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Marabou storks, a fortune or nuisance?

By Oscar Pilipili

With sword-sized beaks, they glide effortlessly through the air, confidently showing off their ugly look.

Few people, even keen bird watchers, are attracted to their white and black jacket. Many Nairobi dwellers wish they could be kicked out of their habitat.

The population of the marabou stork, one of the largest scavenger birds of East Africa, appears to have exploded in nearly all major towns.

In Nairobi, they have a large colony on trees on Uhuru Highway near Nyayo Stadium and Harry Thuku Road next to the University of Nairobi.

The birds are also prominent at Moi Forces Academy, at the Dandora garbage dump and other areas such as the abattoirs.

Where they nest like on Uhuru Highway, a casual observer may be forgiven for imagining that a campaign was on to paint the nearby roofs and roads white.

Rooftops, trees and the stretch of Uhuru Highway between Mombasa Road roundabout and Bunyala Road intersection have been fast turning rusty white.

The development comes with increasing number of marabou storks in the Central Business District and especially in business establishments on Uhuru Highway and Lusaka Road.

Call for action

Marabou storks squirt acidic excrement leaving the background literally white. Many Nairobi residents have expressed varied views over the alarming population of the scavenger birds, with most seeking action to reduce them.

But Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) under whose jurisdiction they fall, says the residents would best be advised to learn to live with the storks.

KWS argues that the scavenger cleans more than it pollutes the environment. They are often found near garbage mounds.

Man’s landlords

CMC Motors Group general manager/director Chris Diaz says the storks are their landlords since humans are in essence intruders in the birds’ natural habitat.

"We’ve no complaint," Diaz told The Standard when asked if the scavengers were a nuisance.

But many hawkers and motorists complained the birds mess up their wares and cars.

KWS says the situation was unlikely to lead to a human-wildlife conflict. It attributes the rise in population of the storks to high garbage generation in the city.

Mr Alfred Owino, a bird expert at KWS, says marabou storks have importance and disadvantages like any other wildlife.

"The species reduce the spread of disease by cleaning up dirt, including animal carcasses from the environment," he said.

Indeed, in some areas like around abattoirs where they feed, they are nicknamed ‘health inspectors’. "Marabou storks have many positive effects and the only nuisance lies in nesting areas, which they make dirty," says Owino.

He warned that the rise in numbers of the scavengers was something that people should be prepared for and come up with appropriate mitigation measures.

"We all appreciate the mess caused by marabou storks near where they nest. However, it has to be realised that we are dealing with a highly mobile species," he said.

Owino said conditions that made towns favourable for the stork should be addressed exhaustively.

Viable strategies

He said there were strategies that could be adopted with involvement of Nairobi City Council and KWS to contain the situation.

This includes the formation of the marabou stork and other scavenger birds control unit by the council.

He, however, warns this would be a long-term strategy since there are no quick-fix solutions.

Indeed at one time, trees around Nyayo Stadium were spruced to reduce the birds’ nesting habitat. Owino says over the years, many places that were occupied by the birds have been taken up by emerging settlements within the city and surrounding areas, without proper mitigation.

Marabou storks have therefore had to look for alternative nesting, and thorn trees, like those near Nyayo Stadium, appear to be one of the ideal sites due to vegetation similarities with their natural environment.

Tall trees provide perching ground for marabou storks to nest well above the ground, KWS says.

National Environment Management Authority (Nema) says the increasing presence of the birds was an indication of radical environmental changes.

Nema Deputy Director for Education David Ongare said: "Just like headache is an indicator of an underlying ailment, we must find out what leads to the relocation of the birds to these city localities."

Mr Ongare said solving the invasion would be a challenge, but insists underlying issues like management of solid waste must be tackled effectively.

In the meantime, the lazy ‘health inspector’ will continue to have its way.

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