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Simon Thomsett on the African Crowned Eagle – Part 1

May 15th, 2011 · 9 Comments · Interviews

I feel privileged to introduce someone who is so dear to me. I hold him on par with my childhood superheroes. That’s who Simon Thomsett is to me (and I am sure, to many others too) – a guru, whose reputation and kindness far precedes him and transcends international borders. I have been eagerly anticipating writing an introduction for him. For those of you who have had the privilege to meet this extraordinary individual, I recognize that the opportunity to read about his love, passion and obsession for raptors, especially the African Crowned Eagle is an extremely valuable opportunity to be cherished forever. Simon is one of those rare individuals who likes giving. It’s what he does best. Whether it is his knowledge, skills, expertise, wisdom or even his culinary delights, an afternoon or evening spent with Simon is like a roller-coaster journey filled with excitement.

I first met Simon nearly twenty years ago when he was on the look out for a Kenyan student to train as a raptor biologist. Currently a Research Associate at the National Museums of Kenya, The Peregrine Fund had taken him under their wing to help revamp raptor studies in the East African region. “Turn up at my ranch tomorrow, ” he said, when I met him briefly at the museum offices in Nairobi. Blonde hair, blue-eyed with rugged looks, almost like a younger version of Harrison Ford, Simon sauntered away down the staircase as I watched wide-eyed. And then, almost immediately, he reappeared. “Ah, you will need directions, he said. “Go down the Mombasa Road until you get to Lukenya Hill, turn right at Daystar and go exactly seven kilometers where you will see a Martial’s nest on your right. Exactly opposite is a gate with a padlock – key under rock”. I turned up the following day to begin my adventures with Simon.
When I turned up at his place, he looked at me from top to bottom, suddenly bolted out in the garden to peer in the skies above, returned and said almost nonchantly “Cuppa tea?” Within an hour, he had introduced me to a world of raptors that I never knew existed. He exuded passion and charisma – I stood there in awe, hypnotized by his tremendous wealth of knowledge but more so, his affection and fondness for his raptors. An accomplished falconer, Simon has lived a charmed life having had his first Lanner Falcon at the age of six. He grew up spending days on end in the wilderness areas of Kenya hunting with falcons and spending time in the back of their family car whilst his father filmed Africa’s big cats. Simon’s greatest love has been his two legendary Crowned Eagles – Rosy and Girl, both of whom he looked after for over 35 years, and I am happy to add are still by his side even today. Simon’s love and knowledge about raptors stems from spending time in the field with his mentors – Grahame Dangerfield and the late Dr Leslie Brown, both legends in the field of raptors. Other people who have had tremendous influence in Simon’s life have been Peter Davey, Cunningham van Someren, David Hopcraft, Tom Cade and Leon Bennun (all incredibly talented and unique individuals). Simon has the most amazing ability to absorb information, process it and come up with his own unique ideas and hypotheses. “Why can’t we introduce Long-tailed Hawks in Kakamega Forest?” he would tell me.

Simon has imparted his knowledge and skills to tens of thousands of individuals. From children of Kenya’s rural schools to affluent Hollywood film stars, he has touched the lives of many. When Simon speaks, people listen in awe and great admiration. His energy is infectious and addictive. He has helped students selflessly – from the rainforests of Madagascar, to the thick forests of Ivory Coast, where he dangled from trees to help trap and band Crowned Eagles. His experience was critical for some of The Peregrine Fund’s projects in places like the Cape Verde Islands and in Ethiopia where he single-handedly scaled 300 m cliffs to search for Bearded Vulture chicks for a reintroduction program in Kenya. For me, the greatest moments would have to be spending time with him in the field where he was at his element. From wrestling vultures in the savannahs of the Masai Mara, to crawling through the dense fluorescent-fungi understory of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and Ngezi Forest in search of owls, to the dense jungles in Bandhavgarh National Park, India, sitting with Simon around a crackling campfire sipping tea and listening to Simon stories would have to rate as magical.

Cats are believed to have nine lives, but Simon has at least nine hundred – which include surviving from crashing in a home built plane to having a one ton water tank fall on him. But those stories are for another day. For now, prepare to be inspired and motivated by Simon’s interview about his much-loved Crowned Eagles.

Munir Virani


Simon  Thomsett with Crowned Eagle

Simon Thomsett with Crowned Eagle

A long while ago I was asked by Markus Jais and Munir Virani to contribute to an interview for the Africa raptor network on the Crowned Eagle. The species then pitched up for discussion in the raptor network due to a renewed request for permission to export two birds for breeding from Tanzania to UK. That incensed me and I ended up skewing this interview towards status. Then I went walkabout without internet connection and now finally have chance to revisit it.
It was an honour and a great chance to be self-opinionated and long-winded about my favourite species. Thanks! Of the species accounts I was able only to read Rob Davies excellent Verreaux’s Eagle interview and envied him his clarity, experience, humour and especially brevity. I have one point to add which will sadden Rob, of their status in Kenya. It may be best illustrated to him by casting his memory back to a line of cliffs behind the famous Ngong Hills to which he and I went trapping Lanners sometime in the mid 1980s. Those Verreaux’s Eagles died out around then, as did the Egyptian Vultures. The eagle pair written about by Karen Blixen on the Ngong Hills themselves, preceded this pair by a few years, and some adjacent pairs throughout the valley towards Suswa died out shortly thereafter. Leslie Brown’s pair on Eagle Hill Embu were lost in the early 1980s. That makes about 75% of all Verreaux’s I knew of back then lost in that decade. It is a recurrent theme as will be seen below. While there are rare exceptions only those nesting on vast, untouchable cliffs far from the usual “shamba” systems of rural and pastoral humanity stand a chance. Kenya underwent a period of dramatic wildlife loss and ecological instability and despite the Verreaux’s Eagle’s tenacity in South Africa and its predicted ability to out-survive all other of Africa’s large eagles, I would unhesitatingly up-list it (for our region).

While in his day, Leslie Brown considered the Crowned Eagle to be one of the worlds’ best known eagles it is a sad thing to note that there are simply not the resources today to state the same for contemporary Africa. Although the last 50 years has been characterised by a decline in observers, expeditions, collectors, and naturalists across most of the Crowned Eagle’s range a number of researchers such as Drs Susanne Shultz in Ivory Coast, T. Struhsaker, M. Leakey and J. Skorupa in S. West Uganda have added crucial insights to their biology from regions otherwise largely ignored. Studying the Crowned Eagle above the Tropic of Capricorn, west of ‘dry’ East Africa, they are seeing the species outside of its oft-studied and possibly peripheral distribution in East and Southern Africa. That raptor research and awareness has increased in Southern Africa over the same period may show a discrepancy of knowledge and opinion leaning towards that region. A status review should apply to the whole and not a small part within it and it should be ever more frequently evaluated given the exponential growth of problems it faces across most of its distribution.

Magu April 2005

Magu April 2005, © Simon Thomsett

I am acutely aware of the danger of summarising global status by referring to one’s own knowledge of a small part of their distribution. For example, I live in what is widely perceived as one of Africa’s most ‘successful’ countries with functioning wildlife policies; acknowledged as a rare thing across the continent. Therefore basing one’s judgment on this small area could lead to a bias towards making a too rosy a picture for the rest of Africa. But as I once knew of some 27 nests/territories in the late 1970s that plummeted to just 3 in the following decade and none in the next, I realise that Kenya may represent a confusing paradox. While the country is sold as the secure wildlife destination for tourists, those less easily duped by this national commercialism often seem seized by equally dramatising an opposing view. They believe that most large species of wildlife have declined at such high rate that the sheer kinesis of their descent will see them to extinction (locally). Exponents at each end of these extreme views may benefit financially or theatrically from their position. Others especially in administration, bumble along somewhere in the middle, enjoying a status quo and shaking their heads at extreme views. They hold court and demand substantiation, raising or lowering the bar if a matter gets awkwardly close to having to do something. If, as may be the case, Kenya as a nation is inexorably sinking gently into the Indian Ocean with one hand on the lavatory plunger and the other waving frantically for help, the world will look away. From their offices in Switzerland will come the stern reminder that the species occurs elsewhere.

In the conservation (and gargantuan humanitarian) businesses of our country it is essential to pronounce doom as well as success according to popularity ratings and funding opportunities. It may keep them in business, but it can obscure facts at a shameful scale and seriously impede wildlife conservation. Politics and corruption can interfere and thwart projects that rock the boat, identify culprits or suggest solutions; especially when it comes to forest conservation. It is in this emotionally manic and bewildering country of opposing opinions and ‘poor science’ that one, not surprisingly, finds a lack of reliable data and statistics on habitat and basic anthropomorphic factors that affects the environment. I for one have lost faith and dread to think what a hash someone could make if they honestly relied on what is printed or told “on good authority”. Predictions and future trends are notoriously divergent, so much so that the sum of it is an inability to state with confidence the status of most mega-fauna, let alone an eagle. It is wise to take all that one hears with a pinch of salt, seek alternative impartial reference and look for oneself.
It is best that one steps back, into a space ship preferably and looks down to see the continent from a holistic and wider perspective. The technology is there, for when we had one downed helicopter recently on the slopes of Mt Kenya we were able to access, by the hour, high resolution satellite images from the US military sufficient to see the wreckage, but apparently we remained unable to see, publish and act upon the vast swathes of cleared forests on that same mountain. Previously when evidence was collected the main financier was shot dead by his gate one evening in a random senseless attack, sufficient to lead to the early retirement of the chief investigator. If paranoia is allowed to creep in, one is free to imagine all sorts of intrigue and deceit regarding forest conservation in our part of the world.
Importantly for all wild fauna and flora assessments, that easiest to quantify and most important variable, the human population, is obscured. In 1991 an independent assessment by the Kenya Rangeland and Management Unit (KREMU) based on satellite imagery estimated a human population one third to twice that given by a contemporary government census. The tribal constituent and distribution of human populations is of crucial political importance. The human population must be seen to be within manageable limits otherwise World Bank and other loans will be tough to get. It takes a peculiar understanding of current affairs to see reason behind manipulating human population estimates. I am not alone in having little confidence in the human population figures published. Today when we discuss population we ask by whom it was published, and then nod or shake our heads while grunting sceptically or in acceptance. Somehow, somewhere politics and other interests do distort and censor what we know. Furthermore comes the unpopular task of shocking the citizenry that some 50% is below 15 years of age and we still have one of the highest population growths in the world, and that population still has a daily dependency on the natural things around them for food and fuel. To return to the 1970s subject of planned pregnancies and stable population is seen as an abomination of human rights these days. It is much better to ignore the whole thing and underestimate the truth and thus portray a wholesome future.
It is plausible that other countries have a similar corruption of data and I believe it to be the single-most limiting factor that discredits a science-literature-based approach to accessing species status across most of Africa. If we can’t agree on human numbers and differ as much as 25% to 50% in estimates, then we will be as inaccurate in our census of a species under review. Unfortunately for that species, that margin of error may make it either ‘Least Concern’ or Critically Endangered’.
Recent revised World Population Prospects (UN publication) predict that Kenya’s population will quadruple from 40 million to 160 million by 2100. If the current birth rate cannot be controlled it could reach 247 million. Uganda will be around 171 million and Tanzania will reach some 316 million. Given a demonstrated skew of data to lean towards an underestimate these predictions sound reasonable if not “optimistic”. Few would doubt that our current population with its land dependant lifestyle (even if it was stable), would need to annexe most protected areas, at some foreseeable point. 4 to 6 times that in less than 3 human generations would give one cause to doubt the survival for any natural resource, let alone a sensitive forest species.
Perhaps many, like myself are inhibited by answering the IUCN criteria regarding the status of African raptors. Staring incredulously with sinking heart at the myriad unanswerable questions I worry that in failing to satisfactorily oppose the most optimistic perspective will result in the species being tossed to the bottom of the heap as “least concern”. There I am sure, a number of Africa’s threatened species will remain while resources may be spent on less threatened and much better known European and North American species. If Africa gets a look in, it is often only a South African perspective that gets heard. One reason for this is understandable. There simply isn’t enough information regarding the rest of Africa and it is all questionable anyway.

Had I not had opportunity to travel widely in Africa thanks to work with the Peregrine Fund and a recent southern African trip with Laila Bahaa-el-din I would have remained insular and reserved enough to not dare pass comment on the status of a species across the whole continent.

Magu backlit

Magu backlit, © Simon Thomsett

To try to answer status one could simplify it by examining three broad areas of concern; habitat, food, and mortality. The Crowned Eagle is a forest species with the lowest reproductive rate of all African raptors, competes with humans for “bush meat” and is persecuted over 90% of its range.
This brief and negative summary on those chief concerns should be alarming. But it is not, for a less gloomy outlook is voiced from a tiny area of its distribution. As a result of its South African status only, I believe, the Crowned Eagle is officially listed as “Least Concern”. This official choice of words is so deflating that it actively impedes work, research, funding and conservation direction as well as leaves one a little more than “vexed”. Unfortunately for a species so dismissed it takes, contrary to what you may think, a surprising amount of persuasion for it to be up-listed. Regional listings add an ambiguity that confuses the objective of the whole. While one must acknowledge that the status reviews are of good intent and a huge challenge, these status reviews are often so at odds with reality that it raises suspicion as to the accuracy of others. Despite the use of the CITES lists in designing conservation policies in , I can seldom justify using them in identifying species of concern.
What is more, I worry about those who do.
Besides, what does it matter if a species is “up listed”, or even moved up to the endangered species list? It may as well (as Neil Baker pointed out) be put “on the stock exchange”, for all that it is worth. Today advances in conservation are measured in changes in the syntax of documents, not in the field.
Expanding the argument, the Crowned Eagle’s main habitat is mostly wildlife rich, high canopy forest, the target of timber companies, agriculturists, palm oil and bio-fuel plantations, miners and slash and burn farmers. Africa has long been a drying continent with woodland and forest depletion (Sub-sahal Africa has witnessed human and livestock-induced woodland and forest loss and the advance of deserts hundreds of years before the new global warming scare). Forests have more direct methods of depletion. A charcoal-based economy outdoes minerals in Congo/Zaire, fuels wars, makes inroads deep into forests and is one of central Africa’s largest businesses with devastating effect on forests and wildlife. Closer to home charcoal taken from Kenya and Ethiopia finances the Somali warlords. This eagle’s main habitat is unquestionably in dire straights. The Red Colobus monkey, as species that typifies the optimal forest quality (and food species) for Crowned Eagles is singled out as one of the fastest declining and most endangered monkeys. Within the forest land-locked countries of Africa the bush-meat trade is the largest source of animal protein for humans. It is a multi billion dollar business with some 5 million tons (mostly small antelopes and monkeys… the Crowned Eagle’s staple diet) being killed each year. In just 500 million acres of the Congo Basin owned by 8 countries the weight equivalent to 40.7 million humans is removed each year (0r 740,000 bull elephants). That is fine if it is sustainable, but it is clearly not. The effect of this is to severely depress or remove the large, medium and small wildlife species of the forests. Crowned Eagles require some 430kg of “bush meat” a year and thus directly compete with the industry. The impact of this enterprise cannot be overstated for I have seen forests essentially devoid of wildlife in both East and West Africa. The demand drives poachers ever deeper and protected forests are by no means secure and most are not even monitored. Had I not witnessed it I could not possibly believe the impact of commercial small animal harvest and have had to change much of my thinking with respect to assuming that where there is habitat, there is wildlife.
In the bush meat trade the Crowned Eagle itself is shot and eaten whenever an opportunity presents itself and its feathers and body parts used as ornaments and/or for fletching arrows. In Cameroon for example poachers call them in by blowing on a cracked nut and then they shoot them. Direct persecution of the Crowned Eagle is not unusual and may be a major factor.
It is certainly known to compete with the bush meat hunter and not appreciated for killing small to medium sized livestock (chickens, cats, dogs, goats and sheep).
The feet of these eagles were once worn (Joy Adamson’s paintings of the 1950s) by witch doctors, and I have seen 2 pairs of feet, neatly arranged on the mantle-piece of a wealthy up-country Kenya house. I recently heard that eagle talons are sold to tourists on the beach as well as lion claws. While body parts are a curiosity it may be sufficient to mention it as a threat, but not at the same magnitude such as the parts of vultures in the Muti trade of South Africa.
Of feathers the following anecdote says much. I asked my night watchman to get some decent, more deadly arrows for his bow. He returned with some “good” ones from Kibwezi. On examination I saw they were fletched with Crowned Eagles. “Oh yes” said my night watchman of many years and one of the very few who has helped breed them, “That’s all we have left…you see there are no more vultures to fletch arrows these days. You could of course have had Marabou, but you specifically asked for “deadly” arrows. These, as you know are very potent and they are no good to us because they kill our goats!” Turned out I knew that pair of Crowned Eagles in Kibwezi, that were killed to fletch my arrows. They were the only pair for hundreds of sq/km. (NB. Nearly every rural household has security bows and arrows for the night watchmen).
It is likely that most Crowned Eagle nests and pairs within Kenya’s unprotected areas face direct persecution if a chance presents itself. Impunity for their killing goes without saying for no one has ever been charged or prosecuted for killing a raptor (except for one Bearded Vulture). Leslie Brown wrote of the difference in culture when he compared the forgiving nature of the Wambere in Embu (Kenya) with the game keeper attitude of those in England. He found it pleasant to note that while villagers would know of a particular eagle and its occasional depredations on livestock, they would leave the bird and its nest alone…whereas the western attitude (at that time) was to shoot it. I spanned that moment when this culture changed in Embu and saw the complete loss of all (but one species of 8 ) eagles within short order in the early 1980s. Gone are those days of tolerance and I blame in part new conservation policies that advertently instil the term “wildlife conflict” and create indignation (where none was previously) by offering sympathy and material reward. I copy the feeling that Leslie noted, in that increased awareness and western education removed the old customs, of tolerance and appreciation.
As the protected forest areas suffer from forest use (illegal or legal, it makes no difference) it is probable that virtually every Crowned Eagle pair faces a level of persecution that would be considered “unsustainable” within all but our most secure forested national Parks. Not all protected forests are good habitat. For example, Sokoke Forest National Park on the Kenya coast supports 1 pair of Crowned Eagles that took over a decade to locate and that tree and its neighbours were marked for illegal felling (in 2009). From what I have seen of the rest of Africa (except perhaps South Africa) the species is dependent upon conservation areas. Certainly its future outside of protected areas is unlikely unless it remains inaccessible and remote.

In Kenya we see a direct link between forest loss, human settlement schemes and untouchable businessmen/politicians benefiting from enormous land grabbing deals. It is the talk of the people, spurs armed conflict and national division and is the daily headline news of our newspapers but somewhat incredulously, still hopelessly lacking in sound statistics and prosecution. Civil disorder or war often vies for fertile forest land. E.G Rwanda’s Gishwati Forest estimated in 1986 at 100,000 hectares, and after the 1994 civil war only 600 hectares remained in 2001. A loss of 99.4% illustrates the ability of rural man to eradicate forests when forcefully or voluntarily translocated. Kenya’s civil disturbance of 2008 saw communities moved, some to forests. The Mau settlements and translocations are all manifestations of civil unrest and rapidly expanding human pressures copied through much of Africa, where fertile land is now rare. The Kenya Forest Service in response to recent national awareness regarding this forest loss aims to plant some 25 000 acres of forest per annum. But sadly these will be mostly commercial exotics an eco-type that in Kenya, has as much bio-diversity as a wheat field.

In the Cheranganis, said to be the least disturbed highland water catchment area in Kenya (and thus unrepresentative), Crowned Eagle pairs were widely persecuted during the mid 1980s when a wave of settlements occurred. Then estimated by WCMD/KWS and the local community to number in their “hundreds”, I plotted a possible 15 pairs. The area I covered was some 1/3rd of the total which is estimated at 1000sq/km2 and ‘protected’ under Dept of Forestry (I concluded therefore some 15pairs of eagles in 333km2 or 1pr/22km2). Amazingly some 605km2 of the total 1000sq/km was published to be under closed forest (2003), while I eyeballed it 18 years previously from ground and air as having not 60% forested but some 20%. Local knowledge of nests proved to be remarkably accurate and by cross referencing people around the perimeter up to 15km distant and following up on their directions I found they all converged on just 4 pairs (1pr/83km2), and concluded these to be close to the entire population within my 333sq/km transect (although I assumed the presence of at least 2 more pairs (1pr/55.5km2). Very low densities until one made the all too obvious conclusion that the forest cover estimated (E.g. by UNEP and BirdLife), was very much less and of much poorer quality than published. Cresting the edge of a hill and expecting (as had been published by UNEP from remote sensing) a vast forest ahead of me on Sodang Ridge I saw only farms, a shattered forest remnant and Erica heath. Kiptaberr forest said to be some 20,000 hectares and the largest was busily being hacked down in 1994 (the only area I have previously seen the Chestnut bellied Owlet), to a distant fragmented patchwork that today could perhaps house one or two harassed pairs of Crowned Eagles. (The emerging atoll hill and cliff also lost its Bearded Vulture pair around 1996, 0ne of only 3 pairs in the entire mountain range). The persecution level was 100%, for under every nest I was faced with outraged communities demanding compensation for livestock loses (Here, I trapped a female (called Girl) that killed a 4.5yr old girl in 1984.). I had to topple nests and translocate eagles. 4 active nests (out of 4 I climbed) had arrows sticking out of them and poisoned lambs were a known method used for killing eagles. One ingenious trap (used apparently for killing Bearded Vultures as well as vultures and eagles), was to build a small stone croft and cover the roof with poles and brush through which one tethers either a live goat kid or chicken or a dead animal. It took effort and patience to capture, by hand these eagles. There is little doubt that most if not all Crowned Eagle pairs in the “most secure water tower” in Kenya face a poor future and continue to survive in spite of the absence of tangible forest and wildlife protection.

There is one very important point with regard to this eagle’s habitat needs that is often misunderstood. I give an anecdote that greatly worried me. I was once called to task by an overseas ornithologist colleague attached to the National Museums who had just returned from a trip to the Taita Hills. He and museum staff had been mist-netting endemic birds and amongst other things had noted a nesting Crowned Eagle in a small 10 acre forest remnant surrounded by high density rural farmland. He then began to reassure me that Crowned Eagles obviously do very well in so small a plot and that my insistence that they could not was clearly emotive fabrication. There are some such instances of Crowned Eagles nesting in even smaller patches (Elgeyo Marakwet for EG), but there is an error if one happens upon a 2m wide mud pool and counts 50 cat fish, in assuming all is well. Obliged to retreat to a shrinking habitat, these eagles have to change their diet to suit what is available, and livestock is almost all they have to choose from. This is their last stand, and as surely as Custer they will not survive. I used to call eagles like these “ghosts” for they appear on our data sheets yet are not actual functioning entities. That these eagles can be that obstinate and yet still vanish illustrates the level of habitat loss and persecution needed to eradicate them. They are tough, tenuous and adaptable and they do not go easily. But they do go in the end once the land transformation is complete.

Crowned Eagle male

Crowned Eagle male, © Simon Thomsett

Of continent-wide generalised summary we are all familiar with reading National Geographic or international press reviews on Africa which note a general trend of environmental neglect, government corruption, a sell-out of natural resources (now China is proving to be the major concern), continent-wide growing lack of education, rampant poverty, escalating and unsustainable human population growth, hunger, civil war, desertification….etc. Significantly data from Africa regarding forest loss is the least known. But it has been stated that the Congo rainforest has had the highest rate of deforestation of any tropical region in the world. Somewhat staggeringly obvious, one new paper studying classified Landsat ETM + scene of 2001 to determine forest cover and 2000 UNEP data on human population, found ““highly significant” correlations between human population density on forest loss and degradation of natural eco systems”. This conclusion, instead of instilling vast confidence in major organisations, seems to highlight an insidious naive ineptitude in stepping up and acknowledging what we long knew.
There would appear to be a unanimous agreement that African forests seem imperilled both in extent and in quality. Harvested secondary forest quality may recover sufficiently to promote wildlife and Crowned Eagles, if left only a few decades. But this time period is seldom if ever able to pass without yet more human incursions by a burgeoning and land focussed population.

So much for Central Africa, what of East and Southern Africa?

The highlands of Ethiopia were previously cloaked in juniper forest, and its moist south western lowlands supported rainforests. The highland forests possibly extended their range to their northern most distribution. It must have been a veritable heaven for Crowned Eagles. In 3 years of field work in Ethiopia I knew of one pair near Addis Ababa at Menegishu Forest and another in a deep and rapidly deforested valley near Menz. The forest cover in Ethiopia today is mostly exotic, even within protected areas, staggeringly devoid of wildlife and very much disturbed by a vast rural population. Ethiopia is known for its eucalyptus forests that fuels the nation, tenuously holds top soil and stops the nitrogen cycle in its tracks. The prevalence of Cultural reverence to wildlife and especially birds is often quoted as a reason for high bird density. But I saw no such harmony and instead observed one of the highest levels of persecution. The road side sale of wild birds including ducks, owls and raptors was the highest I have ever seen in any country. Population growth in Ethiopia is bringing that nation to frightening levels akin to the highest densities of rural humanity found anywhere on earth. It is only the unreachable vertical walls of its myriad canyons and mountains that support its incredible raptor density. My colleague Lakew Berhanu is currently deeply concerned about the indiscriminate poisoning of raptors which we both witnessed as a routine part of a farmers life. Sadly the outlook for Ethiopian wildlife conservation is grim, with no evident government commitment. National Parks and reserves bear little resemblance to a protected area, and are all intensely utilised by a mushrooming human population. There are no private or community run conservancies. Of interest are the efforts of indigenous churches to protect the ancient forest groves around them. Foreign missionaries have been notable in instilling their brand of faith by obliterating many of these forests demonstrating their dominion orientated faith. The Crowned Eagle in Ethiopia is certainly at very low density and restricted to protected areas. It may be obliged to utilise exotics stands, but it is unlikely to ever be capable of surviving in the complete absence of indigenous (and thus prey productive) forests.
The status of Crowned Eagles in Uganda is probably as directly related to its human population density and associated forest loss. Protected South Western Ugandan forests with their central African affinities certainly have comparable densities. The work by Skorupa and Struhsaker show similar densities to West Africa, due to similar densities in monkeys. Uganda is interesting for it spans typical central and west Africa forests with the East African dry savannah forest. The biology to the species may be best known in studying both groups in this single country. Forests today are often isolated patches surrounded by Sugar Cane or Oil Palm plantations. Some of the densest rural human populations live adjacent to these forests. Edge-effect on the last stands is taking its gradual and certain toll on forest quality and plant diversity. In a recent trip to Uganda (Feb 2011) I noted forests burning for 128km, from Queen Elizebeth N.P. to Kibale, to Fort Portal to Mubende it was solid smoke and fire. There was little to note other than the absolute confinement of forest endemics to fully protected forest blocks. Anything outside is destined for use, agricultural development or removal and cannot support Crowned Eagles. It is debateable if the “half” protection offered by new “biosphere protection” concepts, will in the end work.
From within East Africa the 99.4% loss of Gishwati Forest (100,000 hectre) between 1986-2001 in Rwanda shows the human potential in the sub-region for removing protected forests with the simplest of tools for agriculture, not commercial mechanised forestry. While the 1994 genocide accelerated the destruction process due to an influx of refugees it was the familiar unsustainable practises of subsistence farming and cultivation that denuded the forests. The same inflexible processes is copied throughout sub sahal Africa with no foreseeable turnabout prior to complete habitat loss.
Although my very short experience in Ivory Coast was limited to Tai Forest (the largest remaining and best quality West African forest) and a breezy flight over the tiny Mt Peko National Park with Guy Rondeau and his wonderful ultralight, both he and Susanne Shultz acknowledged that Crowned Eagles were dependent on protected forests in that, one of western Africa’s most stable countries. It certainly looks doubtful that they could survive outside because what hasn’t been clear-felled, is trashy secondary scrub with palms and a scattering of a few majestic remnants. Road sides are interrupted with men holding struggling live wild animals for sale, and villages openly display smoked monkeys, duikers, golden cats and birds for sale. Gin traps, snares and weapons are sold overtly and the culture of wild animal hunting for food is pervasive. How can wildlife exist outside of protected areas as this demand is already far beyond the sustainable level? Nearby Liberia would seem to hold great promise in that it has vast primary forests due almost solely to past civil instability. With stability will come mechanised forest removal of an unprecedented kind for each timber block is already purchased.
While Tanzania has the largest extent of intact natural environment in East Africa, similar patterns of degradation are in process. Forest conservation in Tanzania faces great challenges, not the least of which is fragmentation. Forest patches scatter main forest blocks and are interspaced with rural farmlands. Eagles may hop from patch to patch picking a living off whatever medium sized wild mammal can cope with the restraints of isolation.
Resources to effectively protect forests are insufficient. The smuggling of some hardwoods and Scandal wood by Tanzanians operating in Kenya might indicate an overharvest of these trees within country. In recognition of the fate facing forests the government has recently established reserves and national parks in some unique forests with high endemism.
Visiting forests is not a casual business in Tanzania as it is elsewhere (unless war torn) for it requires extensive paper work, permits, hiring of officials and unaffordable entry and research fees. The combined effect surely restricts those that have made the major contribution to African ornithology, the non-professional naturalist. It certainly means that little is known about Crowned Eagle numbers.
In comparison with Kenya the numbers of raptors in Tanzania seem poor (from recent unpublished data from J.M. Thiollay and myself) and unlike Kenya the prevalence of large wildlife species outside of protected areas appears much less. Private and community conservancies, the saving grace of Kenyan wildlife is largely inapplicable and of course one must question the ecological impact of legalised hunting and live bird export trade. Outside of national parks, Tanzania has a far smaller percentage of wildlife than Kenya, so despite its potential it falls short of expectation.
Human population growth remains one of the highest and proportional natural resource depletion is a certainty. The general population depend upon indigenous tree charcoal/firewood for cooking and are a land based culture taking what they need directly from that around them. Given its overall higher human holding capacity, intensive land use is possible over a much greater part of the nation than within the arid desert lands of Kenya or Ethiopia. Tanzania has long had a propensity for massive agricultural schemes and projects which may have far reaching effects. The Bio-fuel plantations planned will certainly divide some forests if not consume them and Carbon credit payments have been incongruously made for planting exotics in indigenous landscapes! With regard to its natural environment Tanzania has a considerably better head start and will enjoy a longer life span but ultimately I believe it faces an identical outcome. As Leslie Brown once noted, Africa has repeatedly demonstrated its capability to outgrow the ability of the land to sustain its human population. And Tanzania is growing at a tremendous rate and cannot justify the export of Crowned Eagles. (see Bird Trade and export below).
Entering the miombo woodland of southern Tanzania and Zambia the wildlife holding capacity plummets, spreading browsers and grazers out over larger foraging areas. I had heard of the cheering sight of enormous swathes of low canopy forests and the relative low density of human habitation…a seeming contradiction in our part of the world. But when one stops to look and listen the forests are subdued and it is apparently not entirely the result of the hand of man. Crowned Eagles do live here, in the drainage lines where trees are taller, but they must do so at lower density. But these woodlands are today the target of professional woodcutters and charcoal burners, transporting fuel across borders. The international trade of fuel wood is now extremely serious and will certainly grow as fast as the human population. The drainage lines in miombo woodlands offer scant water resources and are prime areas for human passage and settlement. It is doubtful if Crowned Eagles prosper outside of national parks in this environment where the bush meat trade greatly suppresses the wildlife holding capacity.

Prey delivery

Prey delivery, © Simon Thomsett

Malawi was one country I hastened through I fast as I could as we saw just one Fish Eagle and a few Eurasian Hobbies. The informal development of the country, the obviously burgeoning human population, the denuded forest ridges and scant opportunity for wildlife, let alone a major avian carnivore is all too obvious. I was reminded that a drive by summary was a harsh and inaccurate way to assess a country. I remained persuaded, by what I saw from afar and an eye witness account by a Malawian that Crowned Eagles still do occur in the lush and beautiful steep wooded hills. But today they must be at low density, and one guaranteed to get much less very soon.
South of Lusaka in Zambia the infrastructural nature of Africa takes a distinct twist, felt by every overlander and not difficult to articulate. There is an order, cleanliness, and neat organisation manifested by comparatively immaculate roads, neat roadside picnic tables and the monotonous wire fence-lines that follow you relentlessly to the Cape. Human populations are more centralised to villages and not so spread out across vast rural areas. Driving is not a hectic obstacle course of myriads of vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians and livestock. Harsh subsistence farming, obvious natural resource dependency, vast impoverished landscapes and abject poverty lifts like a foreboding cloud. That is not to say that there are not similar problems, but it does warn one equating east and southern Africa from an economic and environmental point of view. Here the rules change, and from the Zambezi south it is not hard to imagine an order and preciseness to natural resource and wildlife management with regard to where it is allowed to live and where it is not.
Zimbabwe has of course seen a dismal decade of land changes for the worse, but that staunch Zimbabwean Ron Hartley did sagaciously note that from a raptorial point of view the disruption of mechanised farming and collapse of order may have inadvertently promoted the conservation of some species of raptors. But Crowned Eagles probably did not fare so well under these land change circumstances. Ron showed me some photographs of nesting sites of Crowned Eagles in Zimbabwe that surprised me. These birds nested in baobabs on the side of hills in dry almost nyika terrain. Other pairs in the Matopo Hills also nest in drier and denuded terrain than expected. But these sites do have a varied and convoluted terrain, with nooks and crannies, valleys, overhangs and hideaways that allow a Crowned Eagle to exercise some of its particular skills. In Kenya, similar fractured landscapes can also be utilised by Crowned Eagles, such as the black gigantic volcanic rubble fields of Tsavo West, lower Chulu Hills, Kibwezi and Soy Sambu. These are jungles of boulders covered with low growth interspersed (in the past) with high trees. Just what is the density of these eagles is open to question. Given the dry baobab nesting Crowned Eagles it begs that we not overlook similar habitats in the rest of Africa for these eagles.
In general of course, the Crowned Eagle remains a forest species, and Zimbabwe is not a forested nation and looks to seeing less of it in the future. Nevertheless Zimbabwe, despite its recent history is now widely seen as a place for investment and recovery, as it still has an infrastructure envied by most of Africa, and less than half the amount of people per unit of land than Kenya and without its reckless population growth. Their parks, ravaged as they have been remain surprisingly intact with undoubtedly better management and less livestock density than much of stable East African parks. It is not surprising therefore to hear that Crowned Eagles within parks appear to have remained stable, but those outside them have declined.
Unfortunately Botswana and Namibia as promising as they are from a wildlife conservation aspect are by nature poorly endowed with forests. One wonders what the heart of Angola and Mozambique hold, for vast areas look to be having near sustainable numbers of people and to be much forested. South Africa is much drier than I ever suspected with only the low moist east holding much promise.
In South Africa the species is known to live in very close proximity to humans (famously in Durban), to utilise forests planted with exotics and to nest in Eucalyptus. I would not have thought it possible had I not visited South Africa in 2009, and despite not having seen a single bird, am prepared to believe it. South Africa is at such variance with the rest of Africa that it stands alone. Allowing land owners rights over wildlife would seem, (not without some justification in our country) tantamount to endorsing their immediate eradication, and yet here wildlife prospers. Charcoal is a thing bought in supermarket bags made of exotic brush and used to prepare their delicious outdoor meat feasts. I believe much of the security of their Crowned Eagles is because of the sanctity of their forests, lack of fuel wood and charcoal dependence for everyday cooking and the absence of the bush meat industry. The existence of glossy bird magazines, a massive domestic tourism market and the successes of conservation programmes aimed at raptors are all responsible for the occurrence and continuance of these eagles in human environments. I understand that this affable relationship with raptors was not always the case and that improved education has seen a recovery of many species of previously persecuted raptors. While they can say the Crowned Eagle is stable I wonder how much more there were previously. How much of South Africa was historically indigenous forest and how much has it lost? The question might be overlooked in accepting that South Africa changed so long ago from its ‘pristine’ post western influenced state. Yet it is of interest for if one can argue a decline of 25% to 50% from some historical record in the 1800s then one has a debatable view if one says the species is doing well today. In Eastern Africa, South African wildlife conservation methods is seen as either an example of excellence to be promoted or a dismal failure to be avoided. So little of its land is under national parks (almost half that of most east and southern African Counties) and game farming and private hunting reserves may arguably not compare in their ecological integrity to much of what we accept as even impoverished landscapes in Eastern Africa. True, Eastern Africa must learn an enormous amount when it comes to having to fence and manage areas for wildlife, as it will have to. But for now most nations opt not to follow their example and aim to maintain intact unfenced eco-systems (despite there being a long overdue and obvious need to fence for many areas). Confusion exists therefore in comparing South African conservation with other nations. While it may have succeeded in maintaining a stable and well tolerated population of Crowned Eagles, it does not mean that this situation applies across the continent.
The core of the species must be deep within the West and Central tropical and rain forests. The forest of Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and the Congos are complex entities to understand given their vastness, overall destruction and their incredible ability to regenerate and recover.

Part 2 of Simon’s writing about the Crowned Eagle can be found here:


9 Comments so far ↓

  • Mohamed Ismail

    I have known Simon Thomsett since he was a very young man at The Aberdare Country Club. His first Crowned Eagle Studies began there with an immature bird caught in the Aberdare forest.

    I once offered a lift to Simon as my clients and I were going to Lewa Downs. On seeing Lewa Downs, Simon fell in love with Lewa Downs and established himself there under the generosity of David Craig and continued his raptor studies there. I don’t know where Simon is located today, but would like to keep in touch with him.

    I wish him well and success in this important study of raptors.

  • Mohamed Ismail

    It was at the Aberdare Country Club where I first met Simon Thomsett. He then had an immature Crowned Hawk Eagle with him. The Aberdare Forest is ideal habitat for these raptors which feed on Colobus monkeys. I have seen them kill a young warthog as well in the Aberdare Salient.

    Was it Sam Weller, then manager of the Aberdare Country Club, who may have encouraged Simon to take up falconry and the study of raptors?

  • Will Knocker

    Nice one Thomsett! you write so very well & knowledgeably too.

  • Paul Kirui

    Nice one Simon: I am glad to have learned under your instruction on the raptors, and specifically the birds i love….. the Vultures

  • Ara Monadjem


    I have just read both your “interviews” with Munir. I can sum up my thoughts in 2 words: absolutely spectacular! The essays are clear, easy to read and digest, and refreshingly free from scientific jargon. I can now understand why Munir holds you in such high regard! Another refreshing aspect was your continental reference point. I too have travelled and worked across the continent and find the parochial views of many biologists on the continent very disturbing and annoying.

    I hope that our paths cross again in the future; I was sad to have missed you on my last visit to Kenya.


  • Markusjais

    @Ara. Glad you like Simon’s writing. Stay tuned for part 3 with more fascinating information. Will be published very soon.


  • Bill Thoms

    The Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Nevis are plagued by an increasing population of Vervet Monkeys imported from Africa centuries ago. Has there ever been any effort to export these eagles to St Kitts and Nevis?

  • Steve Bergh

    How bleed a picture painted of the destruction of habitat for this great bird. I live in Alaska where access to the bush is difficult at best. We have very limited destruction of habitat as there are few roads. Because of this raptors abound. There are over 50 Golden Eagle documented active nest sights in the Denali valley from the visitors center to the Toklat river alone. I was out flying today looking for a golden aerie in the second valley north of where I live. There are 48 documented perigrine aeries on the Yukon river alone from the village of Circle to the border. I had a Merlin nest in the lot next door to my old house, Gyr aeries are stable across the state as well. I see I am truly blessed but there has always been a soft spot in my heart for the Crowned Eagle.

  • james mwangi

    i can say that it is very critical for us humans to understand that wildlife is a part of our lives and that we should also learn from them.these beautiful creatures must be preserved and protected at all costs.i love the way simon Thomsett talks about the african crowned eagle and his vast knowledge and experience of handling these large birds.i have recently developed a very keen love & interest of birds of prey esp eagles.and i would very much like to see them live in the wild or anywher else coz i’d be would hurt me to see raptors disappear slowly by slowly from this world.thanks simon for your work and i’m sure these birds appreciate.

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