Viewed from Ol-olchura Village after a night of heavy rains, the vast plains of the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve in Narok County, Kenya, are nothing short of breath-taking.
The warm morning sun and the glitter of morning dew against the backdrop of a group of morans (warriors) chatting beside a herd of cattle lazily chewing cud completes the mosaic of serenity.
“The Mara is beautiful, the vast plains awe visitors just like the smell of cow dung and milk. There are vast fields to graze, but that does not mean you can snore the night away, you have to keep vigil,” says Dickson Ole Kasoe, one of the locals.
Ol-olchura, is sandwiched between Maasai Mara to the west and the Nashulai and Mara Naboisho conservancies. And like many keeping watch over the herd, Ole Kasoe can tell the good and bad of being squeezed in the world-famous region. He is a herder and a freelance tour guide registered under the Maasai Mara tour guides association, which comprises over 2,000 local guides.
He knows the smell of blood from a sheep or cow mauled by a predator. He also knows how it feels to forego sleep to keep the predators away.
“It is a delicate balance," he says. "We survive on tourism because of the wildlife but then we are also pastoralists who entirely depend on our herds.”
While the rainy season might be a blessing for the Mara, in Ol-olchura it is a curse, one that converts the picturesque plans into killing fields for prey and predators.
Used to deadly effect
Predators turn to prey on cattle and pastoralists retaliate, lacing carcases with poison so that predators feed on them and die.
“In some instances, pastoralists can lose up to 200 sheep in one night and [see] up to three instances of attack in a week, driving the owners to resort to poisoning,” says Nelson Leseiyu.
The cascading effects from the poison not only kills lions, cheetahs and hyenas, but also the plains' undertakers: Vultures.
The poison, which can easily be found in agro vets, is just common insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, says Leseiyu. But their effect on the delicate ecosystem is devastating.
The lack of fences to separate the conservancies, reserves and villages in the wider Sekenani region, coupled with poorly-constructed traditional cattle sheds, only worsens the situation.
The herders say the bureaucracy of processing compensation for livestock killed by the predators of the Mara makes poisoning the easier option.
“In Sekenani, cases of human-wildlife conflicts are intense. In a month, I sign several compensation forms mostly on loss of livestock,” says Sekenani Chief Moses Ole Kasoi.
But the poison kills more than the predators it is meant to kill.
“A single [poisoned] carcass can kill up to 500 vultures,” he adds.
Vultures play a critical role in the expansive Mara ecosystem. They are the undertakers of the wilds, cleaning carcasses left to rot in the open plains that would become breeding grounds for infectious diseases.
Of the eight species of vultures in Kenya, four (White-backed, White-headed, Hooded and Rüppell’s) are critically endangered; two (Egyptian and Lappet-faced) are classified as endangered; one (Bearded Vulture) is near threatened; and the Palm Nut Vulture is classified as a species of least concern.
According to Darcy Ogada, a researcher at the Peregrine Fund, an international organisation that conserves threatened and endangered birds of prey, the biggest threat to vultures in Kenya is poisoning.
“In Kenya poisoning is mostly unintended and is as a result of retaliation against predators," she said. "When a pastoralist or farmer loses livestock to a predator they sometimes lace the remaining carcass with a highly toxic pesticide intended to kill the predator, but this almost always ends killing large numbers of vultures that typically discover the carcasses."
Ogada says that the vulture population has been steadily declining across the world, robbing mother nature one of her most effective scavengers; one that provides invaluable ecological, economic and cultural services in the wild.
“Most notably, vultures provide free and highly effective sanitation services. The vulture-governed cleaning service protects the health of humans, domesticated animals, and wildlife,” Ogada said.
Data from the African Wildlife Poisoning Database indicates that since the year 2000, 775 vulture deaths have been recorded in Kenya. The cases are likely underestimated, however.
“It is important to note that the poisoning incidents are based on where conservationists are working and are not representative of the situation in Kenya as a whole. There are also a serious underestimation of the numbers,” says Ogada.
Between 2000 and 2004 there was a steep rise in the number of vulture poisonings in Kenya. More than 180 cases were reported in 2004. Those numbers then fell drastically to slightly over 30 cases in 2005.
The cases of vulture poisoning again rose from 2007 to 2009. Between 2018 and this year, specifically, cases have been on the rise, with 80 cases recorded by March 2020.
According to Birdlife International, poisoning accounts for more than 60 per cent of recorded vulture deaths in Africa. Their populations have declined by up to 98 per cent.
In the last 20 years, Kenya has recorded 257 incidences of wildlife poisoning involving deaths of 8,172 individuals. Cases of wildlife poisoning have been most prevalent in Narok, Laikipia, Amboseli, Meru, Machakos, Makueni, Taita Taveta, Tana River, Lamu, Thika, Muranga and Usenge, among others.
Wildlife poisoning has also had devastating effects on the number of predators, including lions and cheetahs.
Michael Kaelo, community public relations manager at the Mara Predator Conservation Project (MPCP), said wildlife poisoning is increasingly becoming the greatest threat to the Mara ecosystem.
“Unlike other threats, a single poisoning incident can wipe [out] an entire pride of lions in a short span, something that can further wipe out hundreds of vultures if there is no rapid response,” he says.
The MPCP conducts research and collects vital data to assist in the survival and conservation of predators in the Mara. It also relies on intensive monitoring to flag poisoning hotspots.
In 2015, one of world’s most famous lion prides -- the Marsh Pride, which starred in Big Cat Diary -- died after eating the carcass of a cow laced with poison.
According to Nature Kenya, a conservation organisation with vulture projects in the Mara, cases of wildlife poisoning stem from rising cases of human-wildlife conflicts.
“We have been undertaking the vulture project in Mara for the past three years and we have witnessed the danger of lacing agro-chemicals on carcasses to kill the predators which in turn kill a lot of vultures within the ecosystem. This, in turn, exposes the local communities to the risk of infectious zoonotic diseases like anthrax because of the absence of scavengers,” says Rebecca Ikachoi, vulture liaison officer at Nature Kenya.
Maasai Mara's Chief Park Warden James Sindiyo concedes that the slow pace of compensation and open conservancies are driving up poisoning incidents.
“The challenge is that compensation takes longer, making people retaliate. Compensation is often done by the national government, however, to alleviate the long wait, most of the conservancies have come up with consolation schemes which they disburse to affected people as they wait for the government,” said Sindiyo.
According to the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act of 2013, wildlife poisoning is a crime punishable by a fine of 5 million shillings ($46,300) or a minimum of 5 years’ imprisonment.
Several initiatives have come up to save nature’s undertakers, as well as lions and cheetahs within the expansive ecosystem. These are currently taking root both in Mara and Laikipia.
One draws on teams of conservationists who traverse the expansive plains teaching villagers about the importance of vultures.
Benjamin Olengishu, is one of the 30 vulture volunteers in the Mara. His job is to talk to fellow community members about the dangers of poisoning.
"Some years back, there used to be so many vultures in Mara, but sadly their populations have really been reduced. It is not very easy to spot a vulture now," Olengishu said.
In his village, he gathers locals for meetings two to three times a month to explore alternative solutions to human-wildlife conflicts rather than using poison.
Along with Chief Ole Kasoi, Olengishu also visit markets and addresses local meetings outside his village. And he collects data on vulture deaths resulting from poisoning.
“It is not that we do not benefit from wildlife," Olengishu says. "In fact, we are the biggest beneficiaries, with women selling beadwork to tourists and most local youth [serving] as tour guides and working in hotels and conservancies within Mara. Narok, undeniably [benefits] from tourism and that is why it is important to conserve wildlife."
The vulture volunteers are part of an initiative by Nature Kenya to cultivate local ambassadors. They often team up with Maasai Mara Wildlife Ambassadors to further sensitise communities against poisoning of both predators and scavengers.
"We target the market days where we team up for some performance to attract crowds where we finally share the message on wildlife poisoning," Francis Muli, a Maasai Mara Wildlife Ambassador said.
According to Simon Makogha, a liaison officer with Nature Kenya in the Mara, the vulture volunteers have managed to conduct outreach at over 70 market events and more than 100 bazaars, with over 100,000 locals reached.
"Almost everyone in Mara now knows about poisoning. They know it is against the law and that there are alternative ways of addressing issues. Besides reaching out to grown-ups, we also have school outreach programmes," Makogha says.
Rebecca Ikachoi said both rangers, vulture volunteers and wildlife ambassadors in the Mara have also been trained on responding to poisoning cases so as to prevent a number of deaths. The rangers are provided with poison response kits that help secure the scene. The kits contain a sample bag, a tape to secure the site, gloves and sanitizers.
"Training rangers on rapid response has really helped save more lives that could have otherwise been lost. In January last year, Mara poisoning response teams rescued several vultures that could have otherwise died from the poisoning. The drill is to seal off the area and burn all the carcases while those that did not die can be treated," she said adding that the rangers are also trained to identify the type of poison used so as to flag the commonly used chemicals in poisoning.
Nature Kenya is also working with Kenya Wildlife Service and other stakeholders to develop a national document on poison protocol while also working with Narok County government to develop a tourism policy on a community consolation kitty, Ikachoi said.
In the Sekenani region, new projects to improve traditional cattle sheds are coming up. The predator-proof bomas (homes) are fast changing the script within an expansive landscape that has borne the brunt of intense human-wildlife conflicts. The bomas project is a partnership between Mara Predator Conservation Programme and Nature Kenya.
“We have already constructed five predator-proof bomas in areas where intense cases have been recorded. We use posts from recycled plastics and a chain link that makes it hard for predators to get in unlike the traditional bomas,” Ikachoi said.
Naramat Kasoe, a resident, said the predator-proof bomas have helped ease tensions in the area, noting that the pressure from straying predators has been reduced. It can be difficult to source materials for the bomas, however, making them expensive to construct.
The Mara Predator Conservation Programme has also initiated anti-poisoning campaigns since 2015.
Ogada from the Peregrine Fund said wildlife poisoning cases in the Mara are close to those in Laikipia, where pastoralists border conservancies. The latest incident in Laikipia involved 18 vultures that died after feeding on the suspected poisoned carcass of a camel poisoned to trap a lion.
In Laikipia, the Peregrine Fund is working with Lion Landscapes to raise awareness and conduct community co-existence training to reduce wildlife poisoning incidences. The training has seen 832 locals trained since 2018 and 424 conservancy rangers, policemen, prison warders, CID officers, KWS and KFs officers trained as specialists’ groups.
“We talk to communities on the importance of vultures for the ecosystem and how they are easily poisoned when people kill predators or dogs with poison. We show people what to look for if they suspect an animal has been poisoned, and how to safely dispose of poisoned carcasses. We also supply them with a Poisoning Kit to assist them to safely dispose of poisoned carcasses,” Ogada says.
These successful approaches of dealing with poisoning and addressing conflicts, she adds, can also be replicated in conservation areas bordering pastoral communities and in human-wildlife hotspots zones.
The fund has also been conducting research and monitoring vulture populations in northern Kenya since 2013, an initiative that has seen 28 vultures of three species tagged and since 2014.
“We also conduct aerial surveys to monitor three of the largest breeding colonies of Rüppell’s Vultures twice annually and we have done this for the past three years. We currently have one Kenyan Master’s student working to complete his degree on vulture movement in relation to poisoning incidents,” she added.
Statistics from the Peregrine Fund reveal that there has been a 40 per cent increase in the disposal of poisoned carcasses in Laikipia while 16 per cent of the locals reported a knowledge of safe pesticide use and 15 per cent reported a decrease in the use of pesticides.
“To date, there have been 350 predator-proof bomas built mostly around the wider Rumuruti area. This has dramatically reduced predator conflict,” she added.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network's East Africa Wildlife Journalism Project.
Banner image: A Maasai herder watches over his cattle at his homestead in Ol-olchura village bordering Maasai Mara National Reserve in Narok County, Kenya, on June 14, 2020 / Credit: Kipsang Joseph for The Standard.