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Simon Thomsett: Guardian Angel for the Raptor World

first met Simon exactly 23 years ago
when he was on the lookout for a
Kenyan student to train as a raptor
biologist. As a Research Associate at
the National Museums of Kenya, The
Peregrine Fund had taken him under its
wing to help revamp raptor studies East
Africa “Turn up at my ranch tomorrow,
” he said, when I met him briefly at the
museum offices in Nairobi. Blonde hair,
blue-eyed with rugged looks, almost like a
younger version of Harrison Ford, Simon
sauntered away down the staircase as I
watched wide-eyed.
And then, almost immediately, he
reappeared. “Ah, you will need directions,
he said. “Go down the Mombasa Road
until you get to Lukenya Hill, turn right
at Daystar and go exactly seven kilometers where
you will see a Martial’s nest on your right. Exactly
opposite is a gate with a padlock – key under
rock”. I turned up the following day to begin my
adventures with Simon, many of which are still
Simon Dick Thomsett was born in Nairobi,
Kenya in 1960. He grew up in the leafy suburbs
of Karen on the edge of Nairobi National Park
and lived a charmed yet eccentric life having been
given a Lanner Falcon to look after at the age of
six. He went to the Banda School where, instead
of playing sports, he collected lizards, snakes
and a variety of insects, completely immersing
himself in nature, much to the confusion of his
classmates. He developed a fervent passion for
raptors and became an accomplished, albeit
self-taught, falconer. His father, a wildlife
When six-year old Simon Thomsett was given a Lanner Falcon to look after, little did he know that his life
was going to change, forever. At the age of nine, he successfully rehabilitated three species of raptors – a kite,
a goshawk and a buzzard. In March last year, at the age of 55, Simon was saving and rehabilitating a Tawny
Eagle with a broken foot.
Aged six Simon could never have imagined the global conservation footprint he would leave and its
inspirational impact on thousands of people and raptors, not only at his birth home in Kenya, but all
over the world. Few people deserve the title of being living legends - Simon Thomsett is one of these; his
reputation and kindness transcend international borders. He is one of those rare individuals who simply give
wholeheartedly. It’s what he knows and what he does best. Whether it is his knowledge about raptors, bush
survival skills, wisdom or even his culinary delights, an afternoon or evening spent with Simon is a roller-
coaster journey filled with rousing excitement.
Dr Munir Virani
directs raptor
programs in Africa
for The Peregrine
Fund. He has a
fervent passion
for photography and has been working
on birds of prey for the last 20 years. For
more information about his work, please
documentary filmmaker and his mother, a
meticulous artist, were influential in nurturing
and cultivating his creativity. Simon spent days
on end in the wilderness areas of Kenya hunting
with falcons and spending time in the back of
their family car whilst his father filmed Africa’s
big cats. Simon’s love and knowledge about
raptors stems from spending time in the field
with his mentors – Grahame Dangerfield and
the late Leslie Brown, both legends in the field of
raptors. Other people who have had tremendous
influence in Simon’s life have been Peter Davey,
Cunningham van Someren, David Hopcraft, Tom
Cade and Leon Bennun (all incredibly talented
and unique individuals). As a young teenager with
blonde hair and bright blue eyes, Simon exuded
charisma, and a passion for the outdoors and
the birds he rescued. He chose not to complete a
formal education but spent at least 10 years living
in a metal hut under a tree in the harsh northern
frontier of Kenya (Lewa Conservancy). His family
was his eagles. He was a voracious reader with the
amazing ability to absorb information, process
it and come up with his own creative ideas and
There are 204 people on the African
Raptors email list server who will attest that
Simon is without a shadow a doubt, the most
knowledgeable person on raptors in Africa
and possibly in the world. He has successfully
released more than a thousand injured raptors
and has had a significant influence in shaping
the lives and careers of hundreds of individuals
who have been mentored and inspired by him
and have gone on to make significant global
contributions in the field of raptor and wildlife
conservation. Some of these people include
Laila Baha-el Din (Golden Cats in West Africa),
Suzanne Schults and Shane McPherson (Crowned
Eagles in Ivory Coast and South Africa), Darcy
Ogada (African Vultures), Shiv Kapila (co-
founder of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust) and Lily
Arison de Ronald (Raptors in Madagascar).
When Simon speaks, people listen in
awe and great admiration. His energy is
infectious and addictive.
He has helped students selflessly –
from the rainforests of Madagascar to
the thick forests of Ivory Coast, where
His students have gone on to help prevent
the extinction of four species of critically
endangered Gyps vultures in South Asia, to
saving Madagascar's endangered Fish Eagles.
he dangled from trees to help trap and band
Crowned Eagles. His experience was critical
for some of The Peregrine Fund’s projects in
places like the Cape Verde Islands on their Kites
and particularly in Ethiopia, where he single-
handedly scaled 1000 feet cliffs to search for
Bearded Vulture chicks for a reintroduction
programme in Kenya. His students have gone
on to help prevent the extinction of four species
of critically endangered Gyps vultures in South
Asia, to saving Madagascar’s endangered Fish
Eagles. From wrestling vultures to attach satellite
transmitters in the Maasai Mara, to crawling
through the dense fluorescent-fungi understory
of Arabuko-Sokoke and Ngezi Forests in search
of endangered owls, to the dense jungles in
Bandhavgarh National Park, India, sitting with
Simon around a crackling campfire sipping tea
and listening to his wilderness stories would have
to rate as magical.
Simon’s conservation education impact to his
community is colossal. With a modest facility
in the outskirts of Nairobi that housed about
20 different type of rescued raptors, Simon has
inspired nearly 10,000 children from all parts
of Kenya by introducing them up close to the
world of raptors and stressing the importance of
conserving raptors and protecting their habitats. I
have watched with awe as Simon once spent a full
day with 16 young Masai children and their four
Maasai mentors at his home showing them eagles
and vultures up close and instilling in them the
value of raptors and how important they are for
Kenya’s cultural heritage. Four of these mentees
went on to spread Simon’s knowledge by talking
to students in six primary schools on the border
of the Maasai Mara National Park. While it is
difficult to measure the success of educational
awareness programs, few stories can sum up
Simon’s domino-effect style teaching ways than
this one.
During the days of Leslie Brown in the 1960s,
Eagle hill in Kenya’s Embu County had at least
14 species of raptors (including six species of
eagles) nesting within eyeshot of one another.
A few years ago, Simon took the legendary Tom
Cade (Founder of The Peregrine Fund) on an
eagle walk to the hill when, tired and hot, they
sat under a fig tree and a young bare-chested 13-
year old boy grazing his cattle emerged out of the
bushes. Thinking that the boy wanted a snack,
Simon reached out into his bag pack to give him
a banana. Taking the snack, the boy looked at
Simon and said, “I remember you, you talked to
me about birds. Follow me - I want to show you
a nest of a Harrier Hawk”. Such is the impact of
Simon’s greatest love has been his two
legendary Crowned Eagles – Rosy and Girl, both
of whom he looked after for nearly 40 years,
and are still by his side even today. He single-
handedly bred this captive pair that produced
seven offspring released in Tsavo West National
Park. This release program was so successful
that that the pastry chef at one of the camps
volunteered to monitor the progress of the
released birds.
Simon Thomsett and the late George Adamson
shared the same vision – to give every animal a
chance (no matter how small) to be free in the
wild. While the vision is the same, their methods
were different. The uniqueness of Simon’s work
stems from his love for raptors as barometers
of ecosystem health to convey a conservation
message and achieve habitat protection. Simon
is, even among conservationists worldwide,
a very rare one; one who literally goes about
rehabilitating and releasing birds with every
penny he gets in his hands and has done so his
entire life. The money is spent on food for birds
in rehabilitation or to engage volunteers, on
Simon Thomsett is currently a co-trustee of the Kenya Bird of Prey
Trust, a rescue and rehabilitation centre for birds of prey and owls.
The Trust runs a Naivasha Owl Centre along the shores of Lake
Naivasha that hosts 23 owls, 18 raptors (including three Crown
Eagles), a vulture and two Marabou Storks. Several of these will
have to remain at the Centre but the majority will eventually be
released once they have been brought back to total fitness. In
many cases falconry techniques are used to get them fit, as an unfit
bird won’t be able to catch its food and will thus starve to death.
The Centre has facilities for the care of injured, sick or orphaned
birds. It has a small clinic and works with a Veterinary Surgeon and
a Falconer. The birds are treated, when they have an injury, and
brought back to health when they are sick (or poisoned) and are
looked after until they fully recover. They are then brought up to
full fitness, prior to release at the second arm of the Kenya Bird of
Prey Trust, The Raptor Camp, at Soysambu which is run by Simon.
From there they are then released either back where they came
from (provided it is deemed safe) or into the correct type of terrain
for them, all under the watchful eye of the KWS.
fuel to get his old beat-up car to an important
raptor location or anything else imaginable that
will benefit birds and wildlife. He subsists on
maize meal, has spent his entire life in humble
accommodation and by very sparse means…
almost unimaginable to most people reading this.
But his heart his rich and his knowledge priceless.
Mahatma Gandhi’s quote sums up the
enormous conservation contribution Simon has
made to his community – “In a gentle way, you
can shake the world.”
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