“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority”
The largest of all African eagles, this magnificent raptor, the martial eagle, is losing out fast because of man’s encroachment upon, and degradation of, its habitat. Not only has the land been cleared, huge modern pylons have been erected and steep-sided reservoirs built within its range. Both of these have accounted for many untimely deaths of these apex predators. Although they have drowned in the reservoirs, unable to get out, the pylons, which have electrocuted some of them, have been turned by others to their advantage. In the absence of adequate trees, the martial eagle will often choose to build its nest on top of one of these many towering metal structures.
But it doesn’t end there, the threats continue. Martial eagles are persecuted by farmers, who deliberately shoot and trap them (in retaliation for livestock losses) and accidentally poison them. It seems the larger agricultural enterprises are chiefly responsible for the poisoning, but the smaller farmers can also be a problem. These two threats are the major cause of the current decline. Reduction in prey base may account for the eagles striking at farm stock, but there is a very likely chance this will see an increase as the birds continue to see less and less of their own natural prey. Then, there is the age-old threat of traditional medicine – in this case African muthi or muti. Parts of the martial eagle have been found for sale on stalls in Johannesburg’s Mai Mai market. These parts, alongside those of endangered species, are sold out in the open, and because this is muthi, a blind eye is turned by the authorities.
This is a very large eagle, measuring over three feet in length with a wingspan of up to eight feet six inches. It can weigh up to fourteen pounds, making it the fifth heaviest eagle in the world. Females tend to be larger than males. The species has remarkably keen eyesight for spotting its prey from a great distance. Most of its time is spent in flight, and it is capable of achieving heights great enough to hide it from the naked eye.
Martial eagles breed at various times of the year. They build their nests as high as eighty feet from the ground. They fashion them out of large sticks which they line with green leaves. These basin-like structures are usually about six feet in diameter and four feet thick. After an incubation period of forty-five days, the egg will hatch, but the newborn will be very weak and parentally dependent. The mother will feed the young one for roughly sixty days or until it starts to tear up its own food. Full feathers appear after about seventy days. A young bird will make its first flight at one hundred days.
Across its entire range: open woodland and woodland edges, wooded savannah, thorn-bush and wooded hillocks, semi-desert and open savannah with scattered trees.
Sub-Saharan Africa: from Senegal through the Gambia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Namibia and Botswana to South Africa.
What they eat
Medium to large mammals, birds and reptiles.
Poisoning, electrocution by overhead power lines, drowning in reservoirs, habitat loss, direct persecution for livestock losses, reduction in prey base and pollution.
The martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable (at high risk of endangerment in the wild). The species was elevated from Near Threatened in 2012 to Vulnerable in 2013. There is no true assessment of population numbers available, but, it is estimated there are no more than six hundred pairs left in South Africa. The range of the martial eagle is extensive, though the birds themselves are rare. Many more are thought to survive in low-densities in the other locations.
Conservation Actions Proposed by the IUCN:
Introduce programmes combining awareness campaigns and compensation to farmers for stock losses across the species range. Install anti-electrocution devices on electricity pylons. Implement education and awareness campaigns across its range to reduce the use of poisoned baits. Carry out regular population monitoring across its range.
Newly-born martial eagle – the first of its species to be born in captivity – Nelspruit News
A young martial eagle attempting to take on a klipspringer (amusing)
Interview with Alan Kemp about the Martial Eagle in Southern Africa (including the global problem of electrocution)
(American) Bald Eagle Electrocuted Shortly After Leaving the Nest (for the first time)
One South African student’s initiative to save the martial eagle
Durban’s muthi market
Durban’s muthi market attracts a large number of international pharmaceutical companies
Johannesburg’s Mai Mai Market