On the morning of June 29, Alex Karuri received a photograph of an eagle from a friend via WhatsApp, wanting to know what kind of a bird it was.
Karuri, a tour guide on Mt Kenya and a keen birder with the Mount Kenya Biodiversity Conservation Group under Nature Kenya, was equally curious about where the picture was from because it was of an African crowned eagle, one of Africa’s most powerful eagles, tied by its legs in a goat pen.
“My friend told me that the bird was in a village called Ithe Kahuno in Nyeri. He also told me that the bird was in critical condition since it had not been fed for a week and that the person who had it did not want to feed it as he claimed that these eagles were a pest in the village because they ate their cats and dogs,” narrates Karuri.
Karuri immediately circulated the image on several WhatsApp groups like the Mount Kenya Birders.
“I was looking for help on how to rescue this eagle,” states Karuri.
In a few minutes, Alfred Koech and Darcy Ogada of the Peregrine Fund saw the message and called Simon Thomsett of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust (KBoPT) based in Soysambu Conservancy, on the shores of Lake Elementaita. Thomsett is internationally recognised as an authority on raptors, having nursed his first raptor back to health as a six-year-old, six decades ago.
It set the pace in motion. KBoPT immediately put out a request for assistance on its WhatsApp group.
Early the following morning, Karuri left home for Ithe Kahuno to collect the eagle and bring it to the Nyeri airstrip, where the Kenya Wildlife Service Nyeri County warden Paul Wambugu and his team, recognising the urgency of the situation, handled the protocol for the eagle’s immediate airlift to the KBoPT centre in Soysambu.
At Ithe Kahuno, Karuri met Ndiritu, who held the eagle captive. “I explained to him that the KWS had been alerted to the situation and that if he tried to resist, he would be arrested. Ndiritu said he didn’t want the bird and it had fallen out of its nest … where it was holding a cat,” tells Karuri.
The young male eagle had multiple injuries.
“We also saw the adult eagles, male and female, on the same tree by the nest. But I don’t think the young eagle ‘accidently’ fell from the tree.”
The starved eagle had no strength to resist and Karuri quickly took it to the Nyeri airstrip, where Nick Shadron, a pilot on the WhatsApp group, offered to fly it from Nyeri to Soysambu, with KBoPT fuelling the aircraft. Assisted by David Gulden, another raptor specialist, and Wambugu and his KWS team, the eagle made a safe landing in Soysambu, where Thomsett was ready waiting.
Get a life
“He’s not good. He’s very close to death, having been starved and tortured. It’s a 50-50 chance that he’ll make it,” tells Thomsett with the eagle in care.
“He has an extremely deep wound, a penetrating wound caused by a high-velocity object, which confirms Karuri’s suspicion that it could not have fallen from its nest. It was certainly persecuted and shot at with some projectile. The proximal head of the humerus has been fractured.”
After cleaning the wound on the humerus, the upper part of the arm, the young eagle appeared to have stabilised at first but then took a turn for the worse again.
“At this point, it’s saying, ‘Get a life’ – and you do what you can to make it live,” tells Thomsett, exhausted from round-the-clock vigilance.
“The necrosis and dead material inside of his shoulder is enormous and we can’t amputate straight at the shoulder and something I would be loath to do.”
Meanwhile, Joni Overbosch, a volunteer, is helping with round-the-clock care of the eagle.
“The eagle could not have fallen out of its nest,” explains Thomsett. “Its feathers are developed and not that of a chick learning to fly. It is capable of hunting but young birds in community areas hardly stand a chance these days.”
Interestingly, the forests around Nairobi have several pairs of the African crowned eagle and other raptors because the communities around forests respect the forests, thanks to the ‘Friends’ and forest rangers making active efforts to conserve them.
However, outside Kenya’s capital city there is little effective conservation of small forest patches surrounded by high human densities. Those forests are greatly endangered, including the small wildlife being replaced by domestic animals like the cats and dogs.
The African crowned eagle is a forest bird that depends on the creatures found within to hunt for food – creatures like suni, bushbuck, blue monkeys and dikdiks.
“There’s a direct correlation between forest loss and the declining numbers of the African crowned eagle,” states Thomsett.
“There’s only 10 per cent of indigenous forest left since Kenya’s independence in 1963. That means a 90 per cent decline in the African crowned eagle population.
Listed as ‘endangered’
“In the small patches of forests where the few pairs of eagles survive, they will never reproduce because there is nothing in the forests for them to hunt. I call them ‘ghost pairs’.”
Adds a very worried Karuri: “There is an urgent need for public awareness concerning the remaining eagles in villages like Ithe Kahuno, otherwise they will disappear.”
Today, the African crowned eagle is listed as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List.
Meanwhile, the life of the six to nine-month-old African crowned eagle from the little-known village of Ithe Kahuno hangs in the balance.