Farmer earns millions from taboo birds

Paul Muriithi Kibuthu has defied longstanding superstitions to conserve locally loathed owls, the only conservation of its kind in the country, drawing a regular income through tourists while receiving international acclaims even as the society reprimands his venture as bad omen.

 For ten years now, the 37 year old from Kieni West district of Nyeri county has provided a home to the over 17 endangered owl species, dubbed Mackinder Eagle Owl Conservation Project Sanctuary, a move that has seen his village mates distance themselves from him for flirting with evil and his family countlessly threatening to disown him. And in a case of a prophet not being appreciated in his hometown but far and wide, Murithi has been host to over 1000 tourists most of them students from Tel Aviv, South Africa and UK who ar willing to part with anything to learn about owl behaviour with these rare species not available in their home country.

 Owls are considered as a sign of good luck, wisdom and a messenger of good news in Israel, yet in Kenya the belief sharply contrasts that of Israel with almost all communities believing that they are harbingers of bad luck. Dominant belief has it that if the birds' nocturnal hooting is a message that a catastrophe would befall the family who hears the noise. Others believe the bird nesting in a compound translate to the likely death of a family member. As a result the birds should never be seen and are chased with stones when spotted. It would even be inconceivable for even educated Africans to entertain the thought of having them as pets. This has seen thousands killed with the National Museum of Kenya which has been actively involved in conserving them putting the figure at about 900 per month. This coupled with traditional medicine men who hunt them and their eggs for witchcraft now puts them in the class of the endangered species. “We cannot all go into white collar jobs, or scramble for one farming market. If there is an ingenious way you can make money while taking care of what our ancestors left us then do it, this is my way of doing it and I just love doing it,” said the bubbly Murithi who has been christened the champion of owls.

His interest in conserving “the birds of misfortunes” was birthed on a visit to a relative selling curios, when Canadian tourists passing through the shop admired a sculpture of the nocturnal bird and wondered where they could find a real one. Having been raised up near an owl breeding cave he took them to their habitat and the enthusiasm exhibited by the tourist convinced him there was a conservation and market opportunity there. “Here were birds available in our area, neglected, and here were international visitors willing to contribute anything to just have a glimpse of the bird. I knew I had to do something and it took a lot of conviction especially with the societal perception on the birds to agree to domesticate and conserve them,” he said.

The most common owl types in tropical Africa include Mackinder which shelters in caves, Spotted and Wood owl which are found on trees all which of which are endangered.

There are 17 species of Mackinder eagle owls, which are named after a British soldier who fought in the First World War. The soldier on a tour to Mt Kenya found the species.

The birds are active at night and feed mostly on snakes and rodents like rats and mice, though snakes also feed on owl’s eggs and their young ones. Owls hunt and eat rodents,

insects, frogs and birds. The owl’s gestation period is 35 days and incubates three eggs. This is done by both the male and female in turns as the other hunts for food.

“The female is larger than the male and it lays one to three eggs which takes about 35 days to hatch. Interestingly, the male and the female interchangeably sit on the eggs during incubation period,” said Mureithi.

As the villagers pour tirade on him for flirting with evil, with even his family threatening numerously to disown him, Muriithi has never relented in his conservation spree and has gone ahead to win numerous international awards with his work having been featured in the local and international media including BBC.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter