As already reported, we saw Spanish Imperial Eagles again yesterday. We have been seeing them regularly in the Baixo Alentejo for quite a while now but, make no mistake, these are really rare birds. BirdLife International, the global Partnership of conservation organisations, estimates the total population at 300-400 individuals, which is a significant increase compared with 30 years ago, but it is still classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Almost all of these birds are in Spain with just a handful in Portugal.
Successful breeding took place in Portugal in 2008 for the first time in many years and the species looks to be attempting re-colonisation of areas from which it disappeared in the 1970s. However, it has a battle on its hands. Threats to the species include habitat loss and fragmentation resulting from deforestation for agriculture and timber; juveniles are frequently killed in collisions with power lines; rabbits form a significant proportion of their diet and declines in rabbit populations as a result of viral haemorrhagic disease are thought to have an important effect. However, believe it or not, even in 2009, it is hunters who appear to pose the greatest threat!
The report early last month that the adult male of the successful breeding pair had been found dead from a gunshot wound was enough to make us despair. Apparently, the circumstances were such that the killing could only have been deliberate and pre-meditated with no case even for mistaken identity. The bird’s body was found close to the nest site. It had been shot at close range.
There has naturally been an outcry here with newspaper reports, statements from SPEA and others, the police are involved and there are calls not only for those responsible to be found and punished but for changes in the law relating to hunting zones and for education programmes to be introduced with a view to trying to prevent any repetition of this crime. However, this depressing event is a reminder of why it is that Spanish Imperial Eagles have so long been absent from Portugal: persecution by the hunting fraternity. And do we think that Spanish Imperial Eagles are the only birds of prey targeted by these people? No!
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