BirdLife: The Magazine June 2017 - Page 56

CENTRAL EUROPE RAISING THE EAGLE STANDARD Five countries, eleven NGOs, four BirdLife Partners, 3.5 million Euros and one enigmatic bird of prey – PannonEagle LIFE is an ambitious conservation project to keep the Eastern Imperial Eagle soaring through the skies of Central Europe Gui-Xi Young I n the armies of ancient Rome, one proud soldier was given the noble duty of bear- ing the standard of his legion – a potent symbol of Roman honour, military glory and a tactical rallying point amid the tumult of battle. These signa militaria were fixed atop a spear, bearing imposing figures such as the wolf or the boar. Later however, such earth-bound creatures were abandoned in favour of the emperor of the skies; by 104 BC the bronze-cast, outstretched wings of the majestic Aquila were hoisted pro- digiously over much of Europe. Though the mighty Roman Empire saw its decline and fell, the reign of its winged avatars far outlived 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 fasci- ata 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 low- ered the eagle standard in Europe, and con- servationists across the continent are working to reverse the downward spiral of these iconic raptors. Recently, four BirdLife Partners – MME (Hungary), CSO (Czech Republic), BPSSS (Ser- bia) and BirdLife Austria – launched an ambi- tious five year project, “PannonEagle LIFE”, to restore populations of the enigmatic Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca across the entire Pannonian region. JUNE 2017 • BIRDLIFE HUNTING, POISONING AND HABITAT LOSS MEAN ONLY ABOUT 220 PAIRS REMAIN Eastern Imperial Eagl e Aquila heliaca. Photo Horvát Márton 2 Pannonia was once a sprawling province of the Roman Empire, bound to the north and east by the great blue Danube, 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 attracted populations of Eastern Imperial Eagle (a typically lowland spe- cies, unlike many other eagles), as they were 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 mam- mals such as the souslik (ground squirrel), ham- ster and European hare. The distinctive silhouette of Aquila heliaca – with a body length of about 80 cm and a wing- span of 2 m – 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. Its authority/power/majesty makes it unsurprising that this powerful predator is brought down far more by human interference than by natural causes. The hunters have become the hunted; inci- dents of so-called “predator persecution” such as illegal shooting and poisoning is the main threat to this species in this region, account- ing for more than 30% of the known mortality 57