Ruffling of giant feathers and an occasional raspy cackle greets visitors to Kweni cliff in Magadi, Kajiado West Sub-county. Here, dozens of Ruppell’s vultures flit gracefully around, their gigantic wingspans a sight to behold. The allure of this place is accentuated by the thought that before these giant birds return to Kweni, their retirement home, they make many circuitous rounds over hills, valleys and forests across the African continent.
‘Kweni’ is the Maa word for ‘laughter’ or ‘happiness’. The name aptly captures the mood and ambience of this place that has for decades served as the resting and breeding ground for seven indigenous species of Ruppell's vultures.
The birds unobtrusively perch their nests high up the cliff to keep off predators. Again, perhaps for security and a sense of community, they nest in colonies of about 100 pairs, often in mountainous habitats. They are scavengers, meaning they eat only carcasses and remains of other animals. Their usefulness does not end with clearing off smelly carcasses; experts say a vulture’s digestive system is capable of getting rid of harmful bacteria and other toxins, thus purifying the ecosystem.
A Rüppell's vulture is the highest flying bird in the world, reaching heights of 11,300 metres (37,100 ft). The birds, which usually fly as a flock, have transformed the otherwise remote Magadi into a magnet for local and international tourists, who flock to this place to be at one with the birds.
Those who spoke to the Nation were unanimous that a sundowner at Kweni is a refreshing experience punctuated with breathtaking glimpses of the giant birds homing in from their wanderings and others perched restfully at various spots around the cliff. A visit to Magadi palpably makes it clear why these scavengers are a treasured ecological and aesthetic asset at the Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Nairobi National parks.
Early in the morning, the birds fly to the parks to feed and retire to the cliff in the afternoon.
"There would be no parks without the scavengers. During the Maasai Mara wildebeest migration, about 1.4 gnus are on the move at any one time, leaving more than 20,000 carcasses strewn all over. The vultures clear the mess," said Mr Robert Kaai, project coordinator of Kenya Bird of Prey Trust.
Some of the vultures, fitted with GPRS backpack units, have been tracked to Kruger National Park in South Africa, then Accra in Ghana on their way through Ethiopia and South Sudan and back to Kweni cliff; effectively completing their signature immigration cycle.
Most of the vultures retire to and die at Kweni cliff.
This breathtaking ecological heritage is, however, under threat due to human-wildlife conflict. Over the past 15 years, more than 60 per cent of vultures are said to have died from poisoning and interference with their habitat.
"Most herders poison wild animals to avert livestock attacks. Vultures end up devouring the poisoned carcasses, leading to mass deaths," added Mr Kaai.
Several local and international NGOs have teamed up with government agencies to educate the locals on the ecological and economic value of the vultures.
Also, local conservators have reached out to Kenya Power to fit electric cables along lake Magadi with marker balls to reduce the incidence of electrocution of the birds. Marker balls, the conservators say, make the power lines visible.
In November 2020, during the birds’ migration from the Lake Natron breeding area to Lake Magadi, 1,027 flamingos died from electrocution. However, only one death has been reported over the past two years after Kenya Power installed marker balls.
"During the migration season, millions of birds fly from Africa to Europe and vice versa. Lake Magadi basin has been a major birds migratory route. We are glad the birds’ mortality rate has been contained," said Mr Charles Leshore, the best tourism village champion and honorary warden.
Apart from Lake Magadi basin providing an international migratory pathway for the birds, the ancient Magadi town boasts of an old pre-colonial church where people used to worship in turns. Also under the scorching Magadi sun are hot springs that attract tourists in droves.