Raptor conservation

The Athi Kapiti, a haven for Raptors
When I first moved onto the Athi plains in 1988 I thought it was a step in the wrong direction. I had come from the much acclaimed Laikipia area where elephants and lions were common back-porch creatures and conservancies were a fairly new reality. Six years previously I saw for example, Lewa Downs turn from a struggling, predominantly cattle-focussed ranch, into a rhino sanctuary thanks to the total commitment of the landowners and one benefactor. It tipped the balance and set them on a course for international recognition. Their land use option spread to neighbouring ranches and community owned areas.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago I settled in a very odd looking house in Athi and looked into the far distance where I could see a faint glow in the clouds, where Nairobi city stood. On weekends the stadium lights would turn on and put me into a reflective mood, for Nairobi was very close. I’d take my eagles and falcons out for flights, loose them and then give chase over truly vast open expanses that I never knew existed. I explored and went as far as the northern areas of Amboseli without encountering a single fence. If I had harboured any resentment at having to abandon Laikipia it vanished in plains holding more wildlife than any I had previously seen up north. I had friends round, and off I’d take them to share this, the best kept secret in Kenya. The ranches then made up an area twice the size of the Maasai Mara and were stuffed to the gunnels with cheetah, plains game and my favourite, eagles.

Should a science-based approach be employed to zero in on specific areas for conservation (due to limited resources, etc), then after shifting through all the detritus one would come up with a few gems. One of them would be the Athi Kapiti plains. So if the Athi Kapiti is such a wonderful place, how come we haven’t heard much about it? How could such a thing occur so close the capital city and not be known? I believe it is the purely human failing of not appreciating what is within reach and secondly poor marketing.

When I (rarely) attend wildlife workshops, symposiums or meetings I rub shoulders with the real guys on the block. Despite us all knowing, deep down inside the ethical and intellectual error of it, the mega fauna folks still hold court. A rare toad or tiny orchid isn’t going to carry much weight. But as we mature as a nation, so must our principles, and a toad is as important as a rhino. A little bit of promotional marketing and the toad may be secured a bright future!

one ranch, Swara Plains, I have seen 60 species of diurnal raptors and 8 nocturnal owls. On adjacent ranches an additional 7 diurnal and 2 nocturnal species can be added to the list. This makes the Athi Kapiti an outstanding area of global importance for raptors. On a usual day from my old veranda I could expect to see 40 raptors of some 10 species. It was this that put me into 7th heaven, not so much the plains game and cats, for it spoke of an intact eco-system of enormous extent and quality. It beat hands down most of our nations protected areas and it cries out for recognition. Focus on single species conservation has a merit if the animal is truly dependant on an intact eco-system. If it can survive in changed environments then its conservation does not necessarily mean the conservation of all species. It makes much more sense to conserve a collection of species, from big to small. I’d like to see one of the goals of the proposed Athi Kapiti Conservancy to be in conserving raptors, all of them.

Today I look towards Nairobi and in place of that distant glow is a sea of electric lights from horizon to horizon. There is a roar of traffic, cement factories and the hum of industries. But if you turn your back on it, you’ll still see the eagles and cheetahs. You can carry on walking for many miles and that noise is replaced by night crickets and the howl of hyena. There is still an area of vast ecological importance desperately requiring our recognition.