Interview with Igor Karyakin about the conservation of the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Russia

Date of the interview: 19 December 2009

The Eastern Imperial Eagle is one of the rarest raptors in Europe and globally vulnerable. In this interview, Igor Karyakin from the Center of Field Studies (N. Novgorod, Russia) talks about the current situation of this large eagle in Russia. Population estimates for other eagle species are also given.

Igor Karyakin ringing nestlings of the Imperial Eagle in the nest

Igor Karyakin.
Ringing nestlings of the Imperial Eagle in the nest.
© E. Nikolenko

Markus Jais: What is the current population size for the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Russia and how has the population developed during the last 20 years?
Igor Karyakin: Today about 3,000 - 3,500 pairs of the Imperial Eagle are estimated to breed in Russia. The main breeding grounds of the species are located in a forest-steppe zone and have already been revealed. Nevertheless, by extending the territory of surveys we continue to obtain new information about breeding grounds of the Imperial Eagle. During the last years the breeding of the Imperial Eagle in the extensive bogs of Western Siberia was discovered and that has essentially changed our ideas about the distribution of the species. It is most likely that the actual population of the Imperial Eagle is larger than our estimation, and further surveys in Western Siberia will be able to correct it.
The largest populations of the species are recorded in the Volga-Ural region (about 900 pairs) and the Altai-Sayan region (about 1100 pairs).
During the second half of the 20th century, the number of the Imperial Eagle was increasing up to 1990s. In 2001-2002, the number was stable, and since 2004-2005, the negative trend of the Imperial Eagle population has been clearly outlined in many peripheral northern and eastern breeding groups (in a zone of coniferous-broad-leaved forests, subtaiga, northern forest-steppe and small steppe depressions in mountains of Siberia). In 2008-2009, the greatest number of breeding territories of the Imperial Eagle (with destruction of nests by snow and wind) has gone extinct in the north of Volga and Pre-Ural regions. Some pairs remained in their breeding territories however we have not yet observed most of them breeding during the last years.

Nest of the Imperial Eagle. Republic of Altai.

Nest of the Imperial Eagle. Republic of Altai.
© I. Karyakin.

Markus Jais: How many pairs were successful and how many young have fledged in 2009?
Igor Karyakin: In 2009, I have surveyed 126 breeding territories of the Imperial Eagle, mainly in Siberia, and the breeding was successful in 85 % of them. The average brood size was 1,6 nestlings per successful nest. My colleagues have examined about 80 nests, mainly in the Volga-Ural region. Here the average brood size was 1,8 nestlings per successful nest.
The breeding success mostly depends on the situation of souslik populations which is rather different in different regions. This year a very good breeding success has been noted in the Transural region and in Altai, satisfactory - in the Volga region and in the Southern Ural Mountains and bad - in the east of Western Siberia (in the Altai Kray).

Markus Jais: Is it known if Eastern Imperial Eagles from other countries spend the winter in Russia or if juvenile birds use those countries for dispersal?
Igor Karyakin: In Russia in general there are no observations of the Imperial Eagle during winter. Last decade wintering Imperial Eagles were observed in Kazakhstan, however during winter no eagles have been recorded in Russia yet. Unfortunately I don't know facts of juveniles using other countries for dispersal. Every year some tens individuals are ringed in Russia, mainly in Siberia but returns of rings are practically absent.

Juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle

Juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle.
© I. Karyakin.

Markus Jais: What are the main threats to the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Russia?
Igor Karyakin: The main threat to the Imperial Eagle in Russia comes from the crash of agriculture in Russia. If in Europe a big problem is the intensification of agriculture, in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union to the current time, many cultivated lands and pastures were being abandoned and have overgrown with trees or weeds. As a result of those processes, populations of sousliks inhabiting fields and pastures declined. Sousliks have been the main prey species of the Imperial Eagle. That has been a reason of the outlined negative trend of the species number today, in particular in the Volga and the Pre-Ural region. By the way, this decline in Russia is noted on a background of constant growth of numbers in Kazakhstan. That could indicate a redistribution of eagles in the breeding grounds in the border region of the two countries.
Another important threat to the Imperial Eagle is electrocution, accidents on highways and poaching. Out of 470 cases of Imperial Eagle deaths that I know, 90 % of them is electrocution, 5 % - accidents on highways, 3 % - poaching and 2 % - other reasons. The number of accidents on highways increases every year and it is not because of the increase of road traffic or the building of new streets, but areas along roadsides in many forest-steppe areas have remained unique places that sousliks inhabit. Here the Imperial Eagle can hunt sousliks successfully, because road-workers regularly cut the grass on roadsides.

Markus Jais: Does this also affect other species, for example Vultures and White-tailed Eagles?
Igor Karyakin: The agriculture crashing and bird electrocution are also the main threats to the Steppe Eagle and the main reasons of it's decline. Degradation of the pasturable livestock-breeding fatally affects Vultures, but the Lammergeier does not seem to suffer from it. These threats are less critical for other species, though bird electrocution affects negatively all species of eagles in all the territory of Russia. The main threats to White-Tailed and Golden Eagles are perhaps human disturbance during the spring period and poaching.

Electrocuted juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle

Electrocuted juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle.
© A. Saltykov.

Markus Jais: What is done to reduce mortality through electrocution? Are the power lines made safe?
Igor Karyakin: In some regions up to 20-25 % of the population, mostly birds between 1 and 4 years old, perish though electrocution every year.
For example, in Bashkiria, where the population of the Imperial Eagle is estimated at 400-450 breeding pairs, about 150 eagles perish though electrocution every year. In Altai, where the population of the Imperial Eagle is estimated at 700-800 breeding pairs, about 400 eagles have died annually through electrocution (about one third of the young fledged each year) . Many birds are electrocuted in Kazakhstan. I can project about half of the offspring of Altai Imperial Eagles die on power lines after fledging and during the first winter migration. Of course, there are activities to protect birds from electrocution. We collaborate with the organizations that realize threats to birds through electrocution and are ready to retrofit power lines (PL) with bird-protective devices, and reconstruction or retrofitting of PL with bird-protective devices is carried out. This year we have agreed on a contract with the largest electric utility company of Siberia which will retrofit next year those PL, on which, according to results of our surveys the largest number of Imperial Eagles died in Altai. In those cases, when organizations do not wish to invest in reconstruction of PL, a legal action is taken against them, and they retrofit or reconstruct PL satisfying the judgments. This year in Ulyanovsk, claims to several petrol-gas companies have been prosecuted for deaths of Imperial Eagles through electrocution on their PL. But our country is very big, and only 4 organizations carry out some activity concerning the problem "Birds and PL" in Russia, thus a happy end of the problem is still far away. Papers about the problem of electrocution of raptors and also successes of bird protection projects regarding this problem are regularly published in our newsletter Raptors Conservation

Installation of bird protection device on 10 kV power line.

Installation of bird protection device on 10 kV power line.
© G. Grishutkin.

Markus Jais: Is there enough prey for the eagles? How does intensification of agriculture affect prey species and therefore the eagles?
Igor Karyakin: The main preys for the Imperial Eagle in Russia are sousliks and hamsters, additional prey are rooks, water voles, hares and marmots. In Altai one of the main preys is the Altai zokor. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the agriculture, in particular pasturable livestock breeding, crashed on a greater part of the Imperial Eagle breeding range in Russia. Numbers of cattle decreased by 29 749 thousands of heads (53 %), horses - on 1 million of heads (40 %), pigs - on 22 607 thousands of heads (60 %), sheep and goats - on 43 423 thousands of heads (75 %) in Russia since 1990 to 2000. Also the number of cattle has fallen by 50% in Russia between 2000 to 2008. As a result many cultivated lands were abandoned and have overgrown with trees or weeds. And sousliks and after them Imperial Eagles have disappeared in huge territories, and this process continues. Even hamsters disappear, and it becomes difficult for the Imperial Eagle to catch water voles, and in such places the last pairs disappear. Fortunately the process of agricultural degradation has recently stopped, and our main task in the future is that it's intensification will reach the level favorable for the Imperial Eagle.

Markus Jais: In some countries, lack of suitable nest trees is a problem? Is this also true for Russia? Are artificial nests built and do the eagles use them?
Igor Karyakin: Recently the Forest Code of the Russian Federation has been essentially changed to the worst for forest protection. The staff of the Forest Services responsible for management, control, protection and safeguard of the Forest Fond were reduced to a minimum. As a result it has fatally affected the Imperial Eagle in some regions: in the Ulyanovsk and the Samara districts, the last of the highest pines were logged in some cases with nests of the Imperial Eagle, and lack of nest trees has began to be a problem. On a background of the decrease in souslik populations the Imperial Eagle breeding groups have remained mainly in those territories where a pasturable livestock breeding has remained. Those territories are woodless as a rule, and suitable trees for the Imperial Eagle nesting almost are absent. As a result, eagles build their own nests on sick trees and their nests are often destroyed by wind. Fortunately, the area of such territories it is not large (no more than 20 % in the Russian part of the Imperial Eagle breeding range), but they exist. Several organizations realized projects for installing artificial nests in these territories. Now we can speak about positive effects of these projects: several pairs of the Imperial Eagle have been observed to breed on artificial nests in the Nizhniy Novgorod and Samara districts and in the Republic of Bashkortostan. Following the Kazakhstan experience in the territories that are inhabited by sousliks, the Imperial Eagle began to occupy metal and concrete electric poles for nesting and to inhabit these absolutely treeless territories. It gives hope, that the disappearance of the highest pines, which are the most preferable trees the Imperial Eagles uses for nesting, will not be a reason of extinction of the species, and the installing of artificial nests will enable Imperial Eagles to inhabit territories abundant in food, but treeless.

Adult Easterm Imperial Eagle - Successful hunting

Adult Easterm Imperial Eagle - Successful hunting.
© I. Karyakin.

Markus Jais: What organisations are working for the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Russia and what are they doing?
Igor Karyakin: The projects on the Imperial Eagle are carried out by several organizations: the Siberian Environmental Center (Novosibirsk, coordinator Elvira Nikolenko), the Volga-Ural ECONET Assistance Center (Samara, coordinator Alexey Pazhenkov), the Simbirsk branch of the Russian Bird Conservation Union (Ulyanovsk, coordinator Michael Korepov) and the Ecological Center "Dront" (N.Novgorod, coordinator Sergey Bakka). The main directions of their activity are the monitoring of the largest breeding populations, projects on the retrofitting of power lines with bird-protective devices, installing artificial nests, establishing of the protected areas in the territories with the highest breeding density of the Imperial Eagles. Under these projects in the Volga region more than 200 artificial nests for the Imperial Eagle were installed. It is a symbol that in the Nizhniy Novgorod district the last remaining pair of the Imperial Eagle occupies an artificial nest. Unfortunately during the last years this pair bred unsuccessfully because pastures around the breeding territory are overgrown with wood and weeds. Members of the Simbirsk and Nizhniy Novgorod branches of the Russian Bird Conservation Union and Ecocenter "Dront" develop and apply in industry the Russian samples of bird protective devices for protection of eagles from electrocution. The Volga-Ural ECONET Assistance Center in the Samara district and the Siberian Environmental Center in Altai Kray undertake attempts for optimization of an agriculture in the model territories, however this work demands greater finances and at absence of the government support such experience will hardly be distributed on a larger territory. In the Baikal region Vitaly Ryabtsev and Igor Fefelov carry out the monitoring of the Imperial Eagle breeding groups.

Markus Jais: What should the Government do to make sure the Eastern Imperial Eagle has a future in Russia?
Igor Karyakin: Today there are no target governmental programs on protection and recovering of the Imperial Eagle number in Russia. The Samara district is the only region, where a regional program on the recovering of the populations of birds of prey including the Imperial Eagle, financed by the Ministry of Natural Resources is established. Under this program the monitoring and protection of breeding territories of the Imperial Eagle, the installation of artificial nest, reconstruction of the damaged natural nests and collaborations with electric utility companies on the retrofitting of power lines with bird protective devices are carried out.
For the Imperial Eagle conservation it is necessary to endorse at the governmental level the Government Program on the reconstruction of power lines and support of pasturable livestock breeding.

8 weeks old Eastern Imperial Eagle nestlings. Republic of Bashkortostan

8 weeks old Eastern Imperial Eagle nestlings.
Republic of Bashkortostan.
© R. Bekmansurov.

Markus Jais: Can you give us a short overview of the population numbers and trends for the other eagle species that breed in Russia?
Igor Karyakin: The safest of the eagle species is the Golden Eagle. Its number in Russia by the most modest estimations is no less than 20000 breeding pairs (3000-5000 pairs in the European part of Russia). The number of the species has been growing everywhere since 1990s.
A total of 8000-10000 pairs (in the European part of Russia - 2500-3500 pairs) of the White-Tailed Eagle are estimated to breed in Russia. The trend is positive in the European part of Russia and Western Siberia. In the Volga region the species inhabits riversides of the Volga, banks of reservoirs and watersheds near large water bodies. Recently the White-Tailed Eagle began to inhabit artificial forest-lines and single trees among fields.
The population of the Greater Spotted Eagle is estimated as 4000 - 4500 breeding pairs (in the European part of Russia - 500-800 pairs). The number is rather stable, in some regions growing. In Pre-Ural and Western Siberia pairs of the species were observed in places, where the Imperial Eagle has disappeared.
The population of the Booted Eagle is estimated as 3500 - 4500 breeding pairs (in the European part of Russia - 1500-2500 pairs). Its number grows everywhere, during the last 5 years in the European part the species has spread into southern taiga and is actively spreading to Western Siberia. The number of the Imperial Eagle is estimated as 3000-3500 breeding pairs (in the European part of Russia - about 1000 pairs). The number has decreased slightly during the last 5 years.
The population of the Steppe Eagle is estimated as 2500-3500 breeding pairs (in the European part of Russia - 1000-1800 pairs). The number was considerably reduced during the last 10 years in the European part of Russia and Trans-Ural. The species breeding has not been registered in Bashkiria and the Chelyabinsk district; the species is on the verge of extinction in the Samara district. Virtually there is the tenfold decrease of the species in the Volgograd, Astrakhan districts and Kalmykia during last 10 years. A catastrophic population decline was in the Altai-Sayan region in 2001-2003 as a result of a poisoning of birds with bromadialone in Mongolia during winter migration, but now the population number here has gradually recovered. The population in the Baikal region is slowly increasing.
The population of the Short-Toed Eagle is estimated at 600-1200 breeding pairs (in the European part of Russia - 500-1000 pairs). The European population remained stable during last 20 years and the population of the species slowly grows in Western Siberia. During the last 5 years the species was recorded to the east of the breeding range, in particular in the Kemerovo district and Krasnoyarsk Kray, where earlier it has not been observed. Thus, the most threatened eagle species in Russia is the Steppe Eagle, whose population is decreased on a greater part of the breeding range, and the main reason of it is the agriculture crashing and, as a result, lack of prey, and the deaths due to electrocution aggravates the situation. The situation with the Imperial Eagle is better, however some populations of the species in the European part of Russia and Baikal region need urgent concern.

4 weeks old Eastern Imperial Eagle nestling. Republic of Altai.

4 weeks old Eastern Imperial Eagle nestling.
Republic of Altai.
© I. Karyakin.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Eastern Imperial Eagles?
Igor Karyakin: The Imperial Eagle is a species, whose observation is always a remembered event, even if happens several hundred times for a season. The most amazing experience was in Bashkiria in 1999. I was observing a nest of a Golden Eagle with two fledglings located on the Irendyk mountain range in June. Adults constantly hunted and spent little time at the nest. Once the male delivered a blue hare at the nest and, after having eaten half of the carcass, has left the nest. Then the elder fledgling jumped on the remains of carcass and closed its wings - before the younger bird could began to tear off pieces from it - and started to eat. At that time an Imperial Eagle approached the nest. He was hidden in a larch 60 m from the nest while the Golden Eagle was in the nest. As soon as an Imperial Eagle perched at a side of the nest, fledglings have recoiled from him, and an Imperial Eagle has taken away remains of the hare, and has departed to his own nest that was located 1,5 km from the nest of Golden Eagles. I often observed in Siberia that kites in a similar way are stealing remains of prey from nests of Imperial Eagles, but an Imperial Eagle stealing prey from a nest of Golden Eagles was observed only one time.

Markus Jais: Igor, thank you very much for the interview.

Further Information

Siberian Environmental Center - Birds of Prey

Published papers about the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Russia