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18 February, 2018

GPS telemetry supporting to investigate threats to endangered steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis) and other raptors

Steppe eagle (second year) confiscated in Nepal 

The most common species of large eagle in Asia, the steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis) population is now rapidly declining throughout its range and that meets the criteria for endangered species. Therefore, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recently uplisted steppe eagle as “Endangered” species.
Within last two months two individuals of endangered steppe eagles have been confiscated from Myannar and Nepal, both were equipped with GPS transmitter. In both countries, local peoples captured those eagles. Locals were unaware on the transmitter so that they were curious to investigate on attached device as they were thinking the device could be some spy object sent from other countries. As a result, the eagles were sent to the nearest police station for further investigation, the information became public on this way.  
Migration route of steppe eagle (wintering area in Nepal- left, migration route from Mongolia to south Asia-right)

Southern belt of Nepal aka “lowland Nepal” is a wintering area for several species of migratory birds including raptors. On 16th of February 2018, local kids captured last eagle in Rautahat district of lowland Nepal. When they found the device on eagle, the villagers were very concerned about it and decided to send the bird to nearest police station and finally police sent it to the forest office. Tracking bird with GPS transmitter is very new technology in Nepal and recently started in bearded vulture, red-headed vulture, white-rumped vulture and Bengal florican. Therefore forest officer were not very sure but they predicted the device looks like radio telemetry attached for the research purpose. The news was posted in social media including facebook and twitter. Local online media also posted the news on their page that broadcasted it throughout this small world within short time. I knew this news in the late night of same day in Malaysia, where I am staying for PhD degree. In the early next morning, I spoke with my co-supervisor Dr. Hem Sagar Baral in Nepal. He informed me the bird is already in central zoo of Nepal and they might want to keep the bird for display.   He asked me more about the bird’s profile. I provide the bird information and movement map with the collaboration from Dr. Hansoo Lee from Korea, who owns the manufacturer company of attached device and Prof. Nyamba from Mongolia who was attaching the device on bird. Dr. Hem played vital role to circulate this information among the zoo staffs and Director General of department of national park and wildlife conservation that helped to put more attention on the bird. DG has personally visited the bird at the zoo for the updates on health status and well-beings of the bird. No injuries observed, however the bird rather weak and recovering under the inspection of zoo veterinarians. Once the bird get fully recover, it will be released soon in the nature. Let’s be hopeful the bird will successfully fly back to its natal place in Mongolia in this coming early summer.
These two bird are the representative examples to show the threats to raptors. The information came into public because of the curiosity generated on peoples by attached transmitters. Number of cases (proportion of birds persecuted) are significant out of small numbers of steppe eagles’ equipped with GPS transmitter. Therefore, we can predict the cases of human persecution to raptors might be high enough albeit rarely information are available to science. GPS telemetry technology is very important to identify those threats and provide an opportunity to focus conservation works in the high-risk areas. More than 10 000 steppe eagles migrate through Nepal in each autumn (Subedi et al., 2017) and among them several winters in lowlands of Nepal. In 2017, a team of Raptors of Nepal and Himalayan Nature conducted a wintering survey of raptors in lowland area of Nepal to identify major wintering hot-spots. We are still thinking additional surveys for the reliable hot-spots identification. Those areas will be focused for the intensive conservation activities.