Winds of Change

Critically Endangered vultures threatened by wind farm

Published The East African, Nation media 22-28 April 2017

Ruppell’s vulture landing – copyright Munir Virani

Since 2015 four of the eight species of vultures in Kenya have been listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This means they are one step short of becoming extinct.

ruppells-vulture-photo-by-s-kapila-633x370
Ruppell’s vulture Copyright Shiv Kapila

High on the cliffs of Kwenia, 95 kilometers south of Nairobi – Kenya capital city – lives a colony of one of the Critically Endangered species of vultures – the Ruppell’s. The site is near the pre-historic site of Olorgesailie in the Great Rift Valley where our ancestors made the first stone tools. The estimated global population of Ruppell’s vulture is 22,000

Ruppell's vulture in flight - copyright Munir Virani
Ruppell’s vulture in flight – copyright Munir Virani

“Rüppell’s vultures breed in steep cliffs which are inaccessible like these ones,” states Dr Darcy Ogada of The Peregrine Fund, a raptor specialist for over two decades. “Any disturbance and they leave like it happened at Hell’s Gate.”

Kwenia is one of the few sites in sub-Saharan Africa and the world where the Ruppell’s vultures breed – a critical nesting colony which will be heavily impacted by a proposed wind farm and along a major migratory flight path for birds.

By 11 a.m. most of the vultures fly off, taking advantage of the rising thermals, to the Maasai Mara and along the Athi-Kapiti plains, to scavenge on carrion and bring back food for the young.

Vanishing Vultures

These amazing vultures are one of the largest vulture species found over east and central Africa, but populations are decreasing fast.

At first it was due to habitat loss, poisoning and in some places to use in witch-craft.

Now a new threat emerges – wind farms and associated power lines. Kenya, in her effort to meet the goals of Vision 2030, is on a fast-track development path with clean, green renewable energy.

Touted as clean energy, wind farms aren’t so green when placed at inappropriate sites –  like in the fly-paths of birds – not only Ruppell’s vultures but many others including mammals like bats. The rotating blades of the wind turbines need the wind to power them as do raptors and migratory birds that fly long distances to escape the winter in Europe and Asia to forage in Africa, flying back the same way when summer starts.

The Great Rift Valley is a major flyway for birds of many species including Amur Falcons Steppe Eagles and White Storks and hundreds of other species.

Amur Falcon are regular at Kwenia –– as is the endangered Steppe Eagle from Russia. The Amur Falcon breed in China in the Amur Valley and fly four days and four nights continuous over the Indian Ocean.

Thanks to technology, there’s interesting data from tracking units fitted on the vultures that shows different species of vultures using the area within 25 kilometres of Kwenia and flying at turbine height placing them at high risk from being massacred by the rotating blades.

“Every single bird that was tagged in the Mara between 2009 and 2011,” says Ogada “used the flyway which proves that this is a critical flyway for birds. Of the 14 Ruppell’s vultures tagged, 50 per cent spent time in the area of the proposed wind farm.”  In addition, the African White-backed Vulture, also listed as Critically Endangered also uses the vicinity of the proposed wind farm site

An independent raptor specialist from South Africa– stated that there cannot be a worse site for the wind farm.

The recommended site must be more than 30 kilometres away. The proposed wind farm is less than 15 kilometres from Kwenia’s cliffs.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

In defence, the executors of the required EIA say that it was done before the vultures were listed as Critically Endangered. And that the EIA was unaware of critical habitats for wildlife like Kwenia.

The developers of the proposed wind farm, Kipeto Wind Farm states that the wind farm will not be moved. On its website www.kipetoenergy.co.ke, the 60 wind turbines can provide electricity to 129,000 low-income houses – if it works at optimum capacity.

The mitigation methods on the EIA read that the turbines will be shut-down in less than five minutes of the approaching birds.

“The science behind seems to work quite well with migratory birds moving at a known time,” says Dr Munir Virani also of The Peregrine Fund who was the first to highlight the rapid decline of vulture populations in Kenya over the last two decades – in some species more than 90 per cent. Gregarious, vultures are vital to scavenge on carcasses of livestock and wildlife and thereby stop the spread of diseases from decaying flesh and the stench.

“But it’s not economical to the developer to shut-down on demand because the vultures are resident there, moving all day, all the time. It would be too costly for the developer and for the birds, a lot of potential for collision.”

The financer of the project International Finance Corporation – an arm of the World Bank – is obligated to show the net gain for the Critically Endangered species which it yet has to. Failure to do so puts their reputation in disrepute.

“The conservation community is not against wind energy. In fact we embrace it,” states Virani. “But project sites have to be identified using available scientific tools and expertise so that impact on wildlife is minimal. The Government of Kenya is at the cutting edge of showcasing to the world that renewable energy projects in Kenya can be sustainable without putting at risk our natural wildlife heritage”

In this case, they were not used.

“It’s inevitable that Africa’s landscape is going to change,” continues Virani. “But how it changes needs guidance.”

“Development needs policy framework based on science because there are other prospectors looking at Kwenia and other places. But development is happening faster than policies.”

There’s concern over the state of the environment.

Projects such as the Turkana Wind Farm and the Standard Gauge Railway passing through national parks which are supposed to be protected areas for biodiversity have been executed in much the same way as the current proposed wind farm – without comprehensive involvement of all stakeholders.

“The EIA is a good tool,” remarks Serah Munguti, East Africa Natural History Society’s (or Nature Kenya’s) advocacy manager. “But the issue is that you hardly see any that says the project should not continue.

“The consultant is paid by the developer and so even when the project has such severe outcomes, it’s still proposed.

“In Kenya, EIAs have not safeguarded biological diversity. What we need is a holistic approach to get out of this hole.”

Conservationists agree on a new environmental map of Kenya for areas suitable for wind farms and other mega-development projects – and then check their feasibility against biodiversity hotspots.

“We have an obligation to conserve biodiversity,” continues Munguti. “It doesn’t belong to a few, but to all. We depend on it for the medicine we need, food we eat, the clothes we wear, the places we live in.

“That is why the governments of the world came together for the Convention on Biological Diversity which was adopted in 1992 in Nairobi. Biological diversity is our heritage and Kenya is a signatory to the CBD and therefore obligated to conserve biological diversity. We cannot kill everything in our generation and leave nothing for our future generations.”

The four Critically Endangered species of vultures are:

Ruppell’s,

Ruppell's vulture in flight - copyright Munir Virani
Ruppell’s vulture in flight – copyright Munir Virani

White-headed

African White-backed

White backed vulture
White backed vulture Copyright Tui De Roy

Hooded

These two endangered:

Lappet-faced

Lappet-faced vulture with Tawny eagle in Tsavo West National Park at Lake Jipe on the Kenya-Tanzania border Copyright Luca Borghesio
Lappet-faced vulture with Tawny eagle in Tsavo West National Park at Lake Jipe on the Kenya-Tanzania border Copyright Luca Borghesio

Egyptian

“Near-threatened” Bearded vulture

 

 

 

 

 

 

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