Fate unknown: Urbanisation dwindles home to Marabou Storks in Nairobi

Fate unknown: Urbanisation dwindles home to Marabou Storks in Nairobi

By Curity Ogada

A Marabou stork is a large wading bird in the stork family. Some have called them ugly, while others see beauty in their towering structure. But a little-known fact is that these giant birds play a crucial role in cleaning waste – a role that is on the line, as urbanization dwindles their habitats.

Nairobi is home to many marabou storks – it is not unnatural to spot them even deep in the central business district. The male Marabou towers over the female one, usually with a smaller build. Nairobi has plenty of trees and neighboring parks like Nairobi National Park that attracts scores of birds.

Their love for city life has seen them survive the bustles and hustles of Nairobi city for years.

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A marabou stork grooming on a tree

A marabou stork is a scavenger in Africa that likes to live near human habitation or landfill sites. The marabou stork is a carrion bird of the Ciconiidae family. In fact, they’re the largest member of this family and they’re also among the largest flying birds. It is sometimes called the “undertaker bird” due to its shape from behind: cloak-like wings and back, skinny white legs, and sometimes a large white mass of “hair”. 

Years ago, marabou storks were a common site in the Nairobi Central District inhabiting most of the big trees. Marabou storks are social birds and easily spotted gathered in small groups. They are not very noisy birds, apart from grunts or croaks from their throats.

Nairobi is a big city and so is the filth, and the marabou stork never misses out on a supply of feaces and scraps. The marabou also sometimes feeds on animal remains, which they can spot by soaring above the open lands. They also follow vultures who lead them to animal carcasses, eating what the vultures have tossed aside. 

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Highway mall on Uhuru Highway hosting a couple of storks in nearby trees

Marabou storks are crucial in balancing the ecosystem. They help clean up the environment by eating away animal remains and waste. This helps to prevent and control the spread of diseases.

The African Bird Atlas Project notes that Africa’s rich biodiversity provides critical ecosystem services, contributes substantially to the continent’s economy and serves as a buffer to climate change. However, the continent is experiencing a dramatic loss of biodiversity, which affects livelihoods and lessens resilience to extreme events. Integrating biodiversity into decision-making is a key strategy for mitigating these losses.

Marabou are not always pleasing to the eye, but Nairobi city is inhabited by the cleanest and most beautiful marabous. Most times you can catch them grooming in their little colonies, with the cleanest of beaks and white hair underbellies, quite a sight to hold dear. Anyone can swoon at the Marabou in the heart of Nairobi.

“I have been watching them for so many years and noticed their dwindling numbers, especially since the Nairobi Expressway construction began,” says a guard at a Highway Mall who chose to remain anonymous. He has been a security guard at the mall for over 10 years. This mall faces several trees inhabited by some of the remaining birds in the city. 

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Nairobi City Expressway
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A muster of storks perched on the Nairobi Express Way and on the trees nearby

Human impacts including land-use change, use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, plastic pollution, and the increase in man-made structures can add to negative effects on a birds’ reproductive success and survival.

According to Nature Kenya Species and Sites Programs Manager Paul Gacheru, who was quoted in a story by Standard Media, marabou storks are scavengers that hunt and eat dead material. Because of the changing environment, the birds have relocated to dumpsites, but still search for places to nest.

“They play an important role because they help in sorting the garbage. Cutting trees around the city is affecting biodiversity in general. The contractors and other organizations should have planned to replace the trees like those around Nyayo Stadium,” said Mr. Gacheru to the Standard.

Marabou birds are said to live up to 25 years and 41 years in captivity. However if no action is taken to protect these beautiful precious birds then we may have a city overcome by waste and diseases in return; this could be a demise to one of the busiest cities in Africa.

Read Also: Vultures: The Third Eye Faces Extinction in Kenya

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A Marabou stork lands on a tree in Nairobi, Nyayo stadium

In slums surrounding Nairobi Central District, other Marabou stork have met a fate worse than a highway construction. According to a report by Standard Media, some unscrupulous people have been known to slaughter the birds and sell them as chicken meat to unsuspecting Nairobi residents.

The Nairobian found out that the roasted and fried pieces of the meat go for as little as Ksh10 but those who can afford a full bird pay about Ksh300 (USD $2.5). “Marabou stork is not fit for human consumption. The meat is contaminated and the business is illegal. We need information on such traders so that we can arrest them,” said Dr Ombacho. Dr Ombacho is the City Chief Public Health officer.

The Nairobian also interviewed Dr Peter Njoroge, the head of Ornithology, National Museums of Kenya, who warned that feasting on the marabou storks is illegal and dangerous. “The birds scavenge on all manner of waste and in the dumpsite, they are exposed to all kinds of pollutants. They may have serious diseases that may be transmitted to humans,” Njoroge cautioned. 

The  Local Action Summit, 2021 held in Marseille, France resulted in a strong consensus on the value of the integration of nature across urban and regional policy objectives. It also emphasized the leading role of cities and subnational governments in delivering nature-based recovery responses.

This story has been produced with support from Code for Africa and InfoNile.

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