Monday, March 30, 2009

Deliberate crop spraying with Furadan kills birds

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Another worrisome Furadan story comes this time from Mt. Kenya's eastern slopes. It is here, in the hot dry country of Tharaka district, where rainfall is limited, and one of the few crops that can be grown is millet, that a friend of our reports the death of hundreds of red-billed queleas.
These diminutive birds, only 13 cm (5 inches) long from beak to tail-tip would be no challenge on their own. When they flock in their hundreds, or even thousands, they can create havoc as crop-raiders. There are reports of large flocks almost blotting out the sun, just like locusts.

In Tharaka, these migratory birds turned up at just the wrong time and attacked, if that is the right word, the millet crop just as it was ripening. The solution?

Somebody called somebody, and the next thing was the sight of a helicopter flying over the crops spraying something. Soon after that birds started to die, and our friend even had birds drop out of the sky on to the table in front of him. Necropsies confirmed Furadan.

What will happen to the people who harvest the poison-laced millet is unknown. Maybe a copious washing with water will remove the Furadan. It had better, as the stuff is potent, half a teaspoon being enough to kill an adult human.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Glasgow Vet in Africa: Furadan, birds, Kenya, lions and a new twist

A Glasgow Vet in Africa: Furadan, birds, Kenya, lions

Link,,, http//,

A reader has asked a question on my blog of March 15th with the above title. Here is what I wrote in reply.

Thanks for your comment & interest. Out further west here in Saskatchewan we have just watched the same show on 60 minutes.

You are right, the herdsmen of Africa value their cattle very highly, and of course they are no different than a cattleman here in N. America. If a bear, wolf or cougar started to take out cattle the owner would be incensed. Witness the reaction of Wyoming ranchers after the wolves came from Canada a few years back.

As Laurence Frank said at the top of the show it is not just Kenya's lions that are in trouble. The opening paragraph of my book "The Trouble With Lions" read as follows:- "In 2005 veterinary students traveling with me in Uganda were horrified to learn that villagers in Queen Elizabeth National Park had poisoned two lions that they claimed had killed a cow. What the students learned first-hand was that the killing was merely that latest skirmish in one of the longest running wars on the planet." It is not just Kenya & Uganda. Anywhere in Africa where lions and other predators are a threat to livestock Furadan is a simple solution.

If you want to contribute towards compensation program for the Kenya situation, you can go directly to the web site of the Lion Conservation group at

As for the birds part of this, more tomorrow about crop pests & deliberate aereal poisoning.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Elephant attack on hippos


During our recent trip to Uganda one of the veterinary students, Leighton Coma, took this movie of an attack by a big bull elephant on a hippo pod in the Kasinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Watch carefully near the end of the clip as a small calf gets isolated to the elephants left. He turns and tries to spear it, but it escapes, to appear very briefly between the giant's legs before scooting off to join the group.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Water wars Mt. Kenya


I have read on many occasions that the next major war in Africa will be over water. We have just witnessed what may be an early skirmish in this regard.

Several rivers on Mt. Kenya that once used to feed the Uaso Nyiro have gone dry by the time they reach the Laikipia plains. Not surprisingly the ranchers and farmers who run livestock in the lower reaches are upset. Most assume that the water is being taken off higher up by people who tap into the resource for watering the numerous flower and vegetable growing operations on the mountain slopes. In fact some, often most, of the water is taken by riparian landowners needing water for their families or own stock. They usually do this illegally and without permits from the water board.

High up on the mountain slopes, at about 14,000 feet, two major rivers are being tapped in a novel fashion. Someone has employed gangs of labourers to dig trenches and lay pipes right at the springs. Here, the trench meets the stream about 100 metres below the spring. This photo shows a section of pipe in the new trench. Water that used to flow down the rivers has disappeared or has been reduced to the merest trickle. New landowners who have been sold plots that include irrigation in formerly dry areas now supplied by the stolen water are of course well satisfied. In one case government staff broke up the pipes and trenches, but there were repaired within days.

It looks very much as if the Kazita river, a major source for thousands of farmers in Meru district will be the next to be raided. I have fished the Kazita for trout on many occasions, and wonder what will happen.

It is not just these two rivers. The Kithino River, on Mt. Kenya’s western slopes, provides water to 1200 families in one well-run scheme in Tharaka District. The Meru Herbs project, funded initially through Italian initiatives, has well-developed markets in many European countries as well as Japan. If their water source dries up the scheme will collapse.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Book of the Year Award Nomination


Exciting news. The Trouble With Lions has been nominated in the Travel Essays category by the New York-basedForeword Magazine. It is one of 15 finalists in this category, so there will be stiff competition, but hooray anyway. There were 668 books nominated in several categories.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Solar TV show in Uganda


Back in February I described the official opening of the new solar unit that we had donated to the little primary school at Kasenyi in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Like a daft idiot I got so tied up in the show & the reaction of the children that I failed to take pictures of the event, other that the ribbon cutting by Dr. Jo Haigh & Dr. Margaret Driciru, who is in charge of research and monitoring in the park,. and was acting chief warden that day.
Here are some shots that i missed that day (taken by Jo). First, the gifts that we gave the children, an exercise book, pencil and teddy bear or other toy for the older children, then the speeches by various officials, first Margaret and then Wilson, the Community Conservation warden, then drinks and lunch for everyone who could be fitted into the classroom, and finally, the actual TV working.
All the staff, including Kiiza George, the headmaster, were delighted with the show, and if you take a close look at the last picture you will see that Jo pressed the shutter at exactly the right moment to show the head of a hippo. I had chosen to show a DVD about fisheries conservation and the importance of not killing hippos as they are the keystone species in the lakes of Africa's heartland. Wilson and Margaret are keen to get copies of the video, as it is a great example of the sort of thing that gives a powerful message for all.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Meru National Park and two rip-offs


It seems as if writing a blog has both its upbeat and downbeat moments. It is a bit like an orchestra conductor.
Here is the upbeat - a picture of the yellow-necked spurfowl that I failed to get up on my last effort.

After our visit to our favourite park in all of Africa here is what I wrote to the director of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Kenya Wildlife Service,
Box 40241 Nairobi

Dear Sir,

I write after undergoing two rather unpleasant experiences in Meru National Park. I can sum them up as a double rip-off.

The first occurred when my wife and I reached the self-help bandas at Bwatherongi. At the park gate we had paid eighty dollars per night for booking a banda and assumed that they had been upgraded considerably from our last visit as one can get quite a reasonable (although not fancy) hotel for this sum in many parts of the world. My assumption was quite wrong. The banda was basic, very basic. Two plastic chairs, one of which was in need of extensive repair and unusable, a table and two beds. No electricity, nothing much else. Our most recent accommodation of a similar nature was in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park where the hostel charged us sixteen dollars each for bed and breakfast, and we did have electricity. Your fee was five times as much for half the quality.

As we prepared our meal the inevitable troop of baboons appeared, and it was soon evident that they were going to be a pest. We could not prepare our food unless one of us was on permanent duty with stones to throw, and even then the most forward of the monkeys was never more than twenty metres away. In the 1960s, when the self-help bandas were at Leopard Rock, a staff member armed with a slingshot of the type that David used to slay Goliath kept both vervets and baboons firmly at bay. All he had to do was twirl the thing a couple of times and the monkeys took off.

The second rip-off also occurred at the bandas, but was of quite a different nature. While we were out on an evening drive the baboons contrived to rip off part of the banda’s door frame, tear open the heavy-duty insect-proof netting and get into the room. There is no weld-mesh barriers behind the netting, so access was then easy. I will leave the state of the place to your imagination, but suffice it to say that the place smelt like what it had become, a lavatory. Almost all of our food was gone, and we dined on a tin of baked beans and two slices of bread that neighbouring visitors were kind enough to give us.

The park staff were extremely helpful as they appeared with brooms and mops and did their best to tidy up the mess, but as their own food stores had also been raided – in this case by a vervet monkey, they were in no position to help with food.

I paid my first visit to Meru Park in 1966 and have been there many times since, especially in the period 1967-1975 when I carried out veterinary duties on sick and injured rhino. Our visit there this year was precisely because we have such fond memories of the area. Our memories of 2009 are vivid, but not exactly fond.

KWS needs to deal with two things. They should not rip off visitors with over-inflated prices for very basic amenities, and they should deal with the baboons by either employing a “David” or taking more drastic action such as occurs in many other African parks.

I have sent a copy of this letter to the chief warden at Meru NP and to The Daily Nation, as I believe that the situation needs to be more widely known. I look forward to hearing about the action that you will take.

Yours sincerely,

Here are two pictures of baboons. The first taken with an 80 mm zoom lens at about 20 metres near the Meru bandas, the second in Kibale National park where these monkeys are as much a pest as anywhere else in Africa.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Meru National Park

Meru National Park in Kenya has long been one of our very favourite places. It was here that I treated my first two rhino cases, which almost certainly led to a 40-odd year career in wildlife medicine. The chapter titled The Four-Gallon Enema in Wrestling With Rhinos describes one of those cases.

Since then the park had had its ups and downs, as I described in The Trouble With Lions, but it still a beautiful place to visit. This year we were not disappointed and saw more of the graceful, shy, lesser kudu than we have ever seen before. They are a miniature version of the greater kudu that is the emblem of the South African National Parks system, and also occurs in Kenya. The first of these two photos shows a greater kudu bull at Borana, a private ranch with a beautiful up-market lodge. We saw the bull in the second photo in Meru just a couple of days ago and this is a female just about to disappear into some bushes.
We also saw a lesser kudu calf alongside a reticulated giraffe as they watched us from across the Bwatherongi river.

Meru NP also has a wide variety of bird species, among the most spectacular of which are rollers, both European (this one twisting his neck to look up) and lilac-breasted. Yellow-necked spur-fowl are abundant, but one does not see them much after 8.00 am or before 6.00 pm when they emerge from the grass to gather gravel on the roads. I tried to get a pic on this blog,but my connection had a brain fart, so I'm using a friend's computer. I'll get one up later.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Furadan, birds, Kenya, lions


The October 2008 issue of the magazine Kenya Birds contains a thoroughly diusturbing article by Martin Odino, Darcy Ogada and Simon Musila. Its tile is Furadan killing birds on a large scale in Bunyala Rice Fields, Western Kenya. The front cover shows an open-billed stork being held in someone’s hands, and I thought that it was probably a carcass. Not so. The article shows how live birds are used as decoys to attract numerous birds to sites where furadan soaked rice is used as bait. The technique involves the rescue of a poisoned birds and its treatment with copious quantities of water. The live birds are tethered close to the bait, and their primary feathers are removed. Birds that do not eat rice, such as opened-billed storks, are poisoned when snails have furadan inserted into their shells and the birds eat them.

This is another version of the grizzly story of bushmeat in Africa. The baited birds are either killed with sticks when still alive, but disoriented, or collected when dead. The bodies are taken to market and sold. According to the three authors the hunters claim that if the crop and stomach are removed prior to cooking no harm will come to the consumer.

I have written about the use, or misuse of furadan for the poising of predators, but this is something different and some will wonder what is behind it. The explanation is simple. Hunger and poverty. A year’s supply (200 gm) of furadan costs less than $1.50. In their report the three authors, who met hunters ranging from teenagers to men over 70, were told by one hunter that the daily harvest ranged from 25 to 200 individuals of mixed bird species.

Folks interested in birds and conservation can subscribe to Kenya Birds, which is published by the Bird Committee of the East Africa Natural History Society, and can contact Catherine Ngarachu at

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Nanyuki Sports Club- again

There are other memories of the Nanyuki Sports Club. This is where we played rugby for many years.In case you do not recognize the image, that is me with the pale shirt, missing tooth and thinning hair on the right. Not very flattering!

This morning we watched the glossy starlings running about on the grass outside the dining room and were treated to the wonderful sight of a lilac-breasted roller perched on the stump by the 9th green.

Nanyuki Sports Club

Back at the Nanyuki Sports Club, with which we have a long history. My mother managed the place in the mid-forties when the men were away at war. Jo & I held our wedding reception here, and we have been members for a long time, although only absentee members for the last 34 years!

This picture shows some of the wedding crowd, but the interesting thing is the building in the background (1969). It is the banda in which we are staying, and it was also there in 1944 when an artist painted a club scene that included it. We have that painting on the wall of our home in Canada.

One of the wonderful things about the club is the early morning view of Mount Kenya – shown here. Of course there are other views of the mountain, this one taken from what is now the Sweetwaters Conservancy – a cattle ranch when I practiced here in the 1970s, now an important wildlife reserve, and particularly a rhino sanctuary, and this one of Nelion, taken at dawn from the Lewis Glacier.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Writing and bird photographs

Writing this from the cottage in Gilgil, Kenya where six years ago I started working in earnest on the first draft of the manuscript that would become The Trouble With Lions. I already knew, at that time, that this would be the title of the book, that the lion would simply be the symbol of what is happening to Africa’s wildlife, and that I would have stories about many of the areas of the continent where I had worked with wild animals.

What I had not known was that our hosts, Nigel & Muffet Trent had an active and effective bird feeding and watering station right outside the verandah of their house, and that I would only have to walk a bout 20 metres to sit there and be able to photograph the birds that came to feed or drink. These included cordon blues (this one is a male, identified by the red spot on his cheek), purple grenadiers, speckled pigeons and any number of bulbuls.

Yesterday we visited a new lodge that is sited right above Lake Elementaita, with a great view down over the water and across to the land that is now Soysambu Conservancy. The folks who own the lodge also offer balloon rides over the area. On the far side of the lake, and not visible trough the haze or at this distance, is the only known breeding colony of the Great White Pelican in East Africa.

There are two remarkable features of this colony. First, the young birds are pitch back in colour, and second the adults have move off to a neighbouring lake, either Naivasha or Nakuru, to find food. Being pelicans, they do this most efficiently when the heat of the day has started up a series of thermals, so one can see the birds circling in flocks as they gain height.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Game Drive, a Boat trip and some foreplay

A game drive and a boat trip today. On the boat trip in Queen Elizabeth NP the usual relaxing ride amid schools of snorting hippo and hundreds of birds.

The main thing was watching a bout of foreplay that I just photographed between a bishop and one of his girlfriends. Of course you must understand that this bishop was a Southern Red Bishop, which is a sparrow-sized, brightly-coloured bird that has a spectacular way of erecting (correct term) the vibrant orange-red feathers on his crown when displaying.

Off to Kampala tomorrow and thence Nairobi. Internet will be scant for a few days.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Semliki and Shoebills

From Murchison it was a brutal 10 hour drive to Semliki, only 150 km by water (achievable in 3 hours or so in a speed boat) but more like 280 km by road, only 50 km on tar, the rest on ruts, ridges, rocks and occasional smooth murram. Felt like we had been through a particularly bad massage, or maybe 10 rounds with a latter day Muhammad Ali.

We had booked in the Semliki Safari Lodge, and it is really beautiful. Each room is entirely independent, and none are visible from one another. Comfort, great food, beautiful setting overlooking the Wassa river valley, and both black & white colobus and casqued hornbills to greet us.

The only other guests were Peter & Elka Moeller, friends of Ludwig Siefert, with whom we have just been working. Peter had just retired after many years in Uganda and he too has a passion for things wild, having founded a German NGO called Foerderkreis fuer Ugandas Tierwelt (Foundation For Uganda’s Wildlife) after the disasters of the Amin and then the Obote years.. He has been a filmmaker (for German TV) a builder, and was involved in the translocation of eland from Lake Mburo and Rothschild giraffe from Lake Nakuru NP in Kenya to Kidepo Valley NP in north-eastern Uganda.

The highlight of this trip was undoubtedly the boat trip to the papyrus swamp on Lake Albert. On the way we passed a large fishing village and watched as two boatmen rowed their canoe-like craft out from a sheltered cove. A close look at the picture seems to show that they are rowing stern first, but all such boats were propelled in the same way. The oars are simply flat boards that have been shaped a bit at the handle end.

Our hosts, Mark and Kristin Vibbert had not told us that the chances of seeing a Shoebill stork were good. We saw three, close up and personal, and one of them moved to grab something in the water, but we never saw what is was.

One of the films that Peter Moeller made was about these extraordinary birds, which live only in papyrus swamps and stand waiting for movement of things under the floating vegetation. They then grab at the movement and if it is a fish they kill it with the sharp hook at the end of the upper bill.

There were many other water birds along the swamp edges. This purple heron, that had been lurking in a patch of floating weed surprised us as it left in a hurry and a pair of fish eagles regaled us with their evocative cries.

R & R in Murchison Falls NP

Students away safely on Friday evening and due for some R&R in Amsterdam. Hope we did not work them too hard. I don’t think so & I received a moving and kindly though-of book of paragraphs written by each one of them saying how the experience had affected them. Not for sharing here, but something for me & Jo to treasure.

As they were landing in Holland Jo, Geraldine (her sister) and I headed out on a week’s R&R of our own. Our vehicle was a Land Cruiser belonging to my colleague Dr. JB Nizeyi and driven by professional driver/guide Dauda, which took all the pressure off us, me especially, as I have no driving to do for a whole week.

Our first stop was Murchison Falls NP, and this where we spent 2 nights, saw many species that we had not seen on other parks, had a great ride on the Nile in the tour boat, and enjoyed the rest.

Highlights included close-encounters with pair of Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, shown here, with the male having both red & blue bare skin over cere and neck, the female only blue. These turkey-sized birds are almost never seen flying, but stalk purposefully through the grass looking for food over large home ranges.

We also saw lots of Uganda kob, Rothschild’s giraffe, buffalo, warthogs and hundred’s if not thousands of Abdim’s storks, which were scattered everywhere, also foraging when not circling on the thermals. I almost forgot to mention two other mammals, one common, one less so. Oribi, a dainty antelope with a distinctive black spot behind the eye, are the common ones. Leopard the others. Our most unusual sighting was of a very close association between these two when the cat crossed the track in front of us carrying a partly devoured example of the antelope.

As we circled on one of the many tracks we came across this old bull elephant having a good scratch against the trunk of a Bourassas palm. It must have felt good!