Guardian of the Sky: Meet Stratton Hatfield

Guardian of the Sky: Meet Stratton Hatfield

Established in 2015 by founders Simon Thomsett, Shiv Kapila and Sarah Higgins, the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust (KBoPT) continues to this day in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, National Museums of Kenya, Wildlife Research and Training Institute, The Peregrine Fund, Wageningen University and Research, Birdlife Africa, Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, and many more. Working tirelessly, they help save the lives of raptors who have fallen victim to a myriad of perils as well as work to restore and conserve their populations and habitat, whilst helping others understand these birds. We caught up with programme manager Stratton Hatfield to hear his views on how a positive shift in attitudes towards these majestic birds can begin with just a few passionate, key individuals.

Stratton Hatfield

More often than not, if you were to ask someone to describe the wildlife of Kenya, it wouldn’t be long before you heard the words leopard, rhino, buffalo, lion, or elephant, the famed “Big 5” that tourist companies vaunt for their safaris into the huge wilderness that is Kenya. The capital Nairobi is the major starting point for these safaris into the Maasai Mara National Reserve, part of the vast Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.

But here you will also find huge predators in the skies – the raptors with names that match their physical majesty: Long-crested Eagle, Bateleur,  Black-chested Snake Eagle, and one of the country’s largest birds of prey, the Martial Eagle.

Martial eagles are just one of over 100 known species of raptor that are either resident or migrants to the region, and it is this species that Stratton Hatfield is currently researching for his PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Splitting his time between Africa and Europe, I meet Stratton online whilst he is in the Netherlands before heading back to Kenya in a few weeks.

My wife is Dutch so that's one reason why I'm here, but I was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Kenya. I have been working in and around the Mara ecosystem for about 12 years now, and my friendship with Simon and Shiv began before they started the KBoPT, but I officially joined in 2019, early 2020. I come here to the NL to apply for grants, write proposals, to work on my PhD and then when I go to Kenya, it's just full-on in the field. As I'm more of a programme manager, I'm dealing with staff management and training, fundraising, and giving talks and presentations, trying to get permits, that kind of thing.

The Kwenia Vulture Sanctaury - a new community owned conservancy

Channelling champions

But it is Stratton’s main focus of mentorship when in Kenya, however, that sparks his fire – helping individuals who have this love and respect for birds to realize how that can be applied, and how to channel fears and frustrations about their future into hands-on, effective, change.

For me, it's all about finding individuals that are incredibly passionate about and love raptors, love birds, and providing them with career opportunities. With mentorship, and friendship, you can encourage them to pursue their passions. So many people don't really feel like there's a career in their love of birds, so we just want to tell people within Kenya, that couldn't be further from the truth. You can love raptors, and this can be your career and you can make a difference — and we're here to help.

The Kwenia Vulture Sanctuary team hard at work nest monitoring

So often the conservation community in Africa is obsessed with large charismatic megafauna, but what I love about birds is, it's very quick to separate the wheat from the chaff, for lack of a better expression. It's really hard to fake a love for raptors, and I think that's a real blessing in disguise in our work — when someone shows that genuine interest, it's very clear.

Deadly declines

Kenya is on the brink of losing many of its raptor species. Secretary bird and long-crested eagle populations are down by 94%; lesser kestrels, 93%; augur buzzards, 91%. The list goes on and is long and daunting, and the need to conserve has never been greater. But it is a Herculean task, riddled with obstacles. As with elsewhere in the world, birds that were once a common sight are now in drastic decline, which makes the remaining populations ever more vulnerable to the issues that have wrought such damage. I ask Stratton to expand upon those issues.

Lesser kestrel. Courtesy of Sumeet Moghe, Wikimedia Commons

There's three or four real drivers of rapture population decline in Africa: habitat loss, collision with and electrocution from energy infrastructure, indirect poisoning, and to a lesser degree, direct poisoning. The first is being felt everywhere, of course. We're losing habitat, and we're losing habitat quickly. The reasons for that, well, you can beat around the bush for a while but the foundation of it all is that there's a lot of people nowadays. I think the one beautiful thing about raptors and birds generally is, we can coexist — a close friend, Dr. Shane McPherson, studies African Crowned Eagles within Durban, South Africa, which is an urban landscape, and they have a remarkable number of African Crowned Eagles living alongside people.

But there, they live in neighbourhoods with high income, wealthy people with big gardens with big trees. Here you have smaller plots, less trees, lower income, ergo you have less African Crowned Eagles. Also the average home range of a Martial Eagle pair is around 175 square kilometers, that's a vast area. How can you even begin to create conservation plans around that species, if you can't even provide them with the area that they require?

A warden from the Mara Triangle holding a juvenile Martial Eagle

A major factor contributing to this dearth of suitable raptor habitat is the erosion of community ownership of land in Kenya, as Western ownership principles of land are coming in. The government now subdivides and allocates former tracts of community land to individuals, and that has huge consequences for wildlife.

“Suddenly you've got this area getting divided overnight with boundaries being drawn up. So what do people do? They fence it, or they cut down all the trees. Fortunately, community owned wildlife conservancies are being spearheaded throughout Kenya where private landowners are coming together and either voluntarily signing up their land or leasing their land to companies and non-profits for conservation. The problem with this model  is the scale and cost of it all. It takes roughly 40,000 acres of private land and sometimes hundreds of private land-owners coming together to protect a single pair of Martial Eagles.”

Martial eagle. Courtesy of Sumeet Moghe, Wikimedia Commons

Indirect poisoning is the next devastating issue, described by Thomsett in a National Geographic article in 2019 as a “full-blown crisis”. Many of the raptors are scavengers, not least the eleven vulture species found there. A 2015 study showed that eight of those species are either endangered or critically endangered according to the IUCN. Highly available and cheap pesticides, particularly insecticides and rodenticides, are applied to crops, then these chemicals enter the food chain and as raptors are at the top of that food chain, they are immediately exposed to high concentrations.

Timothy Siololo with a poisoned Lappet-faced Vulture

Poisons are also being used to kill the predators (namely lion, leopard, and hyena) who take livestock, and then the raptors feed on their carcasses too; this is again linked to human population growth – more of us, more livestock. To protect livelihoods, often the farmers see no alternative — these are incredibly complicated socio-political and ecological issues, and the birds are suffering losses on a potentially unrecoverable scale. There is some hope, however — compared with unprotected areas, where studies show that raptor populations have almost collapsed, numbers have declined less drastically in large parks and reserves. But it’s creating and effectively managing these vast protected areas and their buffer zones that is key.

Power demands

As the 21st century entered its second decade, Mongolia had the ignoble title of being among the worst nations in the world for raptor electrocution; this has now largely been mitigated against, with some sources declaring a 98% reduction in deaths year on year. The reasons for this huge turnaround in the birds’ favor is, of course, money and government support. In 2018, the UAE’s Mohamed Bin Zayed Raptor Conservation Fund was established, and a huge amount of money was invested in a complete overhaul of the nation’s electricity infrastructure.

Relatively simple yet catastrophic design flaws in the pole and line arrangement were identified, rectified, and rolled out. Stratton explains how an equally terrible situation in Kenya is unlikely to be solved quite so easily.

High-voltage electric power transmission line, as viewed towards the south-east in the Tsavo East National Park, Kenya. Wikimedia Commons

We suspect that our raptors are suffering from high electrocution rates on our electrical infrastructure, but we actually have no real idea of the scale of it. When you look at places like Mongolia, they've really tried to do the work. But the problem with Kenya  is we have high densities of scavengers, and when you've got several clans of hyenas and feral dogs wandering the same area, you don't find stuff that's electrocuted and died underneath powerlines. Also, something that people don't realize is that when a bird is electrocuted, very often, it doesn’t die at that spot. They can die weeks or months later after their appendages have literally rotted off of their bodies, or they've starved.

Aside from the money from Dubai, Mongolia is also a relatively empty country with low population densities and a less complicated power grid, essentially straight power lines crossing vast steppes. But you come to Kenya, and you've got power lines criss-crossing everywhere, and you've got no dead birds underneath them because of the scavengers; so it can be very hard to sell the story, it's not so straightforward here. Mongolia is a great place to illustrate solutions to these complicated problems, to show that it works, but replicating it in Kenya is much more difficult.

Low-income area Bulbul near Nairobi, Kenya. Wikimedia Commons

Stratton explains that Kenya is trying to provide power to most Kenyans by 2030, placing a huge amount of pressure on the government. This mean the risk of doing so quickly equates to cheaply, and considerations about how the design of the infrastructure affects the birdlife is not a priority, despite the fact that most of the time when a bird hits a line, there is a power cut, affecting everyone.

Electricity is something fairly basic – if you don't have electricity, you can't do email, you can't charge your phone, you can't do all kinds of things. So there's this urgent need for everyone to get electricity. I sympathize with that, I have it, so why shouldn't everyone else? But I think one of the more successful ways you can challenge the issue is via funding. If the world banks and the big organisations that fund these infrastructure projects build into these loan agreements on these contracts that they're giving out that certain infrastructure must be of a certain standard, and it must be designed in a certain way, that's a good step.”

Community futures

One such issue that could be construed as minor from one perspective but is actually hugely important, is understanding where these birds fit into the lexicon of communities, something that Stratton finds fascinating and worth pursuing.

An Endangered adult female Martial Eagle with a Thomson Gazelle fawn

The area where we mostly work in Kenya is home to the Maasai, and when you're engaging with Maasai culture and talking about raptors, you'll find that, at least in the younger generation, there's a lot of broad terminology when talking about the identification of raptors. Also, depending on where you go, people will call certain species of raptors very different things. I'll show people a picture of a Martial Eagle and they'll call it all kinds of names. But actually, what is the name of a Martial Eagle in Kimaasai? There's never really been this consensus-building exercise to do that like there has been for the English language and it would be really wonderful to actually do it from a Maasai perspective.

This respectful consideration of how these birds are perceived underpins Stratton’s entire approach to engaging on a one-to-one basis with potential conservation champions of the future. He understands that whilst the majority of people regard these predators as just that, “lions, leopards and hyenas of the sky”, tapping into the accompanying primeval awe these birds evoke will be the key to securing their future. The knowledge that this will undoubtedly take years does not deter Stratton in any way; his and his colleagues’ commitment to the long run can never be overstated.

English: Black-chested snake eagle with a snake.

There’s a lot of people that care; and that gives me a lot of hope. Because if people don't care and people are not invested, we will be in deep trouble. Generally, for Kenyans, wildlife is a part of who we are, and I really see that growing in a big way, it’s very exciting. If that continues to happen, we will continue to make creative solutions into the future.

For me, that’s where the future of Kenya is.But we can also relate this back to the whole idea of what Bird Buddy does — inspires people to love birds; and that for me is what's exciting, and what we need. We need people loving birds.”

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