Sunday, 16 October 2011

Rare eagle's dangerous human predators

SPAIN (El País) The Iberian imperial eagle (Aquila adalberti) is a majestic bird, of which only 282 breeding pairs are left in Spain. It is a real treasure of a species which must be pampered and preserved. But the fact that it is so exceptional and valuable biologically is precisely why it is such a coveted - and therefore stolen - species. The Civil Guard officers from the Nature Protection Service (SEPRONA) are well aware of this sad fact. In the last two years, they have taken down two major rings dedicated to the stealing and trafficking of birds of prey. But the most alarming thing about these police raids is that they have implicated professional falconers, a municipal police officer and even several employees of a center in Seville dedicated to protecting the imperial eagle.>>>

Horus was the mythological god who the Egyptians believed was the founder of their civilization. In paintings from pharaoh times, he appears as a man with the head of a falcon. In fact, the falcon hieroglyph was used to represent the idea of divinity. That's why the Civil Guard chose Horus as the name of the operation it set in motion last January, after learning that a falconer from Miguelturra, Ciudad Real province, was going around saying that he had birds that had been stolen from their nests.

SEPRONA's Central Environmental Operative Unit (UCOMA) got down to work immediately. It soon confirmed that nests were indeed being sacked in Ciudad Real, to supply a bird-trafficking ring with connections in Seville, Málaga, Córdoba, Jaén, Murcia, Bizkaia, Pontevedra and Asturias. "January isn't breeding season and there wasn't any risk of birds being stolen, so we were able to take our time. Little by little, our investigation confirmed our suspicions," says the unit captain, José Manuel Vivas Prada.
After tapping the phone of the falconer from Miguelturra, the Civil Guard managed to find out who he had dealings with (people who practice falconry or collect birds of prey in their homes). After putting wires on around 20 different phones, they discovered a ring of individuals involved to a greater or lesser extent in these illegal activities: some were in charge of raiding the nests of different protected species; others drew up documents to legalize specimens based on other documents which actually corresponded to dead birds; and a local policeman supplied altered or fake identification tags.

Their investigation revealed that at least eight people were sacking the nests of birds of prey: they would either take the young eagles or the eggs, to later be hatched in incubators. But what really shocked the police was that one of the members of this ring was connected to the Center for the Recovery of Endangered Birds of Seville (CREA). Financed by the Andalusian regional government, it was regarded as one of the foremost centers in Spain due to its program to boost imperial eagle numbers.
Little by little, they were able to figure out the structure of the network. There was the supplier of the tags (the policeman from Murcia), who, after being paid in advance, would supply them to anyone who wanted them; there were hunters who use birds of prey; falconers who work at airports to keep the birds away from the airplanes; and even a German national based in Málaga who buys birds of this kind in northern Europe and sells them in Spain and other countries.

Captain Vivas explains how these protected bird-trafficking rings usually operate: "If an enthusiast has a peregrine falcon and it dies, he may not be willing to shell out 3,000 euros for another one. So what does he do? He contacts someone in the ring and orders a peregrine falcon chick. Then he takes the tag off the dead bird's leg and puts it on the live one. Or he orders a new tag with the same number that the dead one had. That way, the new specimen looks legal to the authorities."

But who is able to raid the nests? Well, people who know where these eagles live and are familiar with their habits. People who know, for instance, that these birds of prey usually lay two eggs, but that only the chick that hatches first tends to survive, while the other one generally gets weaker and weaker and ends up dying. A falconer who cares for these birds is authorized to take the weaker chick in order to try and raise it at a recovery center. But so can an unscrupulous person, for his or her own benefit.

The Center for the Recovery of Endangered Species of Seville (CREA) opened in 2002 with the mission of stopping birds of prey from killing their siblings. That's why the Civil Guard officers were so surprised to learn that one of the 13 alleged members of the ring was connected to CREA.
CREA has the authority to collect imperial eagle chicks all over Andalusia, although each time a bird is taken from a nest, it must justify this to the Andalusian regional government. The Civil Guard has reason to believe that, abusing this power, the individuals who run the center may have forged public records and misappropriated public funds.

"The people at CREA insist that they raise all the chicks, but we think that that this was a lie," says Capitan Vivas. What's more, the scientific rigor of this center has been called into question after it became known that there was a royal eagle chick (rather than an imperial eagle) at the facility. What was a year-old royal eagle doing in a center dedicated to conserving the imperial eagle? How is it possible that the CREA, which knows exactly where all the imperial eagle nests in Andalusia are located, had the wrong specimen?

According to the Civil Guard, the people in charge of the CREA allegedly tampered with the data, so that they would look more successful to the authorities than they really were. That way, they could justify part of the ¤1-million subsidy that it receives each year for an apparently brilliant imperial eagle recovery program. The investigators are convinced that the individuals allegedly involved in these irregularities, including the director of the center, acted on their own.

The SEPRONA officers found 11 dead specimens in a freezer at the center. All indications suggest that they had stored them there in order to justify the data on the reproduction of the eagles or the evolution of the offspring, were the Andalusian regional government to carry out an inspection. If a specimen died in captivity, they would hide this from the authorities and replace the bird in question with another. But apparently, this swap couldn't be carried out until the new bird reached the same age as the dead one. Some of those frozen birds may also have died upon being released into their natural habitat, which would have meant a clear failure of the program subsidized by the Andalusian government.

Operation Horus ended up seizing a total of 101 live birds of prey, including Harris eagles, Barbary falcons, common kestrels, American kestrels, crested hawk-eagles, bicolored hawks, European hawks, merlin-peregrine hybrids, owls, stryx owls, boreal owls, gyrfalcons and gyrfalcon-saker falcon hybrids, among other species.

The police operation shows, once again, the danger that hovers over birds of prey, which have become a highly prized collector's item. Operation Horus is just another link in a chain of criminal activity discovered in 2009 by the Civil Guard in Operación Rapiña (Operation Pillage). Nine people were arrested in Málaga, Salamanca, Madrid, León and Zaragoza for trafficking protected birds of prey. At that time the police seized 53 falcons, two Bonelli's eagles, seven American eagles, four hawk eagles, two barn owls and two Eurasian eagle-owls as part of that operation. Some of the implicated individuals were about to plunder the nests of the Spanish imperial eagle, the species most coveted by human predators. It is no surprise that these eagles currently hold the title of being the most endangered bird in Europe.

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