Operation Ostrich

Operation Ostrich

A Story about African Ostriches

By Iris Hunt

This is a nostalgic story, cherished memories of a great safari, and a “bush-tale” about that most extraordinary of flightless birds, the African Ostrich.

African Ostriches

Dancers at the original Moulin Rouge, along with more demure 19th Century ladies of high fashion, were not alone in adorning their bodies with the soaring, wafting feathers of the Ostrich.

For generations before them, the tail plumage of the great bird had been an essential part of the ordinary and especially the ceremonial “dress code” of the Turkana people. The Turkana are a nomadic tribe roaming a vast, harshly arid area of Northern Kenya that stretches north from Maralal to the western shores of Lake Turkana.

We’re not entirely sure if they once feasted on the meat from the Ostrich’s huge thighs, or otherwise preyed on the bird for food. But, in any event, this was not the primary reason for the absence of the species today from the western hinterland of the desolate Rift Valley lake.

The Ostriches were certainly there in sizeable numbers towards the end of the 19th Century, when the first European arrivals in the area noted flocks of 150 or more.

They also noted, however, that the tribesmen were keen hunters of the bird whenever they came across it, making full use of most of its bodily parts. Bones were carved as ornaments or tools, skins made into pouches and “apron” skirts for the women – and, aside from adornment, the feathers were used to whisk away an ever-harassing pestilence of flies they had to endure.

Don Hunt Nguya

From early in the last century, the Turkana population began to expand and, conversely, over the same period the Ostrich began to disappear. The cause may have been partly environmental, but clearly the Turkana men in particular were also partly responsible.

They virtually “worshipped the bird to death,” prizing both the eggs – for necklaces made from the shells – and the living-soon-to-be-dead bird itself, above all, for the ultimate vanity of their multi-plumed “attire.” In the end, tragically, not a single Ostrich was to be found immediately west of the lake.

It was 1968. Don Hunt, now my husband; his “great buddy,” film-actor Bill Holden, and a seasoned African bushman, Julian McKeand, were camped close to Ferguson’s Gulf, then a bare speck of human habitation on the western lakeside.

Just 80 years earlier the Hungarian aristocrat, Count Teleki von Szek, had led the first European expedition in search of the great body of water rumored to lie beyond the reaches of the previous expeditions. Triumphantly he named the lake “Rudolf” after the Austrian Crown Prince who financed the venture.

Iris Hunt fishing

It was the “impertinent” Count, or rather his scholarly biographer and ghost writer, Ludwig von Höhnel, who set down the first of countless lyric descriptions of the always arduous “Journey to the Jade Sea” and of the lake itself – the always sinister, but fabulously spectacular “great, green, shimmering expanse of liquid stone.”

The Hunt-Holden-McKeand trio, at more or less the same viewpoint, were no less enchanted. They also greatly enjoyed, “exploring” the great, brown expanse of arid, empty landscape around them and, in particular, fishing in the lake for monster Nile Perch, weighing 100 pounds or more, and the more challenging, fierce-fighting Tigerfish.

African Chiefs wives

It wasn’t long before their activities attracted the attention of the local Turkana, who started following them around – at first at a distance. But then mutual trust was established, after which the visiting party was honored with an invitation to a forthcoming wedding.

They thereupon produced an appropriate gift, the only one they could turn up in time – a great heap of several hundred pounds of Nile Perch. The gesture was appreciated, however; the flesh was sun-dried for later consumption at the feast and the bones fashioned into yet more decorative ornaments for the Elders.

The only thing the Great Fish-hunters might have provided, or so the Great Chief lamented, were newly garnered Ostrich feathers. Without these, how could an event of such importance be properly signified or, more specifically, how could the Chief be impressed with a new son-in-law unfestooned with fresh finery?

There were, the Chief informed them, plenty of Ostriches on the eastern shore because the tribes living there were “few and far between” and had no “admirations” for the great bird. His people might have hunted there themselves, he explained, but the “Jade Sea” was ever treacherous, often turning black with sudden storms of extreme violence. Some of his young men had tried the crossing in frail dug-outs, but – so he said – few had returned.

The visitors were sympathetic, but neither inclined to cross the lake themselves, nor, more particularly, to lay waste to any Ostriches. The wedding was nonetheless celebrated with much pomp and circumstance, a great colorful spectacle they would always remember.

Some Facts About Ostrich

African ostrich

Ostriches occur throughout Africa. They are the largest flightless birds in the world, weighing around 295 pounds.

Like most birds, the males display a beautiful plumage to attract the females. Black and white in the case of the male ostrich, whilst the smaller adult females are a more dowdy grey-brown.

Other random facts are as follows:

Ostrich foot

  • The plumage on the head varies slightly among a number of sub-species, but all have distinctive “ears” and, actually, not much room for a brain in rather small heads in comparison with their body size.
  • The neck and legs of the male Maasai Ostrich turn bright red during the mating season. The rituals of attraction are legendary at this time, involving prolonged, seductive – even gracefully balletic – dances.
  • By contrast, the males of another sub-species, the Somali Ostrich, have a more somber grayish-blue skin tone.
  • The long, powerful legs of the Ostrich propel the bird at speeds of up to 45 mph. Each foot has only two toes. Used in defense, the kick from an Ostrich can easily kill a man.
  • Leafy bushes, grass, plants and berries are the great bird’s main diet, but they will also pick up lizards and insects – and most anything ‘shiny.’ (Like, for instance don’t leave your diamonds lying around unattended in Ostrich Country!)
  • Thereafter, Bill had a tangent idea: if the birds were so plentiful east of the lake, why not use Don’s skills to capture a batch of young Ostrich and relocate them to the Turkana side? He thought he might get a commitment from the Chief to allow the nucleus flock to breed up, taking only fallen feathers and abandoned eggs.

    The deal was done between them, but the question then arose of who might finance the translocation? And again it was Bill Holden who progressed the idea from speculation to realization.

    Back in the states, the eminent producer David Wolper had long been after him to make a documentary of his private love affair with Africa. Nothing to it, therefore. He would extract the finance from the Hollywood mogul by allowing him to attach a small crew to film the catching operating (in which the star would play a supporting role) and the ultimate east-to-west air transfer of the baby Ostriches.

    A year later, a convoy was finally assembled on the lake shore with several large trucks loaded with African staff, tents, beds, chairs, a fully equipped canteen, and much other paraphernalia. More than a few Land-Rovers were also needed to transport the principles – Don, Bill and Julian – and the supposedly “small” film crew, which turned out to be a large retinue of director and assistants, cameramen, technicians, writers and who knows who else – plus all their baggage and equipment.

    An aircraft was hired, a boat bought and trucked in, and the Kenya Government prudently sent up “minders” to make sure all was rightly done according to relevant laws and statutes. What had started as a fun safari for friends and associates was transformed by the build-up of a major expeditionary force, not seen in those parts since the invasion of Von Szek’s huge land armada.

    Three months later the film of the capture was “in the can.” What remained to finish the job, the most important part, was the safe delivery of the flock of young Ostriches to the Turkana Chief at Ferguson’s Gulf.

    African ostrich

    The Kenyan authorities cannily provided one of its Education Officers to brief especially the young amongst the tribe on the whys and wherefores of conserving the birds. The great emblematic Ostrich was about to be returned to their land, but how would it fare – and for how long – would depend entirely on them.

    Another feast was arranged to welcome the return of the benefactors. Enthusiastic as ever, Bill arrived with a mobile cinema and a film on ostriches, hoping it would help get the Turkana “on side” through a graphic demonstration of what it could be like – of “good times past” – if they did commit to preserve the birds and allow them to flourish in their old habitat.

    The Elders held a Council on the matter for several days. A resolution was duly passed and a date set for the inception of a new era of Ostrich conservation in Turkanaland.

    Finally the great day arrived, with a large crowd streaming in from outlying areas to witness the event. The excited assembly then fell silent as the first chicks appeared out of the boxes, taking their first faltering ‘giant’ steps onto the lunar surface of the western lake. Initially they would be guarded by Game Scouts and allowed time to acclimatize and grow.

    African women

    Soon afterwards, Don, Bill and Julian returned to their labors on their new (less Ostrich-focused) ‘safe haven’ for wildlife they’d started back at the Mount Kenya Game Ranch, with the project incidentally endowed by the film producers with a badly needed lorry and two Land-Rovers.

    Unlike the three friends – forever Lake Turkanaphiles – the crews were glad to get out of “that God-awful desert” and return to their own more verdant pastures in Hollywood. There, the film “Adventures at the Jade Sea”, was duly cut and released, initially on American TV, with great success.

    Meanwhile, the Turkana continued to look after their Ostrich chicks, maturing slowly leaving time for all to grow.

    Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy