Europe and Central Asia
26 Sep 2017

Raising the Eagle Standard

Eastern Imperial Eagle © Horváth Márton MME BirdLife Hungary
By Gui-Xi Young

5 countries, 11 partners (including 4 BirdLife partners, 4 governmental organisations and an energy company), 3.5 million EUROS and one enigmatic bird of prey – PannonEagle LIFE is an ambitious 5 year conservation project to keep the Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca soaring through the skies of ancient Pannonia.


In the armies of ancient Rome, one soldier was given the noble duty of bearing the standard of his legion – a potent symbol of military glory and a rallying point amid the tumult of battle. These signa militaria were fixed atop a spear and bore imposing figures such as the wolf or the boar. Eventually, these earth-bound creatures were abandoned for the emperor of the skies, and by 104 BC the bronze-cast, outstretched wings of the majestic Aquila (eagle), circled prodigiously over Europe.


Modern-day reconstruction of a  Roman eagle standard 


Though the mighty Roman Empire saw its decline and fall, the reign of its winged avatars far outstripped it. For centuries, the Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos ruled over northern Britain and the Alps, the Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus maintained its strongholds in France and Spain, and Bonelli’s Eagle Aquila fasciata surveyed the Mediterranean from on high, to say nothing of their Greater Spotted, Lesser Spotted and White-tailed cousins.  Sadly, our more recent history, with its rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, has lowered the eagle standard in Europe and conservationists across the continent are working to reverse the downward spiral of these iconic raptors.

Recently, four BirdLife Partners – MME (Hungary), CSO (Czech Republic), BPSSS (Serbia) and BirdLife Austria – launched an ambitious, five year project, ‘PannonEagle LIFE’, to restore populations of the enigmatic Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca across the entire Pannonian region.


© Szilárd Morvai


Pannonia was once a sprawling province of the Roman Empire, bound to the north and east by the great blue Danube, and to the west by Italy and to the south by Dalmatia. It stretched across Central Europe, covering present-day Hungary, Austria, Serbia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The valleys of the region’s lower elevation mountains enticed populations of Eastern Imperial Eagles (a typically lowland species, unlike many other eagles), pushed out by human activity from the open plains. Since the late 1990s, the population has begun to descend to lower agricultural lands in hunt of its favoured prey, small farmland mammals such as the souslik (ground squirrel), hamster and European hare.

The distinctive silhouette of Aquila helica – with a body length of about 80cm and a wingspan of 2m – cuts an intimidating figure. Its body is almost entirely brown, though the crown and sides of the neck are light gold and patches of white mark the shoulders as well as the edges of its wing coverts and tail; its call is a harsh and deep repetitive bark. It is therefore not so surprising that this powerful predator is brought down far more by human interference than by natural causes.


© Svetoslav Spasov


The hunters have become the hunted; incidents of so-called ‘predator persecution’ such as illegal shooting and poisoning is the main threat to this species in this region, accounting for more than 30% of the known mortality causes. The perils of modern civilisation are also often deadly with many birds electrocuted by power lines. And to make matters worse, vital feeding habitats and potential nesting sites are being severely compromised by the loss of semi-natural agricultural lands, old trees and forest patches respectively. In the face of these combined threats, there are only about 220 breeding pairs remaining in the entire region.

PannonEagle LIFE seeks to change this. Trained dog units operated by NGOs and park rangers will investigate poisoning alongside police. Better cooperation with gamekeepers and farmers will not only help improve the habitats of both the eagles and their prey but will also help to dispel the persistent misconceptions driving predator persecution. Satellite transmitters, fixed on individual birds, will help conservationists identify the most significant conflict zones and injured birds, survivors from persecution incidents, will be rescued and rehabilitated back into the wild.


Falco, a trained sniffer-dog with a poisoned eagle


Nest guarding measures will also play a crucial role. The Eastern Imperial Eagle is a discerning property developer – it prefers to build its nest on the top of a large tree on southern facing slopes and close to good foraging sites. Nests are always positioned to have an optimal view, unobstructed by other trees, so they can observe potential disturbances at great distances. In undisturbed areas, it will use the same nest for dozens of years and will ‘renovate’ it year-on-year with grass and feathers. Protecting existing nests and establishing artificial nests will therefore help ensure successful breeding.

It is expected that these measures will bring down the annual mortality rate to less than 12% and increase the number of breeding pairs to over 250 by 2021. And the outlook is very positive as PannonEagle LIFE is building directly on the great successes of a similar project to protect the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Hungary, HELICON LIFE.


Eastern Imperial Eagle nest


Between 2012 and 2016, HELICON LIFE successfully developed several actions that will now be implemented across the wider Pannonian region: detective dog units, DNA ‘fingerprinting’ from feathers, satellite tagging, artificial nest building and nest guarding, educational nature trails, ‘chick-checking’ to monitor breeding success, and a hot-line for reporting criminal cases.

As a direct result of successful efforts to more effectively uncover poisoning cases, several perpetrators were brought to trial and found guilty, receiving either a custodial sentence or big financial penalty – a first for Hungary. This achievement early on in the project proved to be an effective deterrent, leading to a decreasing poisoning trend from 16 poisoned eagles in 2012 to just one in 2016.


Layman's report - The HELICON LIFE Project


Meanwhile, the results of the genetic tracking showed that at the start of the project, the estimated mortality of breeding individuals was between 15-25%, decreasing to 6-9% by the second half of the project. And in the same period, the annual mortality rate of the satellite-tagged immature eagles decreased from 50% to 10-20%. Thanks to these successes combined, the overall breeding population jumped by 30% to 200 pairs by the end of 2016.

On top of these conservation achievements, it is also encouraging to see positive media reporting raise public awareness and shape changing perceptions about the plight of this enigmatic predator. In Roman times, if the Eagle standard was lost on the battle field, it was considered to be an ominous occurrence; the military often went to great lengths to protect their Aquila, famously searching for lost standards for decades after great battles. How many more real eagles must we lose, before their loss is felt as gravely? The time has come to raise the eagle standard and battle on to save nature. 


To read the Layman's Report of The HELICON LIFE Project, including a summary of the results, click here.

Gui-Xi Young - Editor & Campaigns Officer, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.