NatGeo fellow on a mission to save rare birds

Wednesday May 20 2020

Sidney Shema.

Sidney Shema surveys raptors at Kapiti Hill in Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY 

More by this Author

For years, wildlife biologist Sidney Shema has been fascinated with birds.

Since 2017 he has managed the Kenya Bird Map Project, a Citizen Science Initiative that seeks to map the distribution of Kenyan bird species with the help of volunteers and bird enthusiasts.

His passion for conserving birds and biodiversity in general earned him a National Geographic Photo Ark EDGE Fellow in March 2020. The fellowship is a collaboration between the National Geographic Society and the Zoological Society of London. Shema is one of 12 Africans chosen to document “Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE)” species.

For the next two years, he will specialise in studying the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) which is listed as "vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A carnivorous raptor found only in Africa, secretary birds are decreasing due to threats on their habitats.

With the current Covid-19 travel restrictions, Shema’s work and birding trips are now confined to Nairobi. Under normal circumstances he spends a lot of time travelling around the country conducting wildlife surveys, water bird censuses and mapping birds.

Shema graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Management. He is an avid photographer and his photos have appeared in magazines and documentaries like National Geographic blog and Scopus: Journal of East African Ornithology.



Sidney Shema out in the field at Olerai
Sidney Shema out in the field at Olerai Conservancy, south western Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY

How did you become a candidate for the NatGeo Edge fellowship?

I previously received a grant from National Geographic and successfully completed the project, so that helped my application. I also worked closely with my mentors from The Peregrine Fund to help structure my proposal well.


What do you hope will come out of this fellowship?

To improve our understanding of the movements, ecology and the conservation threats to secretary birds in Kenya, which will help us develop appropriate conservation strategies for the species. I also hope to improve my research skills, which I can apply to other work.


What got you interested in wildlife management?

I have been fascinated with wildlife since I was a child and a university course on wildlife management seemed the perfect course to take.


What was your reason for focusing on raptors?

I got interested in birds during my first year of university through bird watching. When it comes to wildlife in general, I am more interested in predators.


How do photography and wildlife tie in?

Photography plays a major role in wildlife research and conservation. Photos confirm species occurrence, plumage variation, documenting behaviour and other things. They are also crucial for raising awareness, teaching about wildlife and inspiring people to support conservation.


What is a typical day like for you?

I wake up, exercise, shower then get to work. Work can vary from tasks like sending emails and managing data from fieldwork and conducting surveys. I work anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day depending on what I'm doing.


Who are your mentors or role models?

I have been working mainly with Darcy Ogada, assistant director of Africa Programmes at The Peregrine Fund, since starting my raptor research. She has been a great mentor to me. Others are people from Kenya Bird of Prey Trust, Mara Raptor Project, National Museums of Kenya, and the Zoological Society of London. They have contributed to my development as a biologist.


What is the value of involving people in citizen science projects like Kenya Bird Map?

Citizen science projects depend on the involvement of people for their success. Such projects also help increase people's interest in nature and their willingness to conserve it.


What would you say about job prospects in the wildlife sector?

There are a lot of opportunities out there, but you have to proactively seek them out. Do not wait for job opportunities to be sent to you. Learn about the various conservation challenges facing wildlife, pick one and try to solve it. Look for people or organisations interested in that problem, approach them and tell them how you can help. Often, they will be happy to support you financially and otherwise.


What are some useful skills for this profession?

For me, the ability to identify birds in the field proved to be very useful. If you are still in school, learn a skill that is pragmatic like GIS mapping or statistics. I developed my photography skills through online tutorials and practical experience. I do not consider myself a professional photographer because I still have a lot to learn.


How do you get ordinary people interested in bird watching?

I prefer to motivate those who already have some interest in it to do more and get involved in citizen science projects like the Kenya Bird Map. However, I try to inspire people on the importance of birds and nature through my social media platforms.


Would you say that your work is career or a calling?

Both I guess, because I don't see myself doing anything else.