoppers, crickets, wasps, bees, and ants have also been identified as part of their diet.

Available data indicates that the owl’s population has remained relatively stable for the past 20 years or so.

However, the most recent data (an Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (ASFADA) survey) showed a southerly shift in the distribution of the bird’s population. Changing forest conditions in previously “preferred” habitat around Jilore and Komani were listed as probable causes.

Collecting data on the Sokoke Scops Owl is quite a daunting task. The surveys take months (November through to December), and take place at night (between 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.). Working in a forest filled with over 300 elephants is not for the faint-hearted. But to the citizen scientists or community volunteers that undertake the surveys, it is worth the risk posed by elephants to determine the status of the Sokoke Scops Owl. The volunteers involved include notable veteran guides Willy Kombe and ‘Mzee’ David Ngala, both of whom have been involved in countless research projects in this forest since 1990.

Survey teams are provided with equipment that includes data sheets, high-powered flashlights, GPS receivers, and machetes – all part of the daily routine. Every team comprises of three individuals each having a specialised task. There is an observer or owl whistler, a keen listener able to distinguish the Sokoke Scops Owl call from other forest sounds, which might be crickets, frogs, nightjars, bush babies, and other owl species. Next in line is a clerk or data recorder, followed by the navigator-cum-security officer tasked with reading the GPS and clearing the way for the other two.

Operations start just before dusk every day. Teams are assigned a starting point to a transect running along existing roads or old tracks, each for one kilometre. A supervisor coordinates the nightly effort and ensures the teams get to the forest and are dropped off at the right spots. Knowledge of the forest’s geography is important as a missed turn can lead to one getting lost.

Once a team is dropped off, a mark is made by cutting a twig (bush experience comes in handy). Each group makes marks to indicate the direction they have taken. There have been a few instances where groups have not marked their movement, sending the coordinating supervisor on a “wild goose drive” in the night.

On this night the fear of encountering elephants lingered in everyone’s mind, but nobody talked about it as we kept busy with our tasks. We were heading for our fifth stop when a thumping sound suddenly startled us. In the darkness, we could make out a silhouette of a charging elephant. Our survival instincts immediately kicked in. We dived into a nearby bush and lay listening as the elephant crushed trees along its path. Once again, we found ourselves crawling, only that this time, it was to save ourselves. Lucky for us, two spontaneous decisions we made paid off – the first was to move away from the road as we couldn’t outrun the elephant. Secondly, we stuck together. We remained on the ground motionless for two hours, before we attempted to head back to the road. Disoriented, we found ourselves going back in the wrong direction. Our GPS receiver had gone off. Somehow, after a long struggle we managed to get back to the vehicle. How we managed to escape with just a few bruises and only lost a pair of spectacles is a miracle.

This article first appeared in Issue 14, Kenya Birding magazine