Martial Eagle Conservation in Kruger Park
Considered to be one of the world’s most powerful avian predators, and the largest eagle in Africa, the martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) is found in various locations throughout sub-Saharan Africa, including in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Kruger National Park in South Africa. Although martial eagles are at the top of the avian food chain, their interaction with humans has resulted in a decline in numbers to the extent that they are currently listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Seen as a threat to livestock, these magnificent birds of prey have been poisoned and shot by farmers, while habitat destruction, reduction of prey and collisions with power-lines are other factors impacting on martial eagle populations.
With a wingspan of up to 260cm, the martial eagle can weigh up to 6.2 kgs and measures up to 96 cm in length. Its plumage is dark grey-brown on head, upper chest and upperparts with the edges of feathers being slightly lighter. Its underparts are white with distinctive dark brown irregular spots, and its flight feathers are pale with black streaks. The female of this species is generally larger than the male and has more spots on her underparts. Their large nests are constructed using sticks, and are reused and added to each year. They nest in large trees, often on the sides of cliffs or hilltops, and in some areas, most notably in the Karoo, they may make their nests in electric pylons.
The martial eagle’s diet is primarily made up of other bird species, such as guineafowl, francolins, bustards, herons, hornbills and queleas. They also prey on a variety of reptiles, including boomslangs, puff adders, and lizards. Depending on availability of prey, a smaller percentage of the martial eagle’s diet includes mammals such as hares, mongooses, squirrels, rats, foxes, baboons, monkeys, dikdiks, and small antelope, and they may even prey on servals, caracal and jackals. Martial eagles do sometimes attack domestic livestock, which puts them at odds with farmers, but researchers have noted that livestock form a very small part of the martial eagle’s diet.
Martial eagles are territorial and require large territories – on average 114 square kilometers. Currently conservationists are tagging and monitoring martial eagles in the Kruger National Park to gain a better understanding of their habits and the challenges they face. Members of the public can help with this by reporting sightings of colour-ringed birds to the park’s reception areas, including the location, date, time and ring colours. Alternatively, this information, including a photograph if possible, can be emailed to martialeaglesightings @ gmail.com