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Deathly shock: Electrocution threatening bird of prey numbers

 An electrocuted Marabou stock at a transformer located near Riadha house in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Raptors, the generic name for birds of prey, are hyper-carnivorous bird species that hunt and feed on other animals.

Kenya has 103 species (including owls) of birds of prey ranging from the tiny pygmy falcon to the lappet-faced vulture, which is the largest raptor in Africa.

Birds of prey provide key ecosystem services such as getting rid of disease-causing carcasses. Unfortunately, several species are increasingly exposed to extinction due to several threats, among them electrocution from high-voltage transmission lines.

A preliminary assessment in 2010 of the potential risks from electrical infrastructure to large birds in Kenya by Jon Smallie and Munir Z Virani, established that of approximately 24 relevant bird species that are of conservation concern in Kenya, 17 species (71 per cent) face a high risk of direct interactions with electrical infrastructure.

Vulnerable vultures

Priority species that get electrocuted include the Egyptian Vulture, White-headed Vulture, Lappet-faced Vulture, Grey-crowned Crane, Lesser Flamingo, White-backed Vulture, Rüppell’s Vulture, Martial Eagle, White Stork, Secretarybird, and various sit-and-wait raptors like Augur Buzzard and Long-crested Eagle. 

The Kenya Bird of Prey Trust, reports that electrocution kills in a number of ways, first by disrupting and overheating the electrical pathways of the nerves and the brain, shocking the heart, causing muscle contraction or tightening, leading to an inability to let go of the electricity wire (caused by muscle seizure or tightening, worsening the situation), leading to dehydrated tissue and burning of soft muscle tissue as well as major organs.

The blood contains hemoglobin (iron) and water which are good conductors of electricity. Bird anatomy allows them to sometimes survive the shock but the muscles and cells die in one leg and the corresponding opposite wing. It takes a few weeks to dry up and the leg and wing fall off.

“Due to a lack of statistics, there could be more than 5,000 birds dying every year from electrocution. In Kenya, we’ve gone from the slightly safer wooden poles to the lethal concrete ones,” says Naivasha Raptor Centre director Shiv Kapila.

The concrete poles are fitted with a cross arm and insulators placed at the head height of a bird which is one foot tall and the concrete poles have metal rebars going through them which usually emerge and expose at the top.

 An electrocuted bird dangling at Soysambu conservancy near Lake Elementaita. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

When a bird perches on it, it forms a connection to the earth and the minute it wants to fly away, it spreads its wings out, touches the lines and gets electrocuted.

More birds affected

“Our policies are also affecting birds from other countries and Kenya is a signatory of the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species,” says Joseph Edebe, a Senior Research Scientist at the Wildlife Research and Training Institute (WRTI) of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in Nakuru.

Migratory birds come to Kenya in September but most, like flamingos, come in January. They do this to escape the harsh winters in Europe and Asia.

The Convention aims to ensure African-Eurasian migratory raptor populations achieve favourable conservation status, requiring member states to endeavour to manage and restore raptor sites, habitats and populations, establish training and monitoring programmes, and submit a national strategy for globally threatened raptor species.

The concrete poles started being used seven years ago and they kill a lot of birds of prey simply by their design. They can be made safer by putting molded rubber caps on them.

The insulators and lines themselves can hang below the cross-arm instead of above it – this is a much more stable configuration as well.

Underground poles

Another model Kenya could borrow from the West is where the power lines are put underground.

Kapila warns that the future is not looking good for birds of prey unless we revolutionise practices where energy infrastructure is concerned and practices around human-wildlife conflict.

“Through education and awareness campaigns, people are made aware of poisoning, and electrocution. At least we’re starting to talk about it, which is the first step to addressing the menace,” he says.

The Kenya Bird of Prey Trust gets on average two electrocuted birds a month, and these are the ones that people come across while they are still alive. Wounded birds have been brought in from as far as Masai Mara and Laikipia and the Taita Hills Sanctuary which is over 300km away.

“Because Africa and other developing nations are not financially rich, this may result in cost-cutting options that result in minimal tangible safeguards to ensure “safe” powerline configurations that do not kill raptors. We can have safe power without electrocuting a single bird for the same cost,” says Simon Thomsett, director of Kenya Bird of Prey Trust.

 A bird on electricity line. [iStockphoto]

He calls for consolidated actions like enhanced management of protected areas, mitigation of specific threats and implementation of species recovery plans.

Bleak future

“Business-as-usual would mean a bleak future for the raptors and any other species we have unless we revolutionise our practices,” he adds.

Kapila urges Kenya Power to speak to local communities, conservationists and scientists about the potential problems of those projects and be open to ideas about how to make power lines and poles safe.

BirdLife International has listed as Critically Endangered in Kenya, the White-headed Vulture, Hooded Vulture, White-backed Vulture, Rüppell’s Vulture and Taita Apalis. Kenya hosts three of the rarest birds: Taita White-eye (endangered), Taita Thrush and Taita Apalis (both of which are critically endangered). The Taita Apalis is the rarest of them all with only 150 birds remaining globally. 


“In the IUCN Red List, it is hard to downgrade a species from, say, critically endangered to endangered,” says Dr Peter Njoroge, the head of the Ornithology Section at the National Museums of Kenya. He was once involved in helping the Seychelles Magpie-Robin to recover from 80 birds to 300 birds which moved it from critically endangered to endangered.

The challenges birds of prey face have been identified in a report titled “Evidence of widespread declines in Kenya’s raptor populations over a 40-year period” authored by D Ogada.

The report, published in the Biological Conservation Journal, Issue 266 of 2022, lists the challenges as either from natural factors, governance or human-induced. 

-This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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