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Slovakia: EU Cash Helps Eagle Project Take Flight

The future is looking a little brighter for one of Europe's rarest birds, the imperial eagle. The European Union's conservation program has just announced it will fund a project to preserve the bird in Slovakia. RFE/RL spoke with bird enthusiasts who are working to save this endangered species.

Bratislava, 17 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On the outskirts of the Slovak capital Bratislava, near the foot of the Small Carpathian Hills, Jozef Chavko and his fellow bird enthusiasts unload a field glass and tripod from their car. They're here to see if they can spot a family of rare imperial eagles nesting in a nearby reservation.

They're in luck. Almost immediately, an eagle ascends from the trees in the distance. Chavko's colleague, Jozef Izakovic, tries to point the bird out to Chavko and a reporter.

Chavko: "An eagle?"

Izakovic: "Between those two poles, roughly in the middle. You see the tree at the end of Sur wood there?"

Chavko: "I have a field glass."

Izakovic: "But he's circling.... [Look there,] between the two electric poles, about in the middle, then where the forest starts, and then the tree sticking up at the beginning, then behind it to the clouds and slightly to the right, you can see it circling -- let me hold that for you -- a big bird of prey. It's the eagle."

Chavko: "Now you'll see him. Is he there?"

Knox: "Yes! He's there!"

Chavko: "Now try and sharpen the focus."

This eagle and his mate are one of only 30 pairs left in Slovakia. That doesn't sound like many, but Slovakia is one of the endangered bird's last strongholds in Europe. Only Hungary, with 80 pairs, has more.

This pair's home looks precarious, too. The nest is at the edge of a swamp wood (Sur), which itself is under threat after years of drainage. It's sandwiched between a highway and a rail track on one side and housing construction on the other.

"The pressure on the eagle population has been so great in recent years that just four to five years ago, we had five nesting pairs of eagles here in the Small Carpathians area. Now we have just two," Izakovic said, and before that, "there were six, and now we have only two. So if this goes on, in a short while, we'll have none."

Some of that pressure comes from farming and urban expansion, which have destroyed much of the imperial eagle's natural habitat of steppes and lowlands. The eagle is also under threat from hunters. But the biggest danger is electrocution from power lines and utility poles, which Chavko calls "death poles."

"The eagle population is small, so if every year around 40 eaglets fly out of these 30 nests, and some 30 die on these death poles, the population can never grow. It just stagnates. We're trying to help, and we're managing to keep at least the basic gene pool," Chavko said.

But the future for the imperial eagles may now be a little brighter. Chavko's group has just received nearly 370,000 euros ($400,000) from the European Union's conservation fund for a four-year project to help preserve the bird. It's one of three Slovak projects picked by the Life Nature fund this year, a first for Slovakia.

Some of the money will go toward satellite tracking to build a picture of how the eagles migrate and to pinpoint what's killing them. The eagle's traditional prey -- the souslik, or ground squirrel -- will be reintroduced in some areas. A DNA database will give a better understanding of the population. But the biggest lifesaver will likely be the barriers and insulation to be installed on power lines and utility poles to make them safe for perching.

Some of this is already being done on a shoestring budget by Chavko's group, which goes by the unwieldy name of the Working Group on Research and Protection of Birds of Prey and Owls (SVODAS).

But the EU money is a welcome injection of funds. The group's executive secretary is Slavka Siryova, who said: "Now that we finally have enough money, we will have enough people and be able to really look at this problem in its entirety. We'll be able to get satellite pictures. Satellite tracking will help us find out the home range of the eagle. We can follow it all year round. We can find out the negative factors and eliminate them right away, and we can also make up more complicated analyses to suggest how better to use the landscape where these eagles live."

The group will tap the experiences of colleagues in Hungary, who received EU funding for a similar project one year ago.

Another important part will be a media campaign to raise awareness of the eagle's plight -- and to change old-fashioned attitudes that see the eagle either as a trophy or as a pest.

And that, they say, could well be the hardest part. "Conservation is all about people, working with people," Chavko said. Izakovic added, "If there were no people, we wouldn't need nature conservation."