When an eagle runs up roaming charges [2019]

This week, one of our Steppe eagles is making news around the world. You see, ornithologists in Russia tagged this young eagle with a GPS data logger, known informally as a “tracker”, in the nest in which he was born. Known as Min, when it came time for him to migrate this year he set off from the Russian steppe grasslands to the south through Kazakhstan.

Min, the wide-roaming Steppe eagle. Photo by Nirav Bhat.

Tracking birds as they migrate can tell us a lot about the risks they face along the way – harassment, dangerous power lines, poachers, among others. The tracker technology is linked to a standard mobile phone number which sends researchers GPS location data 12 times each day via a standard SMS text message.

Trouble is, eagles are unpredictable – squirrel! – and can roam widely across international borders. Min was out of cellular range for the whole summer in Kazakhstan, and his tracker was unable to send any data until he came back into range in early October in Iran! Roaming prices in Iran mean that each message (12/day for a whole summer) cost the researchers 49 Russian rubles, or roughly 5 times the the price of the same message with Russia or Kazakhstan. This added up to over $110/day in roaming fees on this single eagle. Scientists are tracking the winter peregrinations of 13 Steppe eagles at the present, across the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and these costs immediately ate up their meager budget. The ornithologist said they even had to take out a loan to cover the short-term costs.

“He was offline for a long time, and we were quite happy to get messages from him,” he reported said. “We had expected to hear from Min from Kazakhstan, but then he began transmitting all his summertime movements from Iran – and at an incredible cost.”

Researchers put the word out on social media to crowdsource funding to pay the eagle’s bill as well as helping cover the costs of tracking the movements of other raptors. Since then the story has gone viral around the world, raising over $5,000. Megafon, the Russian cellular company hosting the eagle’s SIM card, has covered the costs and, along with several other cellular companies, has offered future discounts on roaming eagle data as well.

Steppe eagle populations are declining quickly around Eurasia and the species was categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2017 (thanks to the same team’s research). The Altai Project supports research to understand these birds’ migration routes to identify threats and work to address them (local education to halt shootings and poisonings, improving power line safety for large birds, stopping poachers). In addition we build nesting boxes in Russian eagle nesting habit, where logging and other human disturbance have decimated the number of possible nesting sites, as well as encouraging local residents to value and protect these birds. Large raptors are top predators which balance grassland ecosystems.

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Watch a video of how Steppe eagle “Min” was banded and tagged.
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