Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Kenya's owl man defies superstition


By Wanyama wa Chebusiri
BBC, Nyeri, Central Kenya

The screech of an owl is a bad omen in Kenya, taken as a sign that death will strike soon.

However, in Kiawara village near Mount Kenya, Paul Murithi, 30, has defied his community's cultural and traditional norms to rear owls as a tourist attraction.

For the past five years, Mr Murithi has been feeding and protecting the owls in their natural habitation in a forest near his home.

While others make a living out of rearing chickens or ducks, the owls have become his main source of income.

"This was a childhood interest thing I started when I was nine or 10 years old," he says.

"I saw these birds in the bushes and was interested to know more about them."

He has no time for the superstition about owls being omens of death.

"I often used to hear these owls hoot, and I never had a relative die or anything like this."

Mr Murithi believes the owls have come to recognise him as the person who nurtures them.

"I try to protect their territory when they are nesting, and supply them food," he says.

"Owls are sensitive to colour. I have a red jacket which I always wear."

Tourists

In this owl sanctuary you may find 26 birds, some perched on tree branches and some living in caves across the forest.

Mr Murithi has erected roadside signs to direct his clients, especially foreign tourists who pay more than $1 to view the elusive birds with his guidance.

Mackinders Eagle Owl, copyright: www.screechowlsanctuary.co.uk
Omen of death - or tourist attraction?
Locals are not charged, so as to encourage them to appreciate the immense value of the birds.

"I did not believe at first that it was possible that someone was rearing such birds," said Patrick Njagi, a Kenyan visitor.

"I had to come and satisfy my curiosity that someone is rearing them and not fearing death. Now I have seen it is possible."

But among the residents of Kiawara village, people are sharply divided about the owl sanctuary.

Owls are nocturnal birds that feed, mate and migrate at night.

During mating, they make the loudest hoot that is considered a bad omen by many communities.

"If someone dies, the previous night those creatures cry a lot - so I just don't like it," said one woman in the village, who urged Mr Muthithi to stop tending the owls.

But another neighbour was more positive: "We think it will bring development to the area, as a tourist attraction," he said - a view which is echoed by the local authorities.

"There is nothing wrong with this young man as long as he has not broken any rule in keeping the owls," says Ben Kariuki, the area's chief.

"We urge other villagers not to associate this young man with anything sinister, as he is merely earning his bread."

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