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Vulture Catcher

Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 1)

In any field project, there is nothing more exhilarating, exhausting, and time-consuming than trapping animals. Vultures are no exception. Two and half busy weeks and I am still three vultures short. That said, it has been an amazing time and we have been able to put out 12 GSM-GPS units onto seven Ruppell’s vultures, three African white-backed vultures, and two Lappet-faced vultures. As usual, the Lappet-faced vultures continue to be the trickiest to trap. Not only are there fewer of them, but they prefer smaller carcasses (which are more difficult to trap at), they arrive late (which means you are more likely to catch someone else first), and they are a bit more shy. The key with Lappets is to find some really hungry, aggressive individual, but in and of itself that is rather tricky.

So how does one trap a vulture in the first place? The process is surprisingly simple. Step 1: Find a carcass, preferably with vultures on it. Step 2: Gently move the birds off using the car and put the trap down (the trap is just nooses that are attached to the carcass using parachute cord – it has to be strong after all). Step 3: Drive away and watch closely. Generally if you are going to catch one it will be fast. Usually within a few minutes, the birds are back squabbling over the meat and a few minutes after that and you’ll have one.

Once we get the bird the process is pretty straightforward. The first priority, if the trapped bird is of a species/age that we are looking for, we attach a GSM-GPS unit. These incredible little devices will allow us to follow the bird for up to a year – seeing everywhere it goes, how fast it travels, and even the altitude of its flight. Unlike satellite units, these newer devices use the cell phone coverage to transmit the data back to the user (i.e. me). So effectively I get text messages from all the tagged birds once a day. Next we take blood, primarily because we are interested in their immune system. How can an animal literally stick its head into and consume the rotting flesh of the another (who quite likely died of a disease itself) without every getting sick? This is the conundrum of the vulture and we are hoping that by studying their powerful immune systems we might gain some insights that could help treat or cure bacterial infections like anthrax and staph in the future. Then we release the bird. No drugs are used during the process, so you are dealing with a chirping 15 lb. bird that is fully awake for the fifteen to twenty minutes that it usually takes to get everything done. Fortunately I have had some great help – thanks to the likes of two Peregrine Fund employees (Evan and Matt), Keith Bildstein from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, my advisor Dan Rubenstein, various other unwitting volunteers, and of course my field assistant Jon.

So this is how it is supposed to work, but when you are working with animals you always have to be prepared for the unexpected. Given that we have now trapped over thirty vultures, there have invariably been some adventures. But I will save those for another blog.

Hippo to hippo

A full 180 degree grin
A full 180 degree grin

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Hippos have been one of my favorite animals for quite some time. I only get to see them occasionally since vultures usually aren’t near the water (although with all the drowning wildebeest that has changed). Going from Talek to the main crossing you have to go through “double crossing” which consists of two dips into the river in an odd turn. The first dip is fairly quiet, but the second is called stinky crossing – because of the hippos. Usually there are two sleeping in the water as your car leans sideways to cross the rocky bottom. But today when we reached stinky crossing, there was a car in waiting. Probably just tourists who hadn’t seen hippos yet, I figured.

When we neared the water I could see that two hippos were standing on the rocks about 50 m from the crossing. And they were fighting. One hippo opened its mouth, stretching its jaw to the full 180 degrees that it is capable off, it pressed its head against its contender and uttered a most unusual sound. Genuinely the only thing I know that was similar is the roar of the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park. I had never heard a hippo make that noise before. The sound continued as did the jaw opening until the darker and pink spotted male accepted defeat. He turned his back and walked away as the winner sprayed himself and a nearby bush with some dung.

The Crossing Continues

A crocodile lunges for its first wildebeest calf
A crocodile lunges for its first wildebeest calf

We watched the crossing again today and what a crossing it was. After counting nearly four hundred vultures at the main crossing we headed down to one of the trickier crossings. As before, the shore was lined with dead wildebeest and the vultures were feasting. The wildebeest were stacked into a few rock crevices across the river as if they had been wedged in while trying to reach the other side. Their bodies now ripe from the sun were finally being broken into by the vultures. The stench was overwhelming. Meanwhile, vultures waiting their turn lay wet and cold on the riverbank across the way, probably from earlier attempts to eat the floating corpses. As the sun rose over the valley, the birds stretched out their long wings and absorbed the warmth. The wings spread like beach umbrellas gave the riverside a look not so unlike that of the Jersey shore.

Meanwhile the cars were lining up. The wildebeest though nervous had been eyeing the green grass across the way for a while now. Their strange calls were reaching their peak as they planned their movements. Suddenly the first wildebeest rushed the water. At first it seemed more interested in getting a drink then in crossing, but as hordes of the black beasts lined up behind him, he had no choice. Looking across the way this seemed a rather treacherous place to cross – most of the alternative shore was lined with cliffs and dead bodies. Oddly the bodies seemed to attract the wildebeest rather than acting as a warning and as thousand pushed forward, they stepped onto their fallen comrades in a desperate effort to reach the top. Some struggled and made it, while others crashed down onto the crowd.

As the access points out of the water and the way back to the opposite shore filled, it became clear how so many animals had drown. The river wasn’t particularly deep or wide. Certainly the water rose high enough that the wildebeest had to swim and there was a bit of a current, but I had been having a hard time imagining how anything could drown here. As the wildebeest piled together like sardines in a tin, some were pushed beneath the water. They would struggle to move, but there was nowhere to go – neither forward or backward. Instead they sunk. Their heads slipped below the crowd and these unfortunate animals soon found themselves floating downstream. A few stretched their noses, even lifting their upper lip, in vain efforts to get a bit more air, but exhausted and probably wounded from the stampede, they soon dipped below the surface. You knew an animal had died when its horns rather than its mouth were all you could see.

Fifteen or so wildebeest met this untimely death as the others marched onwards and upwards, gradually clearing the cliffs. A few found an easier crossing upstream, but the majority seemed determined to take the steepest route. One fell and landed on its back among the rocks. It wasn’t until the crossing was nearly over that we noticed it struggling. When simple kicking didn’t work, it took to immense flailing and slammed its head repeatedly into the rock behind it as it tried to lift itself. Whack, whack, whack, but in the end it remained on its back. A few calves also turned out to be stragglers and stood on the rocks beneath the cliff unable to go up and unwilling to go back. This was when the crocodile moved into the water.

The crocodile crept towards three calves who were wedged against the riverbank – standing but still very much in the water. The reptile crept in and soon lay a few feet from the calves. After a brief stare down where the calf looked its killer in the eyes, the crocodile leaped out and grabbed the little guy behind the neck. Under and done for he was in just a few minutes. After drowning his prey, the crocodile moved to the other side and left the carcass. He then returned for one of the remaining calves. This one made a leap for it, but still found its rear leg in the jaws of the predator. The crocodile slowly eased the calf into the water, where it struggled to swim with three legs and a dead-weight. The croc made vague attempts to pull the calf under, but someone the yearling kept its nose above the water. As the crocodile neared its resting spot, where it had left its last victim, the calf struggled and eventually found itself standing on the shore – crocodile still attached. Meanwhile with another great Whack, the adult across the river had finally righted itself and stood unsure whether to proceed forward or return. It was about that time that the crocodile decided it had had enough fun for one day and released the calf. The survivor limped onto the shore – “Hyena food” said my field assistant, John.

As the crossing ended, everything reset itself. The crocodile moved back onto shore for another nap, the vultures returned to feeding, and the wildebeest stood noisily undecided besides the tourist vehicles.

Two distant kills

It is amazing what you can find even when you aren’t really looking. On our drive to set up some sheep meat for another carcass observation we passed not one but two kills. The first was more of a massacre than a kill. Over forty hyenas were prowling around, several with blood soaked faces, so we knew something was up. We followed the cries of a few Tawny eagles to the site of the actual kills. Almost fifteen hyenas, many of them still cubs, crowded around what presumably was once a wildebeest. Honestly though there wasn’t even enough left to know that for sure. When hyenas make a kill, the meat goes fast. Though a few vultures had gathered I highly doubt that got anything.

The next kill was a bit more of a disruption. Right where we had planned to put a carcass for the day, lay a pride of 11 lions. Two big males, three females, and six tiny cubs crowded around the remains of yet another unfortunate migrating wildebeest. Having started first, the males were soon full and wandered off to search for some water and shade. After a while the larger lioness decided to move the cubs off and she too walked away a small progression of fluff and fuzz following at her footsteps. When only one lion remained, the scavengers began to move in. A few jackals raced at the meat, wearily grabbing a piece now and then before jumping back at the lioness’ glare. Then the vultures crowded around. Too scared to approach, but ready for whatever opportunity might arise.

For our part, it was time to get back to work. So we found a new spot, not too far away, and set out our small pile of sheep meat. I wasn’t too sure what would happen with the lion kill so close, but figured it was worth seeing. For nearly an hour it was slow. A Bateleur circled but seemed to know better than to land with so many vultures around. Thirty more minutes and the Bateleur changed its mind. Landing gracefully at the carcass it attracted the attention of not one but two Tawny eagles, who further attracted the horde of African white-back vultures that had gathered around the lion kill. Within minutes, the entire army that had gathered by the wildebeest was devouring the sheep meat. Only the jackals decided to wait around for the lion to leave and even they soon turned up at the small carcass just in time to nibble away at the bones and skull that remained. Then it was back to the lion kill, which proved much more fruitful for the jackals who ate what little was left as the hungry vultures looked on.

Lappet Attack!

Two Lappet-faced vultures attack a third

I was watching some vultures at a carcass as I so often do, when three birds broke off into a separate group. Two Lappet-faced vultures had been feeding on the head of a carcass for about thirty minutes when a new pair of Lappets arrived. There wasn’t much left and both feeding Lappets moved off the carcass and flew away without any confrontation. One of the Lappets that had been feeding landed about fifty meters away from the carcass.

Vultures fight a lot, but what occurred next wasn’t a normal fight. Most fights in the animal world are designed to be competitions. In a contest, opponents show what they have, but they aren’t really trying to hurt each other. Once the bigger, better contestant becomes obvious the smaller ones just move out of the way. That’s not what these three birds were doing. All three were Lappet-faced vultures – my favorite. From a distance, I could just see that the pair of Lappets had the other one pinned and appeared to be pecking at it. When I drove closer, we found that the Lappet’s face had been badly pecked and one of its eyes looked nearly destroyed. One Lappet continued to peck at its face while the other attacker held the Lappet down and took pecks at its chest. After several minutes, the Lappet was able to escape and though pursued was able to hide in some tall grass. The attacking Lappets then returned to the carcass. About a half hour later, the Lappet that had been attacked was able to take off and quickly caught a thermal. The other two Lappets followed it but at a distance and all three quickly disappeared from view as they flew off.

The Action

This time of year everyone knows the action is by the river. With thousands of wildebeest and zebra crossing Mara river every few days there are sure to be some casualties. Some animals will drown in the rushing water, some will be trampled in the mad rush of the crossing, and some might even fall from the steep riverbanks as their comrades urge them forward. That’s not what people come here to see though. On the top of every tourists list is watching a wildebeest or zebra be consumed by a crocodile. With crocodiles longer than a giraffe is tall, this is the time of year to see what these prehistoric beasts are really made of.

The crossing also offers amble opportunity to see vultures – sometimes at least. So that seemed a good enough excuse to head over there this afternoon after a successful carcass watch and transect this morning. When we reached the water’s edge I was impressed first by the giant crocodile who was basking in the sun. Easily 16 feet and perhaps four feet wide, he was quite possibly the largest reptile I had ever seen. There were two other things that caught my eye when I reached the river. First, a large herd of zebra had gathered on the banks and were calling to their friends on the other side. Perhaps our timing was good and we would get to see them cross. Second, there were some large black rocks that seemed to be floating down the river. When I looked through the binoculars, it appeared that some of the rocks had horns and as the water washed them into other real rocks, hooves were pushed above the surface. The river was literally teeming with dead wildebeest. Bloated and soaked they drifted around like logs, but the reality was much more disturbing. Over thirty wildebeest had drown during the crossing that morning.

Soon a new crossing was beginning as several hundred zebra took to the water. The line was thin at first with just a few animals starting everyone off, but soon the whole herd had decided to join in. A few crocodiles drifted back into the water and moved towards the herd. I readied my camera. The zebras seemed aware of the crocodiles, but especially in their large numbers they didn’t seemed to concerned. For their part, the crocs didn’t seem to hungry. The zebras stopped to drink and splashed through the water as they made their way across, but the crocodiles kept their distance. Distracted by the floating wildebeest corpses they clearly had plenty to eat already.

When the crossing had finished we moved up stream to a small group of hippos. The wildebeest floated among the group, but only a few took interest. Although hippos have an almost completely vegetarian diet, they have been known to make exceptions. So I wasn’t totally surprised, when a hippo started chomping on the passing wildebeest. It didn’t seem to have a great strategy, so most of its biting just seemed to push the dead wildebeest downstream rather than break them apart, but still the hippo tried again and again. He nibbled away at the head, legs, and tails of the floating bodies, but never quite got a bite. Still it was fascinating to watch.

When we finally returned to the crocodiles, they were starting to show greater interest in the easy prey. Five or six huge guys gathered around a single dead wildebeest and the rolling began. With great effort, the crocs pulled the wildebeest limp from limp. Nearby a well-fed pair of crocs appeared to have something else on their mind. Coiled around each other rather ackwardly, their tails tightly intertwined it was clear what they were doing even though the female was mostly submerged. They were mating. They bobbed up and down in the water in unison for a few moments before finally dislodging. Then it was back to the shore for a nice sunbathe.

The only thing missing from the river experience was vultures – hard to believe given all the food. The only raptor we saw was a young African fish eagle. Transitioning from juvenile to adult, he had a strange pattern around his face and had watched on through the crocodiles munching. Perhaps tomorrow the scavengers would find this smorgasbord of carcasses.

Heading home

Sitting in Nairobi as I prepare for my flight back to the US, I can hardly believe it has been three months. The Mara and its vultures have once again kept me busy with too much to see and do. I already miss the rolling hills, expansive plains, and forested rivers that have surrounded me throughout the stay. I miss the cries of the African white-backed vultures, the gentle chirp of the massive Lappet-faced vultures, and the giggles of the hyenas that have come to steal the vultures’ find.
The next few months I will watch the birds from afar, following their movements using the GSM-GPS transmitters that have been attached and reliving their interactions through my notes, photos, and videos taken during the carcass observations. I hope to make some sense out of all that I have seen and out of what is now nearly a full year of movement data from the first 14 birds. At the end we should have a more complete understanding of the impacts that the human-induced landscape changes are having on these important scavenger species, not just in and around Masai Mara National Reserve but throughout the species wide ranges which take them from the open plains of Serengeti and the misty crater of Ngorogoro to arid Laikipia whistling thorn acacia fields and flowing rivers of Masai Mara.
I plan to return in July to see the vultures at their peak as the wildbeest migration floods the Mara ecosystem. It will be a different world. It should be exciting to see the skies teaming with the black vulture silhouettes and the ground writhing with fighting scavengers.

In any case, I am now home. Thanks for following my blog and hope to see all of you soon! I will be returning to the field in mid July so until then I probably won’t be posting too many new blogs. Thanks for following along with my adventures.

Vulture workshop

I have always felt that education and community involvement are essential for effective conservation. Today I got to do both as we held the second Vulture Workshop in Masai Mara National Reserve. The turnout was amazing – teachers from each of the local schools, leaders for the various conservancies that have been created to try and stave off habitat destruction around the reserve, Kenya Wildlife Service representatives, community outreach workers, researchers from Michigan State University’s Mara Hyena Project, guides from some of the larger lodges, game wardens from Mara Triangle Conservancy and Narok County Council, community liasons and chiefs from the two neighboring community areas that I have been working in, researchers from the National Museum of Kenya and photographers to record the entire event. Over 65 attendees in total!
I felt a swell of pride as we all sat and listened to lectures about the animals I had been watching so intently for the last few months: Vultures. Everyone seemed absorbed in the stories of why we need vultures, why we are losing them, and what we need to do to save them.
It was fascinating to see the history of The Vulture Research Project unfold and I felt honored to be its newest contributor. It all started with Paul Kirui, a one-of-a-kind tour guide, who took an interest in the vultures nearly fifteen years ago and started recording numbers at different carcasses. His work laid the foundation for what would come as he invited Munir Virani and Simon Thomsett from The Peregerine Fund, to join him in the Mara. Paul had been fascinated by the fluctuations in vulture numbers that occur in the Mara throughout the year and his keen initial observations are now the basis for a scientific publication and have helped lay the path for much of the work that I am conducting. Then came the invaluable contribution of Munir and Simon who’s transects have established the level of vulture declines occurring in and around Masai Mara National Reserve. Their work really confirms that there is a problem and we have to do something about it.
When it was finally my turn to present the results from the movement and behavior study, I felt my usual public speaking fear melt away as my excitement at this unique opportunity to give a more complete explanation of what I had been doing and all that I had learned to this important group of stakeholders. I began by briefly reminding everyone how important vultures are for disease control and waste removal and emphasized once more (as had been done throughout the workshop) of how devastating the poisoning of carcasses had been on vultures. Then I presented my findings. The reaction was amazing – one of excitement, curiosity, and a sort of awe – both at all I had done in this last two years and at the amazing behavior of vultures. How can you not be impressed by a bird that can travel over 250 km in a day at speeds over 100 km/hr, while using a home range of over 100,000 km2? A species that can find a carcass to quickly that they seem to just pour from the sky when the first bird lands?
Afterward, there were so many questions and many people stopped to chat with me after the talk was over. Two years into my PhD and for the first time I felt like a real scientist – like a real conservationist. I also felt the more familiar joy of being an educator and was so pleased to have shared this information with the local community.
The afternoon was spent debating the best ways forward as we broke into three groups to discuss avenues for improvement in research, education, and policy that might aid in vulture conservation. People really put their heads together and it was nice to see all the lively discussion unfold.
When it was finally over I felt drained but pleased. What better way to end three months in the field, then to share a little bit of what I had discovered (even if the results really were just the head of the hippo).

The Last Bird

Ann, the African white-backed vulture preparing for her release
Ann, the African white-backed vulture preparing for her release

So with only a Tawny eagle to show for our efforts after three long days of trapping, we still had work to do. We had a test unit that needed to get deployed, so I could decide which units we would be using during our July trapping session. We really needed one more bird.

We had found the ultimate trapping spot – a quite cove surrounded by a small river with trees protecting it, making it difficult for mammalian scavenger to tell if a vulture was landing on a nest or on the ground. We had tried it a few times before and despite a great turn out of vultures had been unable to snag one. Today we would give it one last go before giving up and moving somewhere else.

At 8 o’clock we dropped the meat and set up the nooses. Then we waited. The first birds to arrive were more Tawny eagles. They stepped carefully around the nooses, aware they were there but unconcerned. Their feet are tiny compared to a vultures, so the nooses generally shouldn’t catch them, but in trapping there are no guarantees. My heart was racing as three African white-backed vultures came zooming onto the meat. They dropped from the sky with such speed that you could hear their wings against the wind, like tiny jet airplanes. The odds were slowly shifting in our favor. More African white-backed vultures landed and slowly the squabbling started. As birds jumped around I could see the black loops we had set out slip over and off their feet. We just needed one to stick. Then with an angry screech as one vulture attacked another, they all jumped off the meat. Everyone moved a few feet away except for one bird. He seemed confused, hadn’t he jumped just like the others. We got one!

We drove up and I nearly tripped as I came tumbling from the moving vehicle. The bird was quickly in hand and we put on the new unit, took some blood, and attached a wing tag. Kasine, who had joined us for the day, named the bird Ann after his girlfriend.

The bird was surprisingly mellow, especially for an African white-backed vulture, and only vomited slightly. Our scale showed the bird to be about 5.5 kg (nearly 11 lbs) – not bad for such a long distance mover. When all our work was through, the bird was ready for release. My heart was still in my throat from the adrenaline rush of the catch. I grasped the bird tightly around the neck and feet as I prepared for release. In my first vulture release, I had been terrified that the bird would turn around and come after me, but I knew better now. I set the bird down, releasing the feet first and then the head. With great effort (as always), the vulture ran forward and leapt into the air, wings flapping hard to lift its heavy body. Within moments the bird was airborne and off to its next adventure. Where would the bird go next? With the unit attached, we would know in a few hours.

Eagles versus Vultures

Trapping vultures is hard. It takes almost as much patience as watching vultures. After our amazing day of two birds at once, we had three days of nothing. We caught one Tawny eagle, which was interesting, but not quite what we were going for. The Tawny managed to snag itself on one of the nooses just as ten vultures were feasting around it – what are the odds? We quickly drove up to grab it. I carefully secured both feet before removing the noose. Wilson, who up until this point had only ever handled vultures, went to secure the head. He sort of pinned the bird to the ground. I quickly explained that with this bird we really didn’t need to worry about that end.

You see when it comes to defense vultures and eagles are polar opposites. Vultures use their beaks – designed to quickly rip bone from flesh and with a long snake-like neck that is difficult to control – these are formidable weapons. The vulture’s talons on the other hand are incredibly blunt. All that walking around on the ground and they have basically filed their nails down. The talons are still impressively large, but they aren’t really sharp, so you don’t have to worry about them grabbing onto you with their feet. Alternatively the talons on an eagle are not only sharp, they are also strong. Designed to kill, crush, and carry small prey, the talons can do some serious damage in just one grab. Having been “taloned” by a red tailed hawk that we were trying to rehabilitate at the Cornell Wildlife Center, I can tell you it isn’t fun. The talons go right into your skin like tiny razor blades and can go all the way through your arm if you are particularly unlucky. In my case, the talons went in and out quickly which was fortunate as occasionally the birds can hold on.

In any case, what this all means is the handling techniques for vultures and eagles are totally different. With a vulture we carefully secure the head first and foremost and can worry about the feet later. With an eagle, you want to have a good hold of the talons before you do anything else. Then (as was to Wilson’s amazement) you can calmly hold the bird against your chest (feet secured with one hand) and occasionally can even have the beak of the bird resting against your arm with no trouble.

An eagle release is also a bit more dramatic as you can actually toss the bird up and let it take flight.