National Geographic : 2016 Jan
88 national geographic • january 2016 Peregrine Fund, “are the most threatened avian functional group in the world.” On a sunny March day Ogada is traveling with her colleague Munir Virani in the Masai Mara region of Kenya. Virani is here not to study his beloved birds but to speak with herdsmen about their cows. Livestock husbandry, it turns out, is essential to vulture welfare. As our truck weaves through flocks of sheep and goats, Virani explains how the Maasai have in recent years leased their land, which rings the northern section of the Masai Mara National Reserve, to conservancies established to protect wildlife by excluding pastoralists and their livestock. Some Maasai claim the conservancies have lured more lions and other carnivores to the area. (The conservancies are contiguous and unfenced.) Meanwhile populations of wildebeests and oth- er resident ungulates in the Mara ecosystem are facing threats from poaching, prolonged drought, and conversion of savanna to cropland and real estate. This in itself would be bad news for vultures, but there’s worse. Virani asks every Maasai we meet: Have you lost any livestock to predators recently? The answer is always, “Yes, and my neighbors have too.” Usually the lions attack at night, when the cattle are penned inside bomas—corrals ringed with thorny brush. The lions roar, then terrified cattle stampede, crash through the boma gate, and scatter. Dogs bark, waking their owners, but it’s usually too late. The killing of a single cow represents a loss of 30,000 shillings ($300), a significant blow to families that use livestock as currency (a bull can be worth 100,000 shillings). Next comes retaliation: The men tie up their dogs, retrieve what’s left of the lion’s kill, and sprinkle it with a generic form of Furadan, a cheap, fast-acting pesticide that’s readily avail- able under the table. The lion returns to feed, most likely with its family, and the entire pride A Rüppell’s vulture glides in to join the party at a carcass in the Serengeti. Adult Rüppell’s have a wingspan of up to eight feet. Riding thermals 12,000 feet or more above sea level, Rüppell’s vultures can eat in four African countries in a single foray. The dominant species in East Africa, the white-backed and Rüppell’s, can glide more than a hundred miles a day. n Society Grant Your Society membership helped conserve threatened vultures in India and Kenya.