As Australia’s largest birds of prey, Wedge-tailed Eagles cut a striking silhouette against the sky, soaring at heights of 6,000 feet on wings that stretch about nine feet across. But in June of this year, government inspectors following a tip discovered 137 of these birds rotting on the ground—victims of mass poisoning on a sheep farm.
Killing a single Wedge-tail carries a fine of nearly $6,000. But that didn’t deter the perpetrator, a hired hand named Murray James Silvester: Investigators think he might have taken out 406 eagles over a two-and-a-half-year period to protect his employers’ livestock from predation. What’s more, conservationists suspect many more raptor massacres are occurring across Australia’s vast Outback. “It’s definitely still happening on a much wider scale. This isn’t an isolated incident,” says Simon Cherriman, an environmental biologist from Murdoch University, who’s been studying Wedge-tailed Eagles for almost 20 years.
In fact, the events Down Under are just the latest chapter in a long history of raptor persecution world-wide. Two other slaughters made the news earlier this year: In January, 34 Andean Condors were found dead in Argentina, the largest mortality event recorded for the enormous, imperiled species; and in March, more than 100 Red-tailed Hawks were shot in California, among other birds of prey. In each case, authorities recovered the bodies on farmland, pointing to a pattern of economic concerns and a universal misunderstanding of raptors and their ways.
Conflict in Australia
In Australia, eagles have been a flashpoint for livestock owners who think the birds pose a threat to newborn lambs. The belief can be traced back to an Australian bounty system that once labeled Wedge-tails as an agricultural pest, Cherriman says. “In Western Australia where I’m based, there were an average of 2,000 eagles killed every year between 1900 and 1940,” he explains. By program’s end, the estimated death toll had topped a million.
The Australian government finally outlawed bounty hunting in 1989. Since then, Wedge-tailed Eagles have been under protected status—but the misconceptions in the farming community live on, despite research that shows the birds largely only scavenge dead lambs. “The data suggests that even if [they’re going after live ones], it’s not happening on a scale which is destroying the lambing business,” Cherriman says. Some owners argue that a years-long drought is forcing the eagles to hunt down prey on their properties, hurting their profitability. Industry groups like the Victorian Farmers Federation have spoken out, however, saying that can't justify culls.
There’s no question that Australian agriculture is facing a multitude of stresses, both from an economic and environmental standpoint. But related or not, it’s compounding on the eagles, Cherriman says. He posits that the 137 corpses found on the sheep farm were all young, nomadic Wedge-tails (breeding adults are sedentary and territorial, so they wouldn’t congregate in such high numbers). Losing that many birds—much less 400 of them—with such high reproductive potential, he says, could make a long-term dent in the species’ population overall.
Carnage in California
Thousands of miles away in California, conservationists are mulling the fallout from a similar crime, this time involving Red-tailed Hawks. This spring wardens from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife got word that a rancher in the desert town of Standish was shooting down protected birds. An inspection of his 80-acre tract uncovered at least 120 Red-tails, an owl, and a Ferruginous Hawk, all protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. (Two decomposing bobcats were also found in the vicinity.) Patrick Foy, a captain in the agency’s law enforcement division, says he’s never witnessed raptor deaths on this scale before in the state. “No doubt, the removal of that number of raptors will have an effect on the local population [of hawks],” he says. “It will likely take years to recover.” The culprit, Richard Parker, is facing fines upwards of $500,000.
The shootings are counterintuitive in that (live) raptors actually help agricultural communities, says Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. The birds provide integral ecological services by keeping rodent populations in check. “Most informed ranchers and farmers know that these are generally beneficial species,” Jones says. The Standish case may be an anomaly—the motive is still undetermined, though some newspapers report that Parker had a pheasant-hunting business on his land—but that doesn’t make it any less consequential for the chain of victims.
Casualties in Argentina
While Red-tailed Hawks and Wedge-tailed Eagles have strong global numbers, the slow-breeding Andean Condor is down to just 6,000 individuals in its slim South American range. More than a third of those birds reside in Argentina, where they’re under constant threat of being poisoned. That’s just what happened in January, when dozens of condors and a puma were discovered in the country’s western mountains, lying beside a sheep carcass laced with the pesticide carbofuran.
The condors weren’t necessarily the target of the toxic bait, says Ignacio Roesler, a researcher at the Argentinian Council of Scientific Research and conservation director at Aves Argentinas, a BirdLife International partner. Usually ranchers use the carcasses to eradicate wildcats and other ground predators, but condors often end up as collateral damage. People also shoot at the birds based on rumors of predation, Roesler says. “The people who say [condors] kill any animals at all, those are just anecdotes. There are no scientific studies that prove that,” he explains.
Roseler's noticed that farmers in Argentina seem to confuse Andean Condors—a scavenging species—with birds of prey like Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, which do occasionally hunt sheep and goats. “I think one of the most important things that people confuse is that they tend to put all the raptors in the same bag,” he says. “People tend to simplify their view of nature.”
Now, a dedicated condor conservation group called the Bioandina Foundation Argentina is tracking the sale of carbofuran and pushing for a national ban on the substance. Legislation against such chemicals can bring huge success: India has seen a steady rebound in its vulture populations after almost completely outlawing the sale of diclofenac, a veterinary drug once used on cattle. Captive-breeding programs and educational ambassadors, meanwhile, can further dispel deadly myths about Andean Condors.
Lessons From Scotland
In places where the human-raptor struggle stretches back centuries, the narrative and relationship are slowly improving. Scotland is a prime example: Last year, the country’s farmers banded with the conservationists to come up with a quick action plan to save the White-tailed Eagle, locally known as the sea eagle.
The species has an unusual backstory in Western Europe. In the 1800s, hunters wiped White-tailed Eagles out of the Scottish highlands. More than a hundred years later, the U.K. government flew in birds from Norway to build up the wild breeding population. Though the program was effective, with annual increases in eagle numbers, sheep farmers started noticing a dip in their livestock numbers. Scottish sheep are adapted to living on steep hillsides—a skill that’s passed on from mothers to their young—so simply replacing predated lambs wasn’t a viable economic option. “So much work goes into trying to re-establish that flock,” says David Colthart, a sheep owner and member of the National Union of Farmers of Scotland. Officials dismissed the farmers’ accounts at first. “Farmers felt that conservation and government agencies weren’t really listening,” Colthart says.
But the farmers’ fears were confirmed when the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), a national conservation group, found evidence of freshly slain lambs in eagle nests. That set off a years-long effort between the two sides to come up with solutions to preserve raptors and local livelihoods. The first stage consists of seven “monitoring farms” spread across the country, where SNH is testing non-harmful methods to deter the eagles from attacking lambs. On some sites they’re experimenting with laser beams and loud noises; on others, they’re laying out a bounty of salmon (part of the White-tailed Eagle’s natural diet).
It’s too early to tell how well these methods are working, but Colthart is hopeful. “A lot of the farmers have felt it’s ‘them’ and ‘us’. But in this instance it’s very much that we have a stake in what’s happening,” he says. Ross Lilley, the sea eagle project manager for SNH, adds that extensive, community-based discussion has helped ease the tensions between industry and conservationists. “When we come to a difficult issue like eagles, it’s much easier to talk because we already have those dialogues open,” he says. “Farmers can trust that we will listen to them, and I think that’s gone a long way to resolving conflicts.”
Knowledge Is Power
As the Scottish success illustrates, “one of the real challenges in these conflicts is over knowledge: who has it, who gathers it, and how it’s interpreted,” says Steve Redpath, a conservation scientist from the University of Aberdeen. Involving farmers in the research could ensure “they buy into that science” instead of rejecting its findings outright, he adds. Incorporating their observational data directly is also a way of acknowledging the unique economic threats that raptors may pose to agriculture. “Not many farmers are scientists, and not many scientists are farmers,” SNH’s Lilley says. “This puts a value on the farmer’s perspective, that their observations are as good and valuable as the scientists’ ones are.”
Wedge-tailed Eagle expert Cherriman shares another ambitious, long-term solution: restoring the habitat that surrounds farms to enrich the landscape with a broader palate of food choices for raptors. “If there are more options out there for them, they would target livestock less,” he says. By this logic, birds would also have less reason to concentrate over farmland, reducing the chance of tense interactions with humans.
In any case, lethal solutions rarely work to a farmer’s benefit as they ultimately fail to shift other raptors' instincts. What’s more, shooting and poisoning birds does nothing to reverse habitat loss, which is often what tips the balance in the first place. If raptors do pose legitimate threats to farms and ranches, there's always a better option than killing them, Cherriman says. “Even in the most extreme cases, if there are more eagles than we think and if all of them are killing sheep, we are still capable of designing solutions which are ethical."