Sicily is the Italian region that is home to the largest populations of three different species of birds of prey with major conservation problems. The Bonelli’s eagle, the lanner falcon, the egyptian vulture have here the last significant populations with respectively about the 95%, the 50% and the 70% of the Italian pairs. Protection in Sicily proves to be essential especially for the eagle.
Unfortunately, these species are at risk not just because of environmental change and land use, because of anthropization and infrastructures such as photovoltaic and wind power plants, but also because of hunting and poaching. The main problem in particular for the first two species, a little less for the third one, is the theft of eggs and chicks from nests, carried out by poachers-falconers, to feed the illegal animal trade for falconry both in Italy that abroad.
In the spring of 2010 the ornithologist Andrea Ciaccio, during his usual monitoring tour of Bonelli’s eagles’ sites, noticed the presence of some falconers while robbing a nest. This was the episode that raised the alarm. This illegal activity that had seemed to have stopped in the early ’80s as a result of seizures of peregrine falcons chicks by the State Forestry Corps, is now reemerging, endangering the populations of birds of prey. Peregrine falcons, lanner falcons, Bonelli’s eagles are stolen from their nests and sold in the flourishing black market of falconry that from Italy has ramifications mainly in Europe and Middle East.
Some environmental groups joined forces to give life to the Coordinamento Tutela Rapaci Sicilia, today Gruppo di Tutela Rapaci. It includes Lipu, EBN, WWF, SWF, MAN, while Cooperativa Silene, the Foundation for Biodiversity, and two foreign associations, CABS and FIR joined in, in later years. The goal was to organize bird protection camps to control and follow the Bonelli’s eagles’ breeding season in the Sicilian territory with particular regard to the sites where frequent depredations occured.
It is in these sites that volunteers are present daily starting from the laying of eggs to the fledging of young. The other sites are monitored periodically, or daily visits occur at irregular hours.
About 40 volunteers take turns for about three months since the breeding season of 2011, the first year of bird protection camp done in the site where poaching had been attempted the year before. That year one young eagle successfully leaves its nest.
It is estimated that before the beginning of bird protection camps, illegal withdrawal of chicks was at least 5-6 units per year. Such a withdrawal, added to the high mortality of juvenile eagles (only 10% reaches maturity) and low reproductive success, measured in terms of a population of 22 pairs of eagles in 2010, was leading inevitably to the reduction of the eagle population. The replacement with new eagles could not cover the losses.
The organization of bird protection camps has acted as a deterrent to theft due to the presence of volunteers in the territory which has discouraged the withdrawal, even if it has not stopped it.
In 2012 the member Associations put in economic resources to meet the costs of campers and the purchase of capital instruments. Four camps are therefore organized with approximately 60 volunteers in action. Hence a greater spread of territory was explored thus identifying other four pairs of eagles and at the end of the breeding season the recorded fledging in Sicily was no less than 33 eaglets.
Meanwhile, the camera-traps were installed. The intelligence activities and controls done by the Forestry Corps leads to the discovery and seizure of two lanner falcons held illegally.
In 2013, during the course of the activities the disappearance of two eaglets, observed until the night before, was record in a site in the province of Agrigento. This was immediately reported to the Forestry Corps that after several days found the two eaglets, one found dead, in a cottage in Alessandria in the province of Piedmont.
A re-adoption project is immediately worked out. The procedures had never been attempted before: bring back the young eagle to its nest and hope that adults would accept it. After 50 days from the theft the young one, equipped with a radio transmitter, was released in the vicinity of the nest and adults after a moment of indecision recognized and re-adopted it.
In that year the fledging record was of 27 eaglets.
In 2014 the results of the work done with the bird protection camps are evidently positive. New eagles’ nest sites have been discovered, some of which are in provinces or areas where it had never been present. Individuals of some pairs are sub-adults of three or four years, i.e. born after the beginning of the protection camps. A pair in a new settlement was made up by a 3 years old female and a 4 year old male. At the end of the breeding season there was the fledging of one eaglet.
The observation of juveniles is more frequent proving that the eagles in the area have increased. Even in 2014 four bird protection camps were organized. Since 2011 up to today no less than 88 young eagles have flown off and the population growth is over 30%.
In these years scientific works on the biology of the species, useful for its protection, were produced. With the intent to bring the problem to the attention of a wider audience the documentary of Giuseppe Festa titled “Thieves of eagles” was produced by RAI. With the same purpose several meetings and debates were organized at universities and associations.
For 2015, see our Activities Report.