It is mid-morning on the salt-crusted shores of Lake Elmentaita. A flock of great white pelicans lifts off the islands in animated ribbons, circling higher and higher in the hot air thermals to fly to lakes Naivasha or Nakuru.
They will spend the day on the lakes on either side of Elmentaita and return at dusk to settle on the islands for the night.
It is a phenomenal experience to stand under the circling pelicans and hear the “swoosh” of the great birds alternating the ribbon from the black underside to the white above.
For these enormous birds, the islands of Elementeita are vital to their very existence for it is one of the few places left on the continent — and the only one in East Africa — for laying their eggs and raising the next generation.
The pelicans have to manoeuvre their flight over recently constructed power pylons, a potential death trap for the birds, if they don’t get the required lift from the thermals.
Lake Elmentaita was until two decades ago a haven lying in the shadows of its two famous siblings in the Great Rift Valley — the fresh water Lake Naivasha and the alkaline Nakuru.
With the country’s rapidly rising population, the area around Elmentaita is morphing into a busy urban centre with hospitals, hotels, shops and Kikopey, the famous nyama choma joint.
Bush meat trade is rife. The 2,534-hectare Lake Elmentaita Wildlife Sanctuary was gazetted on July 6, 2010 and made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2011, together with lakes Nakuru and Bogoria. This is due to their outstanding beauty, including having one of the richest bird life on the planet.
And there are other accolades. In 2005, Elementaita was listed a Ramsar site since it is a wetland of international importance.
In 2001, it was listed as an Important Bird Area and internationally recognised as a stronghold for Great White Pelicans.
It is also a flamingo stronghold and an important flight path for more than 100 species of migratory birds flying from Europe and Asia to escape the harsh winters. It is also home to the critically endangered Ruppell’s, White-back and the hooded vultures, including the raptors.
Apart from the birds, the wildlife sanctuary bordering Soysambu Conservancy hosts lions, leopards, the smaller carnivores, aardvarks and the critically endangered Rothschild’s giraffe.
Elmentaita is also a vital dispersal area for wildlife moving across the three lakes. Its vast grassland is an important carbon sink, cleaning the air that humans and the animals depend on.
Unfortunately, the protected area is under pressure. From mid this year, tall pylons from Olkaria to Kisumu are being put up with transmission lines as Kenya endeavours to supply electricity to most parts of the nation under the Vision 2030 development blueprint.
Sadly, many of these pylons and transmission lines are increasingly passing through protected areas like Nairobi National Park and now Soysambu Conservancy, which has a small portion of the Lake Elmentaita Wildlife Sanctuary.
It contravenes a moratorium issued by the National Environment Management Authority published in the dailies on September 9, 2015.
The moratorium prohibits new development in the Lake Elmentaita Ramsar site ecosystem until the management plan that is being worked on by Lake Elmentaita Wildlife Sanctuary, Soysambu Conservancy, Kenya Wildlife Service, Lake Elmentaita stakeholders and the community is completed and gazetted.
Flouting the moratorium and cutting through the Ramsar-listed Lake Elmentaita are the towering pylons being erected by Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (Ketraco).
Clearly visible during the day, the structures and the transmission lines are an intrusion to an area that is supposed to remain natural.
Invisible to the migrating birds like flamingos and pelicans late in the evening, the pylons are a death trap. There were alternative routes for the pylons that are 400 metres apart. Instead, they cut across the conservancy and then make a loop, adding almost 30 kilometres of power lines.
A more direct route passing over volcanic landscapes or along the Nakuru-Nairobi highway with little to no conflict with either bird life, the scenic beauty or tourism had been discussed but were largely ignored.
There are 204 people on the African Raptors e-mail list server who will attest that Mr Simon Thomsett is, without a shadow of doubt, the most knowledgeable person on raptors in Africa and possibly in the world.
He has successfully released more than 1,000 injured raptors and has had a significant influence in shaping the lives and careers of hundreds of individuals who have been mentored and inspired by him and have gone on to make significant global contributions in the field of raptor and wildlife conservation.
These people include Laila Baha-el Din (Golden Cats in West Africa), Suzanne Schults and Shane McPherson (Crowned Eagles in Ivory Coast and South Africa), Darcy Ogada (African Vultures), Shiv Kapila (co-founder of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust) and Lily Arison de Ronald (Raptors in Madagascar).
When Mr Thomsett speaks, people listen in awe and great admiration. His energy is infectious and addictive.
Nobody is against development and power is an essential commodity. Research shows that if power companies made adjustments and worked with people in the know, birds and other animals colliding into pylons and power lines could be avoided.
Soysambu and the Greater Lake Elmentaita Conservation Area (GLECA) undermine the two core values stated by the World Heritage Site (WHS) criteria focusing on ‘an area of outstanding natural beauty and large bird numbers’ of which the Kenya government is a signatory too.
A September 25 letter from Ms Mechtild Rossler, the director of the Culture Sector, World Heritage Centre, to Ms Phylis Kandie, Kenya’s Permanent Delegate to Unesco expresses this concern.
“ … the proposed electricity pylon construction in the vicinity of Lake Elementaita … may impact the integrity of the Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley World Heritage Property. This line is about 500 metres off the riparian limit of Lake Elementaita and is placed directly in the flight way of pelicans and flamingos.”
Why the travesty? It’s a complex situation involving the different boundaries such as Ramsar and the WHS around Elmentaita.
Mr Nigel Hunter, chairman of the Soysambu Conservancy board, explains the reason for allowing the pylons through the protected area.
“Lake Elementeita Wildlife Sanctuary has almost an identical boundary to the World Heritage Site boundary and therefore involves a very small portion of Soysambu Conservancy,” he said.
According to him, Soysambu management spent time negotiating with Ketraco that the transmission line be moved further away from the lake, such that the line is not located in the World Heritage Site or its buffer zone and hence avoids Lake Elementaita Wildlife Sanctuary.
“However, the line does traverse Soysambu Conservancy along the south side of the Kikopey-Elementaita village-Nakuru public road, which is not in breach of any moratorium relating to the LEWS or the WHS area,” he said.
According to Nature Kenya, the country’s foremost organisation on natural history started in 1909, the structures will increase collision.
It recommends rerouting the power lines that will greatly reduce collisions and for Ketraco to show the mitigation measures along the entire route of the power lines.
The fact is that this power line is part of the national grid going to Kisumu but the sad truth is that after negotiations, the new routing was agreed on to avoid a compulsory acquisition that would leave even less room for reasoning.
The overpass, which will be bigger in size and comes with additional structures, portend more collision risk. The structure will be taller than normal pylons and located approximately one kilometre from the lake.
There is concern that Lake Elmentaita Wildlife Sanctuary, because of its proximity to the pylons in Soysambu Conservancy, could be placed as a WHS in danger and eventually delisted. It begs the question whether protection in protected areas means nothing in the name of development?
HAZARD FOR BIRDS
Every research paper published in science journals as regards to avian electrocution on power lines note that it is a major conservation issue on a global scale and narrows in on the same concerns: Power distribution line systems will likely always be a hazard for birds and it is unreasonable to expect that all fatalities will be eliminated as long as power line systems exist.
High power line collision mortality threatened bustards at a regional scale in the Karoo, South Africa. In the US, more than 170 million birds are killed by power line collisions. In Africa, with limited research, the figures are estimates but of increasing concern.
However, through the correct retrofitting of high-risk poles on specific portions of the power line, and with co-operation between biologists, managers, electric companies and the public, the number of electrocuted raptors can be reduced.
Kenya is globally famous for its rich birdlife. But this reputation is now at risk.