Impressive Imperial Eagle conservation in Georgia and Azerbaijan
By Guille Mayor and Elchin Sultanov, Tue, 12/04/2016 – 09:07
The Eastern Imperial Eagle is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Its global population estimates range from 3,500 to 15,000 individuals. This embattled bird is a lowland species whose population is globally declining and that has been pushed to higher altitudes by persecution and habitat loss in Europe. In central and eastern Europe, it breeds in forests up to 1.000 m above sea level, in steppe and agricultural areas with large trees, and nowadays also on electricity pylons.
Breeding sites are threatened by intensive forestry in the mountains, and by the shortage of large indigenous trees in the lowlands. Other threats are shortages of small and medium-sized prey species, loss of habitat to agriculture, human disturbance of breeding sites, nest robbing and illegal trade, shooting, poisoning and electrocution by powerlines.
Neighbouring countries Georgia and Azerbaijan are doing their bit to save this species from extinction.
Georgia: Man-made nests against man-made destruction
In Georgia, the species has its main breeding grounds in the east of the country, a vast bushy steppe and farmland area. According to recent surveys, no more than 40 breeding pairs remain in the country, mainly restricted to nesting in riverine forests and electric pylons due to the lack of suitable trees to build nests in throughout the land.
Since November 2015, SABUKO (Society for Nature Conservation) is carrying out conservation activities to improve the status of the Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca) through direct conservation measures, awareness raising and education.
Before the start of the project, funded and supported by CLP (Conservation Leadership Programme), several breeding surveys were carried out during 2014 and 2015 to assess the population size of the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Georgia and the locations of the nests. Several abandoned electric pylons were also checked for suitability to install artificial nests, as the species is known to nest in them in some countries in the Balkans.
In November 2015, four artificial nests were successfully built and installed, following the suggestionsi of the Institute of Ecology at Ilia State University, Georgia and MME (Birdlife in Hungary). In the first week of March, an adult eagle couple was seen performing diving flights (a courtship ritual or territorial display) close to one of them.
However, artificial nest installation does not solve the threat of habitat loss. So other activities are also being undertaken. These include the assessment and protection of young forest patches in non-protected areas that can be potentially used by the Eastern Imperial Eagle in the future, as well as of mature forest patches in such areas, where the eagles are currently nesting.
SABUKO is also carrying out satellite tracking of juvenile birds with the help of MME and the Vashlovani Protected Areas Office. To raise awareness among locals, SABUKO is conducting activities such as eagle watchers’ training, talks and presentations in schools, and meetings with municipality representatives, farmers and landowners.
Azerbaijan: Research is conservation’s best friend
Azerbaijan is essential to these and other threatened birds of prey as breeding and feeding grounds. However, there was a lack of comprehensive surveys that give us exact data about their breeding and wintering numbers. That changed with the adoption of the Southern Caucasus Action Plan for the Imperial Eagle in 2006, which stated that a basic assessment of the breeding population of the species was a priority.
In April 2007, the Azerbaijan Ornithological Society (BirdLife in Azerbaijan) started a comprehensive survey of Imperial Eagles in the northwestern part of Azerbaijan. Data collected during this survey were the first and most detailed data about the Eastern Imperial Eagle for Azerbaijan. In nine days, they covered 6.000sq km (7% of Azerbaijan territory, which is 25% of the habitat suitable for the Eastern Imperial Eagle) where they found 25 breeding pairs of Eastern Imperial eagles and a five more active territories. It was estimated that for the studied area, the number of breeding pairs was 35-60.
The results also indicated that the Azerbaijan population of the species may be among the top three in the world and therefore needs to be further researched, including mapping the rest of their habitat. This survey, by providing us with information about current status and distribution of the Eastern Imperial Eagle and distribution model will be our guide for future activities and planning for the conservation of the species and the designation of IBAs.
The action plan has drawn up a list of activities to increase and stabilise the population as well as to improve our knowledge of the Eastern Imperial Eagle. This includes public awareness campaigns on the threats to this species, holding meetings with electricity companies to site pylons in a way that is not a threat to the birds, providing alternative nests to those affected by human activities, and improve enforcement of laws against illegal logging.
Thus, the Imperial Eagle project will provide the chance to learn more about the Eastern Imperial Eagle and improve the conservation of this bird in Azerbaijan with the involvement of the media, local community stakeholders, infrastructure companies and governmental authorities.