Raptor Conservation in Altai

Two Steppe eagles. Photo by Nirav BhatRaptors, also known as birds-of-prey, include eagles, falcons, hawks, owls, and sometimes carrion-eaters like vultures and buzzards.

Greater Altai is home to significant nesting populations of large raptors, a number of which are endangered or at-risk globally and regionally – Saker falcon, Eastern imperial eagle, Steppe eagle, Upland buzzard, Greater spotted eagle, Bearded vulture, Eurasian eagle owl, Peregrine falcon, and others. Russia’s Altai Republic has 8 Important Bird Areas, defined by BirdLife International as “internationally significant for bird conservation,” and “recognized worldwide as practical tools for conservation”.

Raptor killed on a powerline, photo by Siberian Environmental Center)What threats do raptors face in the region?
In Greater Altai, we are particularly concerned with the fate of Steppe eagles, Eastern imperial eagles, and Saker falcons. They live in the wide open steppe and treeless mountains of southeastern Altai Republic and are threatened by illegal killings, poaching for trafficking internationally, electrocution on powerlines and cellular network towers, and habitat loss and disturbance.

The Threat from Powerlines and Human Activities

Powerline Electrocution

Improperly installed or absent Bird Protection Devices on transmission lines and utility towers kill significant numbers of large birds each year, jeopardizing the survival of avian species worldwide. Migrating raptor species, including the Steppe eagle and Imperial eagle are particularly vulnerable.  The magnitude of the problem is so great that the Steppe eagle population has declined dramatically in the last 30 years. While countries in our area of interest—namely, Russia and Kazakhstan—have adopted legislative measures, they lack specificity and implementation mechanisms sufficient to prevent birds from power line collisions and electrocution.

Human Activities

Human activities, including recreation, land development, logging, and other interests have contributed to dwindling avian populations. Live capture by poachers of Saker falcons and other young birds of prey for sale to wealthy Middle Easterners and others using them for sport hunting and willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a single bird has decimated raptor populations. The birds mostly die under the stresses and privation of being smuggled, drugged and packed like literal sardines.

Mining and other habitat disturbances that drive birds out of their traditional nesting habitats have also negatively affected bird populations. The same is true for timber harvests.  In Altai Krai, decades of clearing large tracts of forest have destroyed nests used by generations of Golden, Imperial, and Spotted eagles, Saker falcons, and Eagle owls, among other rare birds.

Lastly, we are discovering that many new fledged Steppe eagles and other raptors leave Altai to migrate thousands of miles into the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, but fail to return the following spring. Along the way they are often shot by herders, poisoned, or trapped for captive falconry programs.

What work does The Altai Project support?Measuring and ringing raptor nestlings
The Altai Project has been collaborating with bird experts in the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network (RRRCN), supporting their raptor conservation efforts since 2011. RRRCN experts have painstakingly surveyed thousands of kilometers of raptor habitat, marking nesting sites, proximity to utility lines and towers, raptor mortality, and other important details. Whenever possible, they carefully band or tag birds with GPS trackers to permit better tracking of specific individuals during dispersal and migration.

Russian Raptors Research and Conservation Network carefully tracks and verifies bird movements and verifies distribution and ecological trends. They collect evidence of electrocuted birds or unsecured power lines, working with government agencies to collect fines and ensure power line safety. They also work closely with cellular and electrical utilities to encourage them to properly equip and maintain transmission lines and towers with cheap but effective bird protection devices.

Recent success stories illustrate the impact of our longstanding collaborative efforts.  In early 2020 the governor of Altai Krai signed legislation prohibiting logging in endangered species reproductive zones, marking an important step in reversing the decline of rare avian species populations and destruction of their nests that have occurred as a result of relentless logging.  And in April 2020, the federal government denied a request by Altai Republic timber interests to log in Siberian pine nut harvest zones. The Siberian pine is held sacred and is a critical subsistence food source for Altai’s Indigenous peoples.

The Altai Project and RRRCN also organize exchanges among ornithology experts aimed at reducing bird fatalities from power line electrocutions. This problem can be solved by implementing technical solutions, proposing policy and regulatory actions, and increasing awareness and engagement in the public and private sectors.

What can you do to help?

  • Support bird banding, GPS tracking and data fees, and expedition costs with a donation
  • Join a Wild Altai expedition and learn about raptors first-hand
  • Invite us to talk about our work with a conservation or birding group in your area

Visit our raptor gallery to see these birds and our conservation work.

Steppe eaglet trio (photo by Igor Karyakin)

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