In a muddy maize field surrounded by gently rolling hills in central Kenya, Martin lowers his binoculars and points to a spot on the rock face in front of us. Where previously I had seen only mineral and shadow, suddenly I make out a coffee-colored shape and a tell-tale streak of white droppings splattered below it. Taking the binoculars from Martin, the shape comes into focus: a Mackinder’s Eagle Owl, a subspecies of Cape Eagle Owls commonly found from Kenya south to Zimbabwe. The bird’s pert feather tufts and squinting amber eyes give it the look of a sleepy cat roused from a nap, and its dark mottled brown and tan speckled body blend in almost seamlessly with the rock.
For years Martin, a nature guide and ornithologist from central Kenya, has kept tabs on this owl and its mate, which faithfully returned to this nest site. (Martin, who sometimes works undercover, has changed his name to protect his identity.) Mackinder’s Eagle Owls, he tells me, are picky. An ideal spot for hatching eggs and rearing chicks is not too close to another nesting pair. It’s situated in indirect sunlight, camouflaged, and out of reach of mongooses and other predators.
This site checks every box. And yet the pair hasn’t fledged a chick in eight years—a failure, Martin says, due to a strange and insidious problem that has snowballed into an unacknowledged owl conservation crisis in East Africa.
A decade ago Martin noticed that this nest and several others nearby showed clear signs of disturbance. Goats, he figured, must be rooting around the rock face for tasty greens. When he asked neighboring farmers if they’d seen any rapacious caprines, he received an unexpected answer. The farmers said they’d raided the nests for much-coveted owl eggs, which, like the birds themselves, are protected under federal law. Rich people, they told Martin, would pay hundreds of dollars for a single egg because they hold great power, supposedly capable of curing terminal illnesses or bringing good fortune.
Around the same time, Martin began receiving calls from people seeking owl eggs—likely because a hand-painted sign along the main road intended to advertise his bird guiding services simply read “OWLS.” Soon as many as 10 anonymous people phoned him each week asking for owl eggs. Martin turned them down, and alerted his research advisor, Darcy Ogada, to this strange new threat.
“Demand for owl eggs has always been there, but at low levels,” says Ogada, the Nairobi-based assistant director for Africa programs at The Peregrine Fund, an international avian conservation nonprofit. “Over the past four or five years it has escalated to an intensity far beyond anything we’ve encountered previously.”
These days Ogada and Martin cannot conduct owl-related field studies without being approached by someone looking to buy or sell the purportedly powerful objects. Fearing that she might unintentionally reveal nest locations or encourage poaching, Ogada has adopted a self-imposed moratorium on owl research outside of Kenya’s strictly protected areas. “It seems unethical and immoral to study owls at present,” she says. “Our very presence endangers them more.”
Only one of Kenya’s 17 resident owl species, the Sokoke Scops, is listed as endangered. But the country’s owls aren’t monitored systematically, so population trends remain undetermined. Ogada suspects that egg theft combined with other risks—including powerline electrocutions, intentional killings, and habitat destruction—likely qualifies a number of species for threatened status, either regionally or nationally. She and Martin have uncovered pervasive egg theft spanning Mombasa on the southern coast to Lake Turkana in the north. In other words, wherever Kenyan owls live, egg poaching seems to occur. Yet the trade is virtually unknown to ornithologists, save for the tiny community of owl researchers and rehabbers in East Africa. “Unless you are studying owls, you’ll never hear about it,” Ogada says. “Even most birders know nothing.”
From ancient Greece’s Owl of Athena to Harry Potter’s devoted pet Hedwig, owls have long charmed, mystified, and intrigued humans. In the contemporary West, they are often seen as symbols of wisdom. But in Africa they’re generally viewed very differently, as harbingers of evil and misfortune, or as forms taken by nefarious sorcerers. To hear an owl calling or to have one land on your roof means that something bad—possibly even death—will soon befall someone you know.
“When you see an owl, you feel something strange about it,” Michael Ngugi, a plumber in Kenya’s Central Rift Valley, told me. “You don’t want to look at it or talk about it. You sense danger.”
These deeply held, widespread beliefs fuel an untold number of persecution killings. In a five-year study that Ogada undertook of 13 Mackinder’s Eagle Owls in central Kenya, four were killed intentionally. Farmers may destroy nests on their property, and passersby may stone an owl sleeping in a tree or on a cliff. “You’d be amazed how close you can get to a roosting owl,” says Shiv Kapila, a biologist based in Naivasha. “It only takes one lucky shot.”
Certain churches even arrange owl killings for their congregations. In 2016 pastor Patrick Ngutu of Winners Chapel International in Nairobi posted a photo on Facebook of a crumpled Barn Owl at people’s feet. “The second owl ‘witch’ that was killed today [at our church],” he wrote. “Suffer not a witch to live . . . ”
Owls that survive such attacks sometimes find their way to the Raptor Rehabilitation Trust Kenya, one of the nation’s two facilities that treat injured birds of prey. Verreaux’s Eagle-owls, Spotted Eagle Owls, Mackinder’s Eagle Owls, Wood Owls, Marsh Owls, and other species make up about half of the trust’s 50 current residents. Simon Thomsett, an ornithologist who manages the trust with Kapila, estimates that 90 percent of the 20 or so owls they treat each year are purposefully injured by humans. “There is no doubt that persecution of owls is a major cause of owl loss in Kenya,” he says.
The birds are also highly sought after for use in witchcraft and traditional medicine, accounting for the deaths of possibly tens of thousands owls annually, according to a 2001 study. Barn Owls come out on the top of the list in a 2014 PLoS One study of 354 bird species found in traditional medicine markets in 25 African countries. In Cameroon, owl hearts are used to combat curses inflicted by sorcerers; in Malawi, owl-based products are believed to bewitch and kill; and in South Africa, owl parts are purported cures for laziness and lethargy.
Wile conservationists are aware of the threats of persecution and witchcraft-driven killings, egg poaching has largely flown under the radar. There haven’t been any surveys conducted in Kenya or other African countries to determine the incidence of egg theft. In fact, when Ogada spoke about the issue to an audience of bird experts and conservationists at the Pan African Ornithological Congress in 2012, not a single attendee had heard of it. Addressing the egg trade, she believes, is essential for securing a future for owls: As older birds are persecuted and poached for their parts, younger ones that would replenish the population are being taken directly from cradle to grave.
The first step to addressing the trade is understanding what drives it and how it works. Ogada, Martin, and Thomsett have pieced together a loose understanding of the egg-theft practice. Poachers, they’ve learned, undertake an elaborate ritual both to protect themselves from the eggs (touching them will otherwise cause paralysis, many believe) and to ensure the powers remain intact. Most poachers say that they sprinkle maize flour on the eggs, then wait for adults to clear away the powdery substance before snatching them. After that, the eggs are said to become magnetic. Some dealers claim to see images of mosques or world maps on the shell, or that the eggs produce a spark when touched.
Rural poachers usually sell eggs to middlemen, whose advertisements for “pure,” “well preserved,” and “fresh” owl eggs with “all required features” are readily found online—as is contact info for sellers. When I call a dealer named James, he offers to meet me immediately with two owl eggs—$490 each—that he says came from a forest near Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. I’d be able to tell that they were real because, like a magnet, they would attract a razor blade.
When I ask why the price is so high, James scoffs: “They’re not just normal eggs! They are rare and pure, just like ivory. Do you know ivory? They have the same features.”
Sellers like James often target the greedy and the desperate. Politicians may solicit owl eggs to ensure an election victory, or businessmen to guarantee a profitable year. Others believe they can cure illnesses including HIV/AIDS and cancer.
The first person to approach Martin for owl eggs was a woman from the Zambian embassy. She arrived in a “big, fancy vehicle” with a Tanzanian witch doctor who had sent her on the quest for the illicit items in order to cure her daughter’s breast cancer. “She was so, so desperate,” Martin recalls. “I had to put sense into her, to tell her to seek real treatment.”
Tanzania, a country famous for its witchdoctors, may be the origin of the notion that owl eggs hold power. While no one has studied the problem there, Ogada says it seems to be the epicenter: “Tanzania just keeps popping up, over and over again.”
On a November 2017 trip to Tanzania, from Dar es Salaam to Tanga to Arusha, everyone I asked casually about owl eggs—drivers, scientists, translators, guides, and hotel receptionists—knew about their use. Some told me they’re good for treating burns and rashes; others said they grant wishes or bring wealth. “It’s fringe, but I’ve heard about the practice since I was young,” says Chris Kivuyo, 24, a guide at Lake Manyara. “You break an owl egg near your house to become rich, or use them at mines for luck.”
Athumani Salim Hiza, an 85-year old Tanzanian healer and witch doctor in the Usambara Mountains, agrees. He claims never to have dealt in owl eggs himself, but says they can help businessmen gain customers, coax buried treasure to rise to the surface, or treat hearing problems. “Just a few tribes” in Tanzania use them, Hiza says, and the practice has been around “since a long time ago.”
Kenyans seem to have bought into the myths. In 2011, Martin spoke on a popular radio station about the important ecological roles that owls play, such as controlling agricultural pests. He shared his phone number on the air, in case listeners had follow-up questions. Over the next two days he received nearly 1,000 texts and more than 4,000 calls. Some people were simply interested to learn more. But around 40 percent were looking to buy or sell—they assumed his owl “research” was a front for dealing in eggs.
“People can’t understand why a local African would want to do anything with owls that’s not for profit,” he says. “But I’m not interested in making money. My passion is seeing the species preserved.”
few times a year, a stranger approaches Naftali Ngunjiri Maina on his small, mixed-crop farm in central Kenya and offers him money to collect owl eggs. Though he could certainly use the cash, Maina turns them down. He has learned firsthand that eggs are worth more left in place than poached.
“If I collect eggs, maybe I’d get $500 today, but next year, that money will be gone,” he says. “If I protect the owls, then the benefits keep going into the future.”
Four of Maina’s children pile onto the brightly-patterned living room couch to listen to Martin and their dad, who is still wearing his muddy work boots, talk about owls and conservation. Martin recruited his childhood friend to be his eyes and ears on the ground in the half-wild, half-farmed area around their homes. Maina’s property is a 10-minute walk from the nest Martin showed me, and several others occur nearby. “I needed someone I could trust, someone who wouldn’t take advantage of the situation,” Martin says.
Maina calls Martin each time someone suspicious shows up. In return, Martin stops by a few times a year with birders from the United States, Europe, and China who usually tip Maina for his owl guardian duties and for showing them a nest site. He distributes a cut of the proceeds to likeminded neighbors who have vowed not to poach eggs and who help him keep watch for would-be thieves.
It’s just one of the ways that Ogada and Martin have gotten creative in combatting the trade. Martin, for example, spread rumors among residents living near a Mackinder’s Eagle Owl nest that he had set up a hidden camera to monitor the eggs. The trick worked, apparently, as the owls hatched two chicks for the first time in years.
Ogada, meanwhile, has stepped out of her conventional scientific work to troll egg dealers and seekers online, primarily by tapping into their superstitions and insecurities. “Be careful bro,” she replied to one seller on a forum. “Owl eggs are toxic. Don’t handle or eat them. They cause cancers and impotence.”
But in a country of nearly 49 million people, there’s only so much the duo can do on their own. All of Kenya’’s wildlife, including owls, are protected by law, and upholding that legislation falls to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). But whether the agency— which put off repeated interview requests for this story—is actually taking steps to reduce owl-related crimes is questionable. Ogada, Martin, and Thomsett have repeatedly alerted KWS to the problem and they dutifully report every egg poacher and dealer they come across. Their messages have largely gone unanswered, and they don’t know if the service follows up on those leads. “KWS, although informed, is not doing what it should do,” Thomsett says.
Most likely it’s a question of priorities. Owls, Ogada points out, bring in no funding and aren’t in the international spotlight. “Almost 100 percent of the money and resources to fight wildlife crime here is focused on ivory and rhino horn,” she says. “This makes all other species virtual non-entities with regard to illicit trade.”
So while they wait for local authorities and the international conservation community to acknowledge this growing threat, Ogada and her owl-loving colleagues continue to raise alarms about the problem in whatever ways they can. “We don’t have a strategic plan to approach this problem—it’s just us,” Martin says. “But if we don’t act, in the future, we’ll be like ‘There used to be owls there, and there, and there . . . ’”
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