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Tuesday 2nd September, 2014

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Kenya Owl Man Fights To Change Taboos

From time to time I hear news of inspirational work being carried out on behalf of owls by unsung heroes, and just before I left for America the newspaper ‘Cage & Aviary Birds’ carried one such story. Coincidently, having arrived in Minnesota I then discovered that the man in question, Paul Murithi Kibuthu, was one of the ‘Champion of Owls’ nominees I had pipped to the post for this year’s award – which made me blush, for having worked in East Africa, I knew exactly what difficulties Paul would be facing in trying to gain sympathy for owls in his country. Let me explain.

Perhaps more than in any other country, African people fear owls, regarding them as evil spirits of the dead and harbingers of doom. Their call is taken as a sign that death will strike soon. I learned this the hard way when I visited a Masai village in Tanzania in the course of my filming for my ‘Golden Ark’ series for Dutch television. I started to hand out WOT badges to the children – badges which of course bear the face of our emblem, the barn owl! All went well until I tried to do the same for the women of the village (I had previously got into trouble by not including the adults when dishing out these badges in the Philippines). Those of you who have one will know that the badges are made of metal with a very attractive gold logo and lettering on a black background. To the Filipino ladies these represented fine jewellery. Not so the Masai ladies!!! They saw me as a witch doctor dishing out evil talismans which are taboo to their culture, and therefore a danger to their children! To put it quite simply, they were enraged, hurled my ‘gifts’ to the floor and virtually ran me out of their village! Lesson learned!

Imagine then, the bravery of one of their own trying to break these very strong and ancient taboos and attempting to get his kinsmen to admire and protect the very creatures they feared most. Paul Murithi is doing just that.

In his village of Kiawara near Mount Kenya, Paul has defied his community’s traditional fears by using owls as a tourist attraction. For the past five years he has been feeding and protecting owls in their natural habitat in the forest near his home. This has resulted in some 26 birds becoming habituated to human presence, some of which perch calmly in the branches of nearby trees, while others roost by day in caves scattered across the forest. He has erected roadside signs to attract foreign tourists who pay Paul to guide them to view these elusive birds. Thus, he has demonstrated to his fellow villagers that wildlife – even owls – can provide them with a source of income if only they and their habitat are protected. To reinforce this message, Paul encourages them to appreciate the enormous value of the birds by providing the same services to local people, free of charge. Truly a ‘Champion of Owls’ if ever I heard of one.

David Johnson, Chief Executive of the Global Owl Project (GLOW), feels the same way as me and is working on presenting Paul with a ‘Special Commendation’ award to encourage him in his sterling efforts on behalf of African owls.

Tony Warburton

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