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Current Research Programmes

Conserving Martial Eagles

This project aims to understand the factors driving a decrease in the population of Martial Eagles Polemaetus bellicosus in South Africa, with a particular focus on the declines that have been observed within the largest protected area in the country, the Kruger National Park. This research is important in understanding the role that protected areas have in species conservation and understanding specific threats and habitat requirements for the conservation of Martial Eagles.

The Martial Eagle research project was initiated following an analysis which showed that the species had declined by up to 60% across South Africa, including large declines within protected areas. Our original hypothesis for these declines was that Martial Eagles may be subject to increased mortality outside of protected areas, particularly during immature life stages when inexperienced eagles are likely to range away from the nest and into areas with increased human pressures. Contrary to this hypothesis, data collected since 2013 did not find evidence for low survival during these early life stages despite ranging widely beyond non-protected area boundaries. However, through GPS tracking of adult birds and nest monitoring, two potential factors that may be contributing to the observed population declines have been detected: low adult survival and poor breeding productivity. Adult mortalities, including persecution and electrocution, during unexpected wide ranging movements outside of the Kruger National Park may be contributing to declines. These unexpected adult movements and the drivers of poor breeding productivity will now form the main focus of ongoing research on Martial Eagles in the Park.

Activities in 2016

  • Rowen van Eeden, Gareth Tate and Megan Murgatroyd undertook fieldwork in the Kruger National Park to collect data on breeding productivity. This is our fourth consecutive year of Martial Eagle breeding monitoring in the Kruger National Park.
  • British TV presenter, Steve Backshall, joined Rowen in the Kruger National Park to film the GPS tagging of two Martial Eagles for the series “Fierce”, which airs on primetime UK TV. One of these tagged eagles was subsequently found dead, caught in a hunting snare 60 days later in Mozambique.
  • We continued to monitor the movements of our GPS tagged Martial Eagles.
  • We signed another three year contract with South African National Parks, which will allow us to continue the research on Martial Eagles.

Highlights:

  • Rowen van Eeden submitted his PhD entitled “Understanding population declines of Martial Eagles Polemaetus bellicosus in the Kruger National Park, South Africa” for examination. 
  • Rowen had the first paper from his PhD research accepted for publication in the open access journal PLoS ONE.
  • We published a paper in Ostrich based on Daniël Cloete’s CB MSc dissertation, which used nest survey data to validate changes in reporting rates of Martial Eagles between the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 1 and 2.
  • We submitted another paper from Daniël Cloete’s CB MSc to Bird Conservation International. This paper quantifies the population changes throughout South Africa using SABAP1 and SABAP2 data.
  • Considerable publicity was generated around the discovery of our GPS tagged female caught in a snare in Mozambique. This included local and international newspaper articles (e.g. Daily Mail in the UK).

Impact of the project

Our research indicates that protected areas alone are unlikely to conserve this species and that additional conservation measures, such as education programs, or trans-boundary policy should be put in place to ensure the successful conservation of this species.

Key co-sponsors

ABAX Foundation; African Bird Club; Bataleurs; Columbus Zoo and Aquarium; DST-NRF CoE grant; Endangered Wildlife Trust; Natural Research Ltd; Raptor Research Foundation; Riverbanks Zoo and Garden; South African National Parks; University of Cape Town Research Committee.

Research team

Dr Arjun Amar (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Phil Whitfield (Natural Research Ltd, UK)
Dr Megan Murgatroyd (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Gareth Tate (FIAO, UCT, Endangered Wildlife Trust)
Andre Botha (Endangered Wildlife Trust)
Dr Andrew Jenkins (ADU, UCT)

Students:  Rowen van Eeden (PhD, UCT)