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Poisoned bait threatens the return of Germany's majestic eagle

New dangers are arising after campaigners saved the species from near-extinction in a decades-long struggle.

The white-tailed eagle has returned to Germany.
The white-tailed eagle has returned to Germany.

BERLIN // The white-tailed eagle, the cherished national symbol of Germany, has returned to soar over the country's northern shores and lakes after campaigners rescued it from near-extinction in a decades-long struggle against egg thieves, the pesticide industry and hunters. But the proud predator, emblazoned on euro coins, government buildings and the national football team's shirts, faces new threats in the form of wind turbines and poisoned bait, Germany's top eagle conservationist has warned.

"They like to glide in areas exposed to wind and that's exactly where wind turbines are put up," said Thomas Neumann, the head of conservation areas management for WWF Germany. "And because the eagle has no enemies in the sky he doesn't pay much attention to anything up there." Collisions with the rotor blades are known to have killed four eagles in Schleswig-Holstein state last year alone, and the true figure is likely to be higher, said Mr Neumann, who has led a campaign to reintroduce the eagle to German skies since the 1970s.

The mighty bird, with a fearsome yellow beak and a wing span of up to 2.60 metres, is also at risk from poachers who have been laying out poisoned bait, presumably to rid themselves of their feathered rival, Mr Neumann said. At least eight eagles were found poisoned last year in Lower Saxony. The risks overshadow a success story that has seen the number of eagles in Germany increase to 600 pairs from just six pairs in the late 1960s. The bird, also known as the sea eagle, had been hunted and poisoned close to extinction in large parts of Europe, although the species was never at risk in its other habitats of Russian and northern Asia.

Mr Neumann, 62, and his team brought the eagle back to Germany by protecting nests in 24-hour vigils, purchasing lakes and marshland territory favoured by eagles and enlisting the help of farmers and the local population. Across Germany, 1,000 eagle enthusiasts volunteer to guard nests during breeding seasons to prevent them from being disturbed and to scare off egg thieves. Among collectors, an eagle egg can fetch hundreds of euros.

Germans revere the bird, an age-old symbol of power that dates to the Roman legions and has been a national emblem for centuries. "This bird radiates a majesty and audacity that impresses people. There has always been something special about it," said Mr Neumann, who is based in the town of Mölln near the Baltic Sea. "People worship it. A year ago an eagle built a nest close to a village near here and we put out leaflets asking locals to stay away from that area for a year. They accepted that without complaint and said "we'll do anything for our eagle'.

"Our eagle is bigger than the bald eagle, America's national symbol. Only the Russian white-tailed eagle is bigger than ours." The eagle's status makes it a "flagship species" crucial to the WWF's efforts to protect natural habitats for a whole range of less glamorous wildlife, Mr Neumann said. Cranes, amphibians, dragonflies, woodpeckers all flourish in areas set aside for the mighty bird. The banning of the pesticide DDT in the United States and much of Europe in the early 1970s was a breakthrough for Mr Neumann's efforts to repatriate the eagle.

DDT had made the shells of their eggs so thin they would burst when the birds sat on them to brood. The next major boost came with German unification in 1990 when the WWF quickly purchased forests and lakes in perfect eagle territory - the north of the former communist East Germany, where the bird had already started to thrive in the sparsely populated land along the heavily fortified East-West border, evidently unfazed by barbed wire and watchtowers.

The organisation acquired 5,000 hectares of land with government funding and private donations. It made areas around eagle nests out of bounds to the public and built viewpoints where tourists and birdwatchers could admire them from a safe distance. But outside those protected areas, hunters still pose a major threat, not because they are shooting eagles but because they use lead shot to kill wildlife.

Often, hunters leave behind the innards of deer or wild boars they have shot. It is a delicacy for passing eagles, but the lead content poisons them. "This spring I found a dying eagle that was breathing heavily and constantly falling asleep. I took it to the veterinary clinic and they found lead in his stomach. He was dead within a week. More than a dozen eagles have died from lead poisoning in Germany this year alone," Mr Neumann said.

The WWF has been trying to persuade hunters to use copper shot rather than lead, but hunters argue that copper is too dangerous because it can ricochet off trees. "The lead poisoning, the direct poisoning and wind turbines are killing so many that the population isn't growing fast enough to push south and into other European countries like France, Italy and Spain." dcrossland@thenational.ae