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).

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