Balkan eagles poisoned by pesticides

This White-tailed Eagle was found poisoned near a Golden Jackal carcass outside Vajska in Serbia. Photo Marko Tucakov.
This White-tailed Eagle was found poisoned near a Golden Jackal carcass outside Vajska in Serbia. Photo Marko Tucakov.
Birds of prey are being threatened on a new front in Eastern Europe, as eagles and other raptors have been discovered poisoned by pesticides.

Bird species of Least Concern on the European Red List may not appear threatened because of the name of the category they are placed in. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t face serious threats to their survival that have to be addressed by conservationists.

The White-tailed Eagle is one such bird. The East European and Central Asian populations have been growing, and reached 125 pairs in Serbia in 2016. The annual growth rate of the species is about 50 birds across that country, but only around five of these reach sexual maturity and reproduce, according to Serbian researchers; even losing one bird is a big loss.

Since 2009, 33 White-tailed Eagle carcasses have been found in Serbia. The culprit in a majority of the cases is pesticide poisoning.

The bodies of most poisoned White-tailed Eagles, and other affected species such as Raven, Common Buzzard and Magpie, have been found close to poisoned baits, which are mostly cattle carcasses intended for predators like Golden Jackals and Foxes. The majority of the cases were recorded around Gornje Podunavlje and Karadordevo, two nature reserves in the north-west that host a large concentration of White-tailed Eagle, of almost 30 breeding pairs and more than 100 individuals in the winter. 
“When a carcass of any protected species is found, the case must be reported to the Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection and the closest veterinarian organization, which must determine the cause of death,” says Marko Tucakov of the Institute for Nature Conservation of Vojvodina Province. However, he added that the analyses were completed only in a few cases due to administrative problems, such as paying for the tests.

As a result, only four legal complaints against anonymous persons have been submitted for cases of presumed poisoning since 2012, and two of those have been dismissed.
Things have gotten worse in the last two years. An increase in the population of Common Vole has brought upon a rise in the indiscriminate use of zinc-based rodenticide pellets around large fields on the surface of the soil, instead of in holes as prescribed. This has increased the risk of secondary poisoning of birds and mammals.

“In spring 2014, an official complaint was sent to the Secretariat of the Bern Convention. We asked them to take administrative measures and the Republic of Serbia to undertake urgent steps to prevent deliberate killing of bird species from Appendix II of the Convention. The case is still open,” says Milan Ružic, president of Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia (BPSSS, BirdLife in Serbia).

Toxicology analyses of eight eagle carcasses found in 2014 showed that the cause of death was the pesticide carbofuran. Carbofuran-based pesticides were legal in Serbia until the beginning of 2014. In July 2014 the use, sale and storage of carbofuran was banned but ornithologists say it is still used and widely available on the black market. They added that the lack of awareness among pesticide users is the main cause of bird poisoning.

BPSSS, WWF and other Serbian nature conservation organisations have initiated a campaign for the promotion of reasonable and responsible pesticide use. Land owners, farmers, activists, hunters and agriculture experts participated in public presentations, distributing leaflets telling people what to do when finding a poisoned animal, and setting up an emergency phone number to report cases.

In Serbia, the poisoning of protected species is a criminal offence and punishments can range from high fines to prison sentences, at least on paper. However, the enforcement of the legislation needs to be improved significantly. If it is not, Serbian conservationists are afraid that three decades of White-tailed Eagle research and conservation effort could go down the drain.
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