Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

Rescue, Care, Conserve, Research, and Educate

A Wildlife Conservancy on Lake Elmenteita in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. Soysambu Conservancy will ensure that this landscape provides increased value to Kenya, it’s people and the wider international community through sustainable conservation and enjoyment of it as a national treasure and Heritage.

Conservation Management of Birds of Prey in Kenya

Birds of Prey or raptors are viewed as magnificent creatures or useless pests. Negative perspectives must change if the group is to survive the future. Globally, raptors have had an ancient history with man in many regions are revered, to their benefit, for they must now live with people… and not be separated from them only in protected areas. The protected areas are too small and often facing threatening development projects. If opposition to raptors prevails locally we could lose 50% of species in Kenya, but if turned around through interactive personal exposure, hands-on management and encouraging tolerance, we can “save” all.

Where negative attitudes once prevailed, a positive perspective was reached through education and there is no better way to achieve this than appreciating raptors up close and personal. The use of live tame captive raptors in front of audiences or media can (if done correctly) change people as we have proven in Kenya for over 40 years. Done badly with no or inappropriate regulatory structure, a single individual can bring down and shame this potential. Officially, we do not know the standard to adopt, allowing for example, atrocious husbandry at a commercial enterprise and the “care” of raptors by individuals with no background in raptor conservation or their biology or the names of the birds they keep. We tried with WCMD for two years to make regulations/legislation in 1984-1986 to improve standards. We reinforced then the need to involve the practitioners and not be left to those without hands on local experience, who have never trained a bird and do no have a proven in-field conservation/biology background in raptors. Thus this subject expands to cover a number of affiliated disciplines.

Raptor Centre
Raptor Centre
Simon Thomsett
Measuring the Agur Buzzard Wingspan
Measuring the Agur Buzzard Wingspan

History of Kenya

In the Gedi Museum lie falconry bells dated around the 7th century making falconry one of Kenya’s oldest known sports. During the global renaissance of raptor conservation and falconry in post WWII, Kenya stood out as having “naturalist” falconers among which were some of the world’s first raptor biologist and veterinarians, Leslie Brown and John Cooper being among them.

Around the early 1970s the reintroduction of the Peregrine Falcon through captive breeding was copied on a lesser scale by us achieving milestones we should be proud of, but have kept largely due to the prevailing restrictive wildlife ethos.

We ourselves received injured raptors in the late 1960s. After treating and handling some 3000 across Africa since the 1970s, we went on to establish raptor research and conservation in Kenya in early 1990, making Kenya one of Africa’s leading nations. We are the first in Africa to reintroduce a raptor, the Lammergeyer (Bearded Vulture) to Kenya’s only park dedicated to birds of prey, Hell’s Gate National Park, both of which we still try to protect against the odds.

Importantly in October 2010, our then Minister of Culture in Nairobi presided over the UNESCO presentation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage to the International Association of Falconers (IAF) that recognized falconry. This endorses by default falconry at the very highest level, yet without any regulatory system or acceptance to the confusion of IAF.

In December 2011, we represented Kenya at the Falconry Festival in EL Ain which was officially opened by a Kenyan dignitary the Director of Culture Ministry sate for national heritage and culture, Silverse Amani, who invited everyone to Kenya to celebrate the next festival. More nations attended the ceremony than any other event short of the Olympic Games.

This author spoke to him and he was unaware that falconry or rehabilitation’ was unrecognized or its long conservation history and asked that we follow this up through his ministry when back in Nairobi. We were unable to communicate further, however.

Raptor Rehabilitation, Falconry Captive Management and Conservation Research

In the rehabilitation of raptors, captive breeding and restoration techniques, humane live presentation to a viewing public, falconry management techniques are a vital skillset without which little success is certain. In research, we also use falconry techniques to capture and tag birds to monitor their behavior. Thus researchers and also veterinarians must all come under the same broad regulations that ensures good husbandry and sound biological principles whenever raptors are physically handled.

Give the global appeal of birds of prey display centres in the positive creation of public awareness and the fact that a great many raptor conservationists are falconers there is a need to reexamine the interactions of all the above. They are separable but interrelated requiring an understanding approach to resolve. The outcome is to seek a self-perpetuating and self-policing guidelines to ensure a high standard that falls within the Kenyan Wildlife Act that is overseen by KWS.

In our attempt to regulate it in 1984 the interactions of the above disciplines were confused and focused only on entrepreneurial opportunities; dangerous when quality control was no made a priority, and when it was not endorsed by those who practice it.

Way Forward

Raptor rehabilitation of hundreds of raptors requires large capital, time investment, and confidence from potential funders, land owners and those dedicating their lives to it. None of these investments can happen under the persistent circumstance of not being able to acquire a pertinent licence/permit and we will never achieve a world class centre or status. No one can operate a long term rehabilitation centre if each individual bird requires a yearly permit that could, without explanation, not be approved for as long as a year, or be issued on an ostrich or captive (exotic) game bird or “trophy” templates as has previously been the case.

When rescuing a bird we are by default illegal if we are caught by police on our return with it. Wildlife crime is now a serious matter and we should not face prosecution when we are attempting to help wildlife. We cannot put breeding pairs together, make high quality pens, build educational facilities, train/house and support academic students, or ultimately conserve raptors without the understanding and confidence of the government in our work.

We ask that a Task Force be especially appointed to reexamine this matter. That this Task Force have the practitioners themselves, present their work, needs and ideas. That failures among them be resolved and those with greater experience have an ability to influence those new to or those with less history, knowledge, and experience irrespective of their current legal, academic or social status. That an artisan peer review grading arrangement based on an apprenticeship system be central to the process.

Simon Thomsett
Simon Thomsett

About Simon Thomsett

Simon Thomsett is a Kenyan who, from the age of six, has handled birds of prey or raptors. In the course of rehabilitation and research, he has handled and cared for over a 2,500 birds of prey in Kenya, as well as across much of Africa. From 1984 to 2007 he initiated and institutionalized academic research in raptor biology from directed research programmes with college students to PhD level. Becoming an Associate of the Ornithology Dept NMK and heading The Peregrine Fund programme in 1990 in Kenya, he conducted projects in Ethiopia, Madagascar, Cape Verde Islands, and Ivory Coast. He contributes to the IUCN Species Specialist Group in regard to raptors, is a lifetime member of Nature Kenya, sits on the Bird Task Force, Hells Gate Management Committee, and is a founding trustee of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust. Today, Kenya can boast a robust knowledge of raptor issues from a base founded largely upon his work of the last 40 years.

By the mid 1970s, he was assisting Dr Leslie Brown, the world’s leading authority on eagles, at his famous study sites in Embu. At that time, he was also handling Africa’s largest eagles, one unreleaseable Crowned Eagle “Rosy” he still has, making it Africa’s oldest known raptor. Much of his time is taken in the day to day management of raptors brought in by the public that find injured, sick or incapable birds. He setup five sanctuaries in remote areas specifically aimed at soft monitored releases of recovered raptors, recognizing the impossibility of releases near human landscapes. He initiated and supported all the current raptor rehabbers in Kenya and helped others from Liberia to Ethiopia, carefully balancing the merits of falconry in rehabilitation management.

Most of his work is aimed at conservation management; a growing need in modern Africa, where species restoration or augmentation has now a pressing need. Sadly, protocols and competition for funding by non-handson approaches do compromise these actions. He is the first person, for example, to have bred in captivity the huge Crowned Eagle, raised their young, taught them to hunt and successfully released them in the wild. This is almost certainly one of the most challenging of all species that are large enough to kill medium sized antelopes up to 35kg (77Ibs)! Some of these captive bred eagles bread in the wild… making this the first such successful programmes in Africa. He conducted similar programmes with one of the world’s rarest eagles in Madagascar and the near extinct Kenyan Lammergeyer (or Bearded Vulture) working closlely with KWS and EWCO. An accomplished non-assisted climber, overland traveler, and general wildlife field expert he has access nest sites and trapped for conservation programmes more raptors than any other in Africa including eagles never before taken in Ivory Coast and attempting to capture for captive breeding the last remaining Red Kites in Cape Verde Islands. He has influenced programmes aboard and assisted in the monitoring of vultures in Kenya and India with his colleague Munir Virani since 1996. He helps in field work and supervision MSc and PhD students and capture and GPRS tagging of Martial and Wahlberg’s Eagles in the Maasai Mara and Bearded Vultures in Nepal and is helping Nepalese students develop projects for studying the Mountain Hawk Eagle in Nepal and Taiwan. Taking what was a childhood self-taught obsession abroad is a special achievement.

He is frequently on media as a scientific advisor, co-narrator and climber to BBC Natural History (Beauty in the Beast), National Geographic (see August 2018, Poisoning Africa) TV and magazine presentations on African raptors and wildlife poisoning (2004-2018). In the mid 1980s his unique (youthful) life story with raptors was brought by Walt Disney Productions where he survived in the remote wilderness alone mostly on the proceeds of what his hawks, falcons, and eagles could catch.

In 2017-2008, after a series of armed attacks on his remote centre he was obiliged to close operations and distribute his rehab collection of raptors to others, all of who he coached and supported. He joined the late Sarah Higgins and Shiv Kapila in 2010 and setup “The Kenya Bird of Prey Trust” (registered in 2015) from which they aimed to continue their commitment to raptor conservation.

In 2017, most of the trusts’ infrastructural development floundered because of the untimely death of Sarah Higgins, but the trust, in keeping with its former ethos, has increased the numbers of those interested in hands on raptor conservation by distributing birds between six individuals and institutions that all have conservation education programmes. Today the trust oversees the group and now reaches more Kenyans than ever previously amounting to some hundreds a week that include school, officials, leaders, and “movers and shakers”.

At his own cost, Simon built a rustic centre on Soysambu Conservancy to free fly and “soft release” raptors previously held in small pens undergoing treatment at Naivasha. By 2018, it was obliged to change its direction and cater to birds not capable of release, including two pairs of Crowned Eagles receiving some support from the trust. His fellow trustee, Shiv Kapila at Kilimandege Sanctuary Naivasha, has also expanded his facility and the two centres exchange birds as and when required.

Both centres need to expand and improve and it needs significant outside fiscal supports as well as much more robust human resources at trustee and day to day management level if it is to achieve its mandate to have a world class centre, avian clinic, education/information centre. It must create succession and financial independence from Simon Thomsett’s income (much compromised by the daily caring of the raptors), and the occasional benefactor. The predicated mass raptor loses of new hazards, such as wind farms, multilane highways across protected areas, new lethal powerlines, and continued poisoning may offer finance opportunities to “off set” these losses. But these funds are hotly contested for by others with no living responsibilities. The future, therefore, predicts a much greater volume of raptors requiring rehabilitation.

While rehabilitation dominates the work of the trust because it cannot turn away from a crippled bird in need, the greater role that education and creating local capacity for raptor conservation remains the top agenda. However, this requires the long term security of the rehabilitation centres, before these greater aspirations can be returned to.