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Another one bites the dust

Another year, another set of birds. During our first year using GSM-GPS telemetry we were able to tag 14 vultures. The GSM-GPS units allowed us to followt the vultures for nearly a year, learning valuable information about the areas they use, the speeds and altitudes at which they travel, and sadly the places where they are dying.

This year we have attached an additional 18 units and are continuing to follow the vultures. In September, I returned to Princeton University to teach and analyze data (the other side of science). Fortunately with the GSM capacity, I am able to download the data from the birds and continue to watch the tagged vultures fly across the great African plains. It is always miraculous to watch them from afar, imagining the beautiful landscape that the birds still travel over.

Watching from a distance is a great luxury, but it can also be a frustrating process. At the beginning of September we lost another bird, our first tagged Ruppell’s vulture mortality. At my current distance, there is little I can do to determine what has gone wrong, but I’m fortunate to have the help of people in Kenya like Munir Virani and Paul Kirui. The first week of October, Munir Virani was able to pick up the deceased bird and while the cause of death remains unknown, we were at the very least able to recover the unit. As in some of the previous cases, the location of the death suggest poisoning, but we won’t really know for sure until the samples come back from the lab.

One last adventure

Though the wildebeest have started crossing again (and drowning as well), I still find myself leaving the Mara. My third field season has come to end. It is always amazing to be here in this time of plenty – plenty of wildebeest, plenty of predators, and plenty of vultures. There has been so much to see and it has certainly been a busy field season. So with my data gathered and my birds tagged, it is time to head home to the other rather overlooked portion of scientific research – the analysis. So I will return to my university to teach and to analyze. The Mara and the vultures will still be present as I watch them through my own descriptions of their behavior and through the blinking blue dots (which represent the current position of each tagged bird) that I will now follow across the East African plains over the next year. When I write to you next, it will be to describe those movements – so that we can all follow these amazing birds as they have their own adventures.

Before leaving I went for one final adventure of my own – to visit the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi. This center cares for young elephants and rhinos that have been orphaned due to natural causes or, and much more often, anthropogenic causes, especially poaching and human-wildlife conflict. The little elephants will eventually be reintroduced to Tsavo National Park where they will join a pre-existing elephant herd. In the sanctuary, tourists look on, protected by a small rope, as the little elephants take mud baths, drink water, and kick around a soccer ball. Some elephants are a bit more athletic than others and we watched one has he managed to kick the ball using each of his four feet with nearly equal dexterity to move the ball around himself and his playmates. He even lined the ball up to kick it backwards using one of his back feet, showing an awareness of what was behind him that I really wouldn’t have expected given his bulk. Other elephants were a bit more naughty and one poured out a huge tank of water, scattering the crowd of onlookers, who moved back to avoid the rushing muddy water. The little elephant then rushed towards us, only to slip and fall in the muddy mess of his own creation. Most of the elephants seemed more interested in each other than anything else, as they touched, ran around, and even sat on their playmates. Their love of the mud and dirt was clear and every single elephant made sure to thoroughly cover itself in the red soil before racing off with its human caretakers. When a second small herd of orphans was brought out it was immediately clear who the matriarch was. One elephant stood head and shoulders above the rest and her flared ears made it clear that she planned to protect the group from any intruders. When a small family of warthogs started to eye the mud pool, the “mother” elephant, though still an infant herself, chased the tiny pigs away, trumpeting as she raced after them.

The surrogate mothers, a group of hard-working Kenyans that would stay with the baby elephants until they were ready to join a real herd, told the stories of each elephant as we watched them play. Some had fallen into wells; some had lost their mothers to poachers. Most were from Tsavo, but I was particularly touched by the story of a little elephant who had come from the Mara – just north of the Mara in fact in Olare Orok Conservancy an area I have come to know well. Her mother was found paralyzed by a bullet and the little elephant had been watching on, urging her mother to action but unable to move the fallen parent. While there was little to be done for the mother, they had been able to rescue the baby, who stood before me now, sucking up a trunkful of water, which she promptly emptied into her mouth. Baby elephants are not easy to raise and I tried to imagine the amount of time, effort, and money that must be necessary for the orphanage to be run. Though many of the orphans would die in the first few months – mainly from traumas both physical and psychological suffered before their arrival, so far the orphanage has been able to release all of the survivors, something few reintroduction programs could claim. Needless to say, I was moved and impressed, though I wondered if there would ever come a day when the actual threats that made such a place necessary would be solved.

I wish I could say this was my final adventure, but every time I leave the field there always has to be one last disaster before I can go home. Last year, the oil seals on my car broke and my credit card got canceled, the year before that I was stopped by a highway patrol who claimed I had been speeding, but ended up just begging for money, and this year I had awoke on my final day to find my vision blurred in one eye. The skin around my eye had swollen considerably and now drooped blocking my sight. I could feel a round mosquito bite popping up on my forehead and I wondered if it wasn’t a second bite that had caused the swelling. A few heat compresses later and the swelling had gone down – minor discomfort alleviated. Though minor, I was hoping this would count as my disaster for the season. But when I reached the airport, I realized there was more.

Airports are a great place for people watching. A melting pot in of themselves, you never know who or what you will see, though admittedly behavior is generally fairly controlled given the security. When I had entered the waiting room for my flight, I had noticed an African woman dressed in formal Indian wear – bright yellow pants, green top, and sachet included. Her accent and look suggested she was West African, so certainly the clothes seemed a bit out of place, but I didn’t really think much of it until I realized she had moved over to kneel next to my chair. I was watching a DVD as we waited, headphones in and she seemed to be more interested in my Scrubs episode, then in the WWF wrestling that the airport had oddly decided to show on the public TV. As she moved closer, she said something incomprehensible to me and indicated that indeed she wanted to watch. I angled the screen in her direction.

For several minutes, she sat calmly and quietly and then she took off her rather tattered high heels and started ripping them apart. The white shoes had a band that went around the heel and over the foot, which had started to sag with wear. She tore away at this piece of the shoe, turning the heels into a sort of flip-flop with only the part around the toes remaining. As she did this, she occasionally babbled, possibly in French, and rather loudly and others were soon watching her. I stared at the other guests with a knowing look as if to say, “yes this woman’s behavior is a bit odd, isn’t it? But let’s not stare.” So I returned to watching my show, only to find that the woman was now raising her arm and counting with her fingers over and over again – one, two, three fingers up and then again. She stared talking again and was soon on her feet in a full on dance. With no shoes and the sachet as a prop, she went into an elaborate West African dance (one that I think I might have learned in a dance class I took at Columbia, while singing a West African song that I think I might own). She stomped her feet and vibrated her body and then went on to slap her own butt as she loudly screamed in her strange dialect. The dancing would go on for a few minutes, before she would tire and return to sitting calmly. Then it would start again – more elaborate then the last time with more yelling and occasionally even rolling on the floor. When she stood up, this time very near another rather frightened looking family of three, there was drool running from her large lips and she let it drop to the ground as she stared at the little group, pointing and yelling.

Whether drunk or mentally handicapped I wasn’t sure (though the crowd seemed to be guessing drunk) but her behavior had definitely crossed the line from slightly odd to belligerent. She opened the boarding room door, letting herself in to the next room, which lead onto the platform of the plane. This clearly seemed a violation of airport security, and we now looked for someone with some authority to come forward and do something. A squat Kenyan security guard, armed with a radio, walked up and tried to ask the woman to leave. She clearly didn’t understand him, so he grabbed her bags and began walking away. She raced over to him, slapping his hands away from the handle of her largest bag and grabbing out what at first appeared to be an enormous lighter. When I finally realized it was a perfume bottle, I wondered if she would spray it in his face. Instead she stepped a few feet back and threw the glass bottle, pieces of the plastic lid (but luckily no glass) scattered at the feet of other passengers waiting nearby. At this the security guard left the bag and walked away, leaving the 200 passengers alone with this mad woman.

With no aid in sight, people were now switching seats to get away from her and the front row of chairs had soon cleared. She took this as a sign that it was time to rearrange the furniture. She grabbed a set of four chairs – all connected to each other with a metal bar though not secured to the floor, and dragged them into the new room which was apparently to be her new dance studio. When she went for the next row of seats, in which one man was still sitting, she had to tilt the chairs forward to empty them of their final occupant. When this didn’t work, she tapped the guy on the shoulders indicating that he should leave. Three new security people had appeared but seemed unsure of what to do as they tried to reason with the woman. When she bared her rather large white teeth, they backed off.

The crowd was starting to get agitated as we all looked back in the direction of the other security guards, who seemed as unsure of what to do as the rest of us. When the woman moved back into her separate room, someone moved forward to close one of the doors, but it was clear that this wouldn’t contain her. She was soon back yelling at us all, pointing and stomping, with occasional breaks for some singing and ass slapping. At one point she started to lift her shirt, revealing a large birthmark, and I began to wonder what sort of dancing profession she had been in. Perhaps thirty minutes had passed since the odd behaviors had begun and it was becoming unclear if anything was going to be done to control her. Finally two more official looking security guards appeared, one with a hat even and they moved in on the dancing lady. She once again bared her teeth and tried to kick at them, but with four large men now standing around her there wasn’t too much she could do. They pinned her to the ground, rather unprofessionally, and put handcuffs on her – though in front of her, rather than behind her back like one might see in the movies. She lay there wailing and again the security seemed unsure what to do. Finally the unlocked one of the emergency exits and carried her and her luggage out.

The whole episode seemed like an odd dream and I would had to pinch myself had it not been for the lack of vultures in the scene (almost every dream I’ve had in the last two months has included at least one Lappet-faced). In all the commotion, I had completely lost track of time. But with the lady removed, one of the security guards moved to the doors and quietly announced, “you can board now.” It hadn’t dawned on me until that point when I looked at my watch and realized not a single announcement about the flight had been made in the last hour and indeed we were supposed to start boarding about thirty minutes ago. We had been waiting because of her.

The obstacle removed there was a mad dash to the little room and onto the platform. There were sighs of relief from the crowd and someone pointed out that we should all be grateful that the scene had occurred before we got on the plane. Personally, I was just wondering what would have happened if there had been a real emergency, a genuinely dangerous or violent person. The security had been a little less than effective to say the least. In any case, the flight went on with out a hitch and I have made it to Paris where I await the final of leg of my journey home.

The Last Bird

With three units to go and not too much longer in Kenya, I was starting to get nervous. Would we be able to catch all the birds in time? I had my hopes set on one more Lappet (at least), one more adult African white-backed vulture, and perhaps another juvenile Ruppell’s. For this last set of trapping I was to work with a Ugandan student who wanted to learn how to trap vultures. Hoping to begin a large research project (possibly the makings of his PhD) on Lappet-faced vultures, Richard wanted to know how to trap, handle, attach units, and draw blood from these majestic birds. I had explained to Richard that Lappet-faced vultures could be quite difficult to catch and that I couldn’t guarantee we would get one during his stay, given my ever-tightening schedule. I was soon eating my words.

The first morning out we were finding carcass just not with the birds we wanted. We would drive up the fighting masses of birds only to find that it was almost all adult Ruppell’s vultures and juvenile white-backs, exactly the birds we didn’t need to catch (since we had already put several units on them). I was starting to loss hope when 10:30 rolled around and we had even set a trap yet. Then we happened upon a very small carcass – little remained of the wildebeest calf with its head ripped open previously (most likely by a hyena) and just a bit of fur. But the Lappet-faced vulture pair had stayed on the ground as we set the trap and had been eating furiously before we disturbed them so I was hopeful. Another 15 minutes went by and the Lappets took off and relanded on the kill. Within minutes they were feeding. When one jumped back but didn’t go too far, it certainly looked like we had trapped it, but I couldn’t believe it. It was never this easy. We drove up cautiously just in case our eyes deceived us, after all the bird certainly didn’t seem concerned. Sure enough a noose was secured to its foot and I was soon racing around getting all the materials out so we could attach the unit to the bird. A beautiful adult, part of a pair, the animal stayed calm as we attached the unit and took some blood. Even as we released it I couldn’t stop smiling. We had managed a Lappet-faced vulture on Richard’s first day.

An adult white-backed vulture proved particularly elusive – possibly due to the large declines but possibly due to their ability to find the carcasses quickly and get full early. On our third day (of this third round of trapping), we managed a juvenile Ruppell’s to which we attached the second to last unit and on the fourth we caught four birds at once. Nearly one of each combination – a juvenile Ruppell’s, adult Ruppells, juvenile white-backed, and finally an adult white backed. We let the others go and attached the final unit to the adult bird. I felt a ting of sadness and relief as we let the last one go. With no more units planned for this project, I wondered how long it would be until I handled another vulture.

Richard releases our last vulture, an adult African white-backed vulture
Richard releases our last vulture, an adult African white-backed vulture

Lions who Act like Tigers

Anyone who owns a cat knows that most felines don’t like water. The tiger is perhaps the one exception – famous for its love of swimming. Lions on the other hand are generally known to avoid water. So most of the time when you see them near a river or small pool of water they are looking for a drink and nothing more. That’s why I was incredibly surprised to see not one but four female lions playing in the Talek river. The cats began by chasing each other around. Hiding in the bushes only to leap out and run full speed into the glistening river as they grappled at their pridemates. With all the raucous you’d imagine tht most animals would be aware of the danger nearby, yet all the noise didn’t stop two foolish Egyptian geese. As the four lions had moved off onto alternate sides of the bank, the geese landed in the middle only to notice an enormous female lion jumping from the bushes directly at them. It wasn’t much of a chase and the geese were soon airborne as the lions went back to playing with each other.

After their romp, the lions eventually moved back up the bank for a rest and clean. As one lion went to roll over, she nearly fell through a small crevice in the bank. She grabbed at the dirt with her claws and eventually was able to right herself, but I had never seen such clumsy behavior from an adult lion.

 Lions play by the riverside
Lions play by the riverside

Small visitors

Toad and cricket, moments before the cricket vanishing act
Toad and cricket, moments before the cricket vanishing act

I’ve become accustom to a small visitor in my bathroom. Every night a small toad appears. He works hard, eating the crickets that have also weaseled their way into my tent while I brush my teeth. Occasionally I rig things a bit, urging the crickets in the toad’s direction. He seems to appreciate the favor and is willing to eat even with me nearby. I can always tell when he has eaten since a loud smack precedes each attack as his tongue comes snapping out and in.

For a while I wondered how he was getting in, then yesterday I got my answer. The shower drain isn’t so much of a drain as it is a hole in the tent, even the sink water is simply filtered towards the hole with a small hose. Last night as I took my shower I happened to peak down and see the tiny face of a toad trying to squeeze through. He seemed a bit unnerved by the shower water pouring down on him and I worried a bit about his soap exposure. He left, but returned soon after I finished to sit in the remaining water on the tiles and begin his nightly ritual of hunting crickets.

It seems that my tent has become a popular toad hangout as last night I discovered not one but two toads. The word must be getting out.


Lionness gently carrying her cub
Lionness gently carrying her cub

It is unusual to see a lion running. So we stopped. The lioness was on the road with no animals in front of her, so it clearly wasn’t a hunt. So why was she running? Her speed seemed one of urgency and determination, though she would jog along and then slow back to the more typical concerted steps of a lion. Eventually she found herself next to a small bush. As she approached I noticed that there was a near-lion sized hole in the branches surround the base of the little tree. When the lion arrived she squeezed herself in between the limbs and twigs of the plant and through the bramble I could see the yellow fur of another lion – a small one. Within seconds, the lioness had picked something up turned around and emerged from the small hole. In her mouth was a tiny cub. It looked so uncomfortable and unhappy to be in her mouth, but it didn’t make a sound. It just hung limp in her gentle grip with its eyes squinted shut. The lioness wandered off stopping occasionally to readjust her grip on this tiny treasure. She seemed exhausted for her efforts, struggling to breathe with this ball of fuzz in between her lips. Nonetheless she continued her hurried pace with little jogging spurts in between her walks – all the time with the cub’s body swaying beneath her.

A lion cub was to be the first of the elusive cats for the day – a spotted cat was next, though not the one you think. We drove up to the serval with great excitement and camera ready. I expected this to be short viewing. Servals are known for their shy behavior and rarely seen in the Mara, yet there she was trotting along in the open haven of the road with the occasional glance into the tall grass. Then the cat headed into the grass though not out of view. Instead it stalked along, creeping gracefully as it eyed the small birds landing ahead of it. No kills were made, but the serval did give us an exceptional viewing, moving in and out of the grass and even stopping to look at the camera occasionally.


Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 3)

Keith and John with a Lappet-faced vulture
Keith and John with a Lappet-faced vulture

It was the last carcass of the day. Our last chance, but also our best chance. This Lappet looked hungry. We put down the traps and within minutes, I was shouting with joy as we raced towards our second Lappet-faced vulture of the season. The bird was so pre-occupied with feeding and attacking the White-backed vultures surrounding it that it didn’t seem to notice the blue beast sneaking up on it. The noose was clearly on its leg, so there was no need to wait. When we finally came up on the side of the carcass and jumped out of the car, the Lappet finally reacted. Wings stretched it was only able to move a few feet away, its foot firmly entangled and attached to the dead wildebeest on which it had been feeding.

Twenty minutes later, backpack attached we were ready for release. After a few final sweet chirps, the enormous bird was back in the air. As we took off the nooses, I eyed the carcass and the small pile of vulture regurge that now lay along side it. The bird had eaten huge chunks of cartilage right off the bone. You could see the tiny triangular slices taken out of the shoulder blade, like wedges of coconut from the shell.

Lappet-faced vultures are always odd to handle. I’m usually so excited that I can’t stop shaking through the whole process, but do at least take the time to marvel at how such a large aggressive animal can be covered in the feathers most often associated with chicks. Fluffy white down feathers line the entire chest of the Lappet. With a head larger than a baseball, I can’t even fit my hand around the skull and usually end up grabbing them around the neck. Fortunately Keith seemed to have a great hold of the bird throughout, which was good since I can’t imagine the damage that could be done with a beak that can literally crush gazelle skulls. Generally the Lappets are calmer than their smaller cousins – the white-backs and Ruppell’s vulture, but this particular had had a lot of spunk. Ready to take on not only the other vultures, but its captors as well. Nonetheless it had been released without a hitch and I could now watch its movements online as the text messages came back from the unit one day at a time.

Like our last Lappet, the bird seemed to be frequenting an area some 50 km outside the park border: an area known to be rife with poisoning. I only hoped this bird would fair better than our last tagged Lappet.

Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 2)

We awoke early. Today had to be the day. After so many near misses, I couldn’t imagine us going another day without trapping a Lappet-faced vulture. The evening before we had managed to stag an adult Lappet, but with its brute strength (and probably poor snaring), it had been able to pull the noose and get away before we could grab it. With one unit left, at least from our initial delivery of five (10 would arrive later in the week), I really wanted to get this one on this most elusive of vultures.

So we started the day as we had for the last week. I always feel a bit of tension on trapping mornings. An early morning carcass could be the best possibility for catching a Lappet as the birds are more likely to be hungry, and therefore, aggressive. But these are also the hardest to find. Birds are likely to fly in low in the early morning and thus be more difficult to detect. So as is so often the case with trapping we were relying on luck.

We got lucky. With the sun just rising over our shoulders we found ourselves at a carcass with two aggressive Lappets and only a handful of the more numerous Gyps vultures (i.e. African white-backed and Ruppell’s). A bit more luck and the traps were set on a rather smelly wildebeest carcass, but the Lappets were still on the ground. But that was where our luck ended. A few moments later we had caught two juvenile African white-backed vultures. With the Lappet still on the ground, despite its struggling snared comrades, we decided to grab the birds but leave the traps on. So with one bird in Matt’s lap and another in my own, we drove slowly away. My bird began regurgitating as vultures so often do when stressed and I loosened my grip. Before started, I had been unsure how I would handle all the vulture vomiting. But with time, I had grown used to it and generally found it more worrisome for the bird (who was now giving up his last meal) than for myself. With one final wiggle of its head, the bird finished its regurgitation and I went to re-tighten my grip only to find that with this final jiggle the bird had freed its head from my hand. In an instant, the vulture was standing on my lap, searching for the nearest exit. Though I desperately tried to re-grab the head, it was clear my momentary lapse had meant the total loss of control. I can only imagine what the passing tourist vehicle must have thought as our car slowed (with all passengers now a bit panicked as a vulture on the loose is not an ideal guest in a vehicle) and then a small vulture leaped out the window. From inside, I watched amazed as the bird tucked in its wings to fit through the small opening and then unfurled them in their full five foot glory to take to the skies.

After taking blood from the other bird, we returned to the traps which remained Lappet-free. Clearly it would have to wait.

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.