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Recent death of threatened Martial Eagle underscores the need for urgent action to stop electrocutions of birds of prey in Kenya

29 October 2018

Nairobi, Kenya – The death of a threatened Martial Eagle this past week, is a tragic reminder that bird death by electrocution is a global problem that has been aggravated by increases in the energy demand in certain regions. It is particularly prevalent in natural areas where the introduction of power lines is a cause of significant disruption to local species. Kenya’s human population is rapidly growing, driving demand for affordable energy and emphasizing the importance of Kenya taking a lead in providing safe powerlines and poles for wildlife.

In response to energy needs, the Kenyan government has promised “Universal Access” to power by 2020 and is making remarkable progress towards achieving this goal. From a consumption of 3320.7 GWH in 2000 to 8,053.20 GWH in 2016, electricity consumption has grown by nearly 60% during the period from 2000 to 2016. Generation has also increased from 4,178.9 GWH in 2000 to 10,057.7 GWH in 2016. While affordable accessible energy is critical to Kenya’s continued economic development, the infrastructure required to distribute this power is threatening the survival of already threatened birds of prey species. Poorly planned pylons and power lines are electrocuting numerous raptors annually driving population declines. Electrocution occurs when a bird comes into contact with two wires or when it perches on a conductive pylon (for example, a metal structure) and comes into simultaneous contact with a wire. Urgent action is required to modify (or retrofit) existing infrastructure and change the designs of planned developments to prevent further electrocutions of birds of prey. This need is highlighted by a spate of electrocutions in Kenya’s Rift Valley region and most recently of a threatened species – the Martial Eagle (Africa’s largest eagle), in the Maji Moto region of Narok County, Kenya.

The Mara Raptor Project, Birdlife International, The Peregrine Fund, Nature Kenya, and the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust are deeply concerned by this recent electrocution. This juvenile Martial Eagle was part of a long-term study on this species’ ecology. It was banded on March 10, 2018 in the Mara Triangle and was found electrocuted on October 22, 2018 underneath newly constructed power lines close to Maji Moto, 95 kms from its natal nest. The bird was only 1 year and 4 months old. Other recent raptor electrocutions in Kenya include a critically endangered African White-backed Vulture, a Tawny Eagle, multiple Augur Buzzards, a Yellow-billed Kite, a Long-crested Eagle, Verreaux’s Eagle-owls and Spotted Eagle-owls. Other than birds of prey, Angola colobus, bats, giraffes and other bird species have been electrocuted by powerlines and underpin the importance of solving this problem.

“Raptor electrocutions are indiscriminate and difficult to quantify. It is likely that this is one of the primary drivers of recent raptor population declines in Kenya. The good news is that there are solutions. We need to work with Kenya Power and other relevant authorities to retrofit existing infrastructure and change power pole designs to more raptor friendly, but still cost effective, alternatives,” said Stratton Hatfield, Director of the Mara Raptor Project and PhD candidate at Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands.

“The energy industry often misunderstands conservationists. We are not against development, but we want to ensure that the electrification of Kenya occurs in a sustainable and thoughtful way that can ensure success for humans and wildlife, “said Simon Thomsett, Director and Trustee of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust.

While all birds of prey are vulnerable to electrocution, vultures, migratory species and dispersing juveniles are most at risk. They travel remarkable distances in search of food, often far outside of protected area boundaries. Unlike terrestrial mammals, birds of prey movements are not limited by fences, roads, or towns. This has genetic benefits, but unfortunately, also leads to increased contact with human development. Pylons and power poles offer ideal locations for roosting, hunting, and even nesting. When these pylons and poles have poorly configured lines, they are deadly.

Raptors are critical to Kenya’s world renowned ecosystems. They manage pest populations, control the spread of diseases, and are indicators of high levels of biodiversity and overall ecosystem health. Their loss will result in severe ecological cascades that scientists are just beginning to understand.

Birdwatching is an increasingly important component of Kenya’s wildlife based tourism industry and Kenya’s diverse raptor community often highlights a guest’s visit to the country. Protecting raptor populations ensures that this industry will remain viable, supporting the livelihoods of Kenyans.

“Bird deaths from electrocution go unnoticed, but cumulatively are having a catastrophic impact on bird of prey populations in Kenya. By simply installing bird friendly powerlines, we have a golden opportunity to showcase to the world that Kenya is committed to saving its wildlife. These birds provide important ecosystem services, have cultural and aesthetic value, and generate revenue from tourism,” said Dr Munir Virani, Vice President and Director of Global Conservation Strategy of The Peregrine Fund.

“It is possible to take remedial measures to avoid further losses of birds of prey as has been done elsewhere. In 2014, the Sudanese government decommissioned a notorious powerline on the Red Sea coast, which is estimated to have electrocuted hundreds and perhaps thousands of endangered Egyptian Vultures since its construction in the 1950s. A powerline that was properly insulated replaced the killer one. Not a single bird electrocution was recorded after the new line became operational. This, not only reduced losses of birds but also brought benefits in terms of reduced power outages and costs of repairs,” said Kariuki Ndang’ang’a, Head of Conservation Division – Africa for Birdlife International.

Dr. Paul Matiku, Executive Director of Nature Kenya added “We can conserve birds because they have a commercial value. However, the ecological values and the innate values of conserving birds surpasses any need for birds to justify their existence through economic returns.”

Kenya is a signatory to The Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Birds of Prey in Africa and Eurasia (Raptors MOU). This means that Kenya is obligated to promote internationally coordinated actions to achieve and maintain the favorable conservation status of migratory birds of prey throughout their range in the African-Eurasian region, and to reverse their decline when and where appropriate.

The Bird Conservation Community of Kenya stands ready to assist the Government of Kenya, Kenya Power, and other relevant authorities to ensure that raptor electrocutions across the country are substantially reduced.

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Erin Katzner

Director of Global Engagement
Main Phone: 208-362-3716
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The Peregrine Fund