Mysterious Mtelo: Rupi Mangat reports on a littleknown mountain in north-western Kenya and what it has to offer.
Unexplored and rugged, Mtelo, the sacred mountain of the Pokot in Kenya’s remote northwestern, surprises with things little known
In 2011, a new species of chameleon, , was found in the northwestern highlands of Kenya. It was on Mtelo, the sacred peak of the Pokot community. The discovery was no easy feat. A team of researchers led by Jan Stipala spent many cold nights in the high forests looking for cold-blooded reptiles. What they did not expect to find was a species new to science. It is named , the Pokot word for chameleon.
Then in 2019, Timothy Mwinami, a research scientist with the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and a local Pokot guide and two keen birders, Jagi Gakunju and Robert Muchunu, scaled Mtelo for a day of hiking.
When they made it to the peak, six hours from the closest village on the ridge, they were not prepared for what they saw. A pair of Bearded Vultures ( - also known as the Lammergeyers) were riding the thermals.
THE SEKERR RANGE
Straddling the northwestern border of Kenya and close to Uganda, this little-explored range is spectacular and off the beaten track. The drive continues from the nearest town, Kitale, under the watch of Mount Elgon. At 10,070 ft it is East Africa’s 4th tallest mountain. There is a spectacular view along the Cherangani Hills to Maarich Pass, a narrow gap between the Cherangani and the Sekerr. The road follows the flow of the Moruny, which for lowland Pokot on the dry plains is akin to what the Nile was to Egypt.
An unmarked turning then leads up the mountain along a path of two concrete tracks until you see the mast for a telecommunications provider. The dust road continues up the ridge to the village of the highland Pokot who are agriculturists unlike lowland Pokot, who are pastoralists.
THE BEARDED VULTURES
No man knows more about Bearded Vultures than Simon Thomsett. When only six, he nursed his first raptor. Five decades on, he is one of the world’s highly acclaimed raptor experts. He has probably handled more raptors than anyone else -- some 3,000. Most are injured and in need of surgery and proper handling.
“The hills of Cherangani, Elgon, Kadam and Moroto have impressive cliffs at high altitude, ideal habitat for the Bearded Vultures,” says Thomsett. Kadama and Moroto are in Uganda. For these powerful raptors, it is only a 30-minute
flight from one mountain to the next. They are fast fliers, gliding long distances without a wingbeat because their wings are shaped like those of falcons and not vultures. According to Thomsett, Beared Vulture is neither a vulture nor bearded but genetically closer to Harrier Hawks.
Numerous until six decades ago on Kenya’s massifs, including Hell’s Gate National Park near Naivasha, today there may be only four pairs left in the country. According to Thomsett, these four pairs are the Cherangani, Elgon, Kadam, Moroto, Sekkerr, Metlo sub population. The decline is due to forests cleared on what were once people-free areas. The only countries with sizeable populations are Ethiopia and South Africa.
“Little is known about the Bearded Vulture population of western Kenya and Uganda unless a few can be tagged,” says Thomsett. Bearded Vultures have a peculiar trait. They feed on the bone marrow of their prey, which could be anything from a small antelope to a rock hyrax. Soaring high above the cliffs, the Bearded Vulture drops the bone for it to smash open against a favoured site that is used repeatedly, making the bird highly territorial. The Bearded Vulture then lands to savour the scoop at the ossuary.
Thomsett continues: “This population is more threatened than the Mt Kilimanjaro one. And now there is a rumour about a cable car project on Mount Kilimanjaro. “These are known to be lethal to Bearded Vultures.”
Another sub-group is on the Ethiopian border from the Mega escarpment to Huri Hills, which once extended to Marsabit. The Marsabit population in Kenya is now extinct.
FALL OF THE BEARDED VULTURE
In 1970, Leslie Brown, a renowned ornithologist, estimated Kenya’s Bearded Vulture population at 20. By 1998, it was down to 10. In 1981, the five Bearded Vultures of Mount Kenya died when farmers used pesticides to get rid of the graineating raiders, Red-billed quelea. The poison also killed Kenya’s core population of Bearded Vultures.
In 1986, Thomsett was asked by the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (now
“LITTLE IS KNOWN ABOUT THE BEARDED VUTURE POPULATION OF WESTERN KENYA AND UGANDA UNLESS A FEW CAN BE TAGGED,” SAYS THOMSETT.
Kenya’s Wildlife Service or KWS) to reintroduce Bearded Vultures to Hells's Gate National Park.
“I visited every site Leslie Brown had noted. I only found three pairs on Cherangani.”
Like all wild birds, it is no easy task to reintroduce species into the wild mainly due to a lack of funds and government bureaucracy. In the end, Thomsett managed to get five chicks from Ethiopia, facilitated by KWS, the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organisation and the Peregrine Fund.
Thomsett climbed the high cliffs to retrieve five chicks from different nests using the Cain and Abel ploy where the older chick outcompetes the younger one, which eventually starves to death.
“We do not wish to remove birds from the wild,” says Thomsett. “But at the same time, we want to put birds back into the wild.”
In 2002, after 18 months, two chicks fledged in their new home at Hell’s Gate National Park. The birds had been fitted with VHF radios mounted on a single tail feather which showed them flying to Mount Kenya and returning to Hell’s Gate in a day.
“They have huge ranges of 10,000 square kilometres,” according to Thomsett. However, one fell into a chimney at the Ken-Gen thermal power station and was gassed to death by toxic fumes. The other was killed by a man who, having never seen such a huge bird, flung a rock at it.
ON GOD’S MOUNTAIN
Mtelo’s sacred bearing gives it little protection from the onslaught of human population and the demand for farmland. The few intact forests on Mtelo are rich in flora and fauna and are a major catchment for Lake Turkana, the permanent lake in what was previously known as the Northern Frontier District.
However, hunting is still a passage of rite for boys to be circumcised. In the fragmented forests, isolated populations of Colobus monkeys, rare birds and species yet to be documented like the , cling to life.
“Seventy per cent of the biota we recorded is surviving in small pockets under intense threat,” said Mwinami. “We need to work fast if we are to save anything up there, especially since the current record of Bearded Vulture in Kenya is from this region.” But, far from the public eye and with little law enforcement, the clearing for farming, including mining for rare earth, continues.
Mwinami calls for detailed surveys involving the community, public awareness and the last of Mtelo’s forests to be protected. This could give rise to eco-tourism and conservation. At this point there is one tourist facility, the beautiful Mtelo View Eco Lodge on the ridge that belongs to a member of the Pokot community, John Yaposiwa Ywalasiwa.