Interview with Gunther Willinger about the work done by EuroNatur to protect the Saker Falcon and the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Bulgaria

Date of the interview: 10 December 2009

In this interview Gunther Willinger talks about the conservation of the Saker Falcon and the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Bulgaria. He explains the current situation, what EuroNatur and it’s partners are doing, the role of eco tourism and a lot more.

Gunther Willinger

Gunther Willinger, © Katharina Grund/EuroNatur

Markus Jais: EuroNatur is currently working in Bulgaria to protect Eastern Imperial Eagles and Saker Falcons. What is the current population for both species in Bulgaria?
Gunther Willinger: The estimations for the Imperial eagle population in Bulgaria vary around 25 to 30 pairs. This year 20 breeding territories were occupied. Most of these are located in the south of Bulgaria at the European Green Belt (at the border to Turkey) in a very biodiverse area called Sakar Mountains and Dervent Hights were we work for the conservation of the species by supporting our local partner NGO Green Balkans – it´s a hilly landscape with a mosaic habitat pattern. A lot of pasture land, little forest patches, streams etc. Imperial eagles and many other raptors need the open pasture areas for foraging and tall trees (mostly along the streams) for nesting. Green Balkans is currently finalizing an Eeconet Action Fund project establishing a buffer zone and providing direct protection of 5 breeding sites of Imperial Eagle by buying land plots with nests on them or close by and conducting different management measures. Saker Falcon used to breed in several different places in Bulgaria in the last century but nowadays we don´t know of any breeding pairs. It seems that some migrating birds have been observed and BSPB has placed many artificial nests on the power line poles hoping that we will have some Sakers breeding again soon. We also support the Bulgarian Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna (FWFF) in a more agricultural related approach, trying to reestablish organic livestock farming in high nature value areas like the Kotel or the Sakar mountains. These activities plus the conservation activities of Green Balkans in the south of the country will hopefully also help to bring Saker falcons back as a breeding species to Bulgaria.

Eastern Imperial Eagle

Eastern Imperial Eagle, © Wolf Steiger

Markus Jais: What are the main threats the birds are facing?
Gunther Willinger: The main threat on the long run is the change in the agricultural use of the land. Since the revolution 20 years ago many people left the rural landscape of Sakar and Dervent Hights. Mostly only the old people remain and the number of livestock has decreased substantially. Many former pastures are abandoned and therefore start to be overgrown by bushes and trees. Additionally in recent years some farmes have started to plough pastures in order to obtain EU-subsidies. So the big threat is that the pastures and extensive agricultural lands get lost as the valuable habitat for sousliks and many other important prey sepcies of raptors. More short term threats are the logging of trees along small rivers, nest robbery, shooting or other human activities too close to the nests. Potential new threats are power plants based on alternative energy sources like wind farms and photo-voltaic parks.

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard, © Dobromir Dobrinov/Green Balkans

Markus Jais: Agricultural changes can be a serious problem for many raptors. How is the current European farming policy effecting raptors in Bulgaria and other countries in eastern Europe and what must change so that raptors and other birds can benefit?
Gunther Willinger: First of all Bulgaria is lacking farmers, because after the revolution big parts of the former agriculture just collapsed and only very few young farmers feel motivated enough to start a farming business again. It would be very important to use the EU-funds in a way that attracts people to go back into the rural areas and start farming activities in a sustainable or ecological way. This would help the rural development and thus big parts of the country and bring new perspectives for local people. As long as it is organic farming or farming in such an extensive way that keeps the beautiful cultural landscapes in Bulgaria not only people but also biodiversity would profit. Biodiversity is one of the biggest if not the biggest treasure of Bulgaria and all Bulgarians could profit a lot in the future from their rich natural ressources if they manage to keep as much of this treasure as possible. Agriculture plays an especially important role for the conservation of grasland habitats which are the most important foraging habitat for many rare raptor species. Up to now only a very low percentage of the available EU-funds are used at all and it is a big administrative challenge for the farmers to apply. There should be more help and incentives for farmers. The money should be spent in the development of a market for organic food in Bulgaria, for more farmers markets in cities, for subsidizing ecofriendly farmers that keep the landscape and the biodiversity on their land in a good state and so on. There are many ways to improve agriculture and to do nature conservation at the same time. The Imperial Eagle is just one species that will need this kind of policy to survive. So, to answer your question more precise: Right now we see big problems with farmers that plough valuable farm land for subsidies, but the subsidies could also be a big chance for nature conservation if implemented in the right way.

Markus Jais: How are the local people involved?
Gunther Willinger: “Connecting nature and people” is probably the most important theme in EuroNatur’s work in the last 22 years. Without understanding the needs of local people and without integrating theme into the conservation work we won´t be able to achieve good results in the long run. Therefore our partners are in constant dialogue with the local people giving information about the birds in general, observation of birds, provision of dead animals for food, receiving signals for wounded birds in the area and in the case of the FWFF also acting as a livestock farmer and employer.

Sakar Mountains

Sakar Mountains, © Gunther Willinger/EuroNatur

Markus Jais: What other species will benefit from the conservation program?
Gunther Willinger: All birds of prey nesting on trees and feeding at open grasslands – Lesser spotted eagle, Short-toed eagle, Long-legged buzzard, etc.
Here is a list of interesting species found in the Sakar Mountains, Dervent Heights, and Western Strandja Mountains. Basically all of these species should benefit from the conservation work done in the area:
Beside the Imperial Eagle – emblematic species of this region, other species that could be found during the breeding season are: Lesser Spotted Eagle – Aquila pomarina, Black Kite – Milvus migrans, Long-legged Buzzard – Buteo rufinus, Short-toed Eagle – Circaetus gallicus, Booted Eagle – Hieraetus penatus, Black Stork Ciconia nigra. The breeding Shrike species are: Red-backed Shrike – Lanius collurio, Lesser Grey Shrike – L. minor, Woodchat Shrike – L. senator and even Masked Shrike – L. nubicus, and wintering is the Northern Shrike – L. excubitor.
Other wintering birds include the Syrian Woodpecker – Dendrocopos syriacus, Montagu’s Harrier – Circus pygargus, Eagle Owl – Bubo bubo, Hen Harrier – Circus cyaneus, Marsh Harrier – Circus aeruginosus, Corncrake – Crex crex. Also, the region is of crucial importance for vagrant and migrating species such as Egyptian Vulture – Neophron percnopterus, Cinereous Vulture – Aegypius monachus, Griffon Vulture – Gyps fulvus, Greater Spotted Eagle – Aquila clanga, Saker Falcon – Falco cherrug, etc. Mammals are represented by Souslik – Spermophilus citellus, Wolf – Canis lupus, Otter – Lutra lutra, Wild Cat – Felis silvestris and a great variety of bats.


Souslik, © Gernot Pohl

Markus Jais: Is ecotourism a chance for endangered birds in Bulgaria?
Gunther Willinger: In my opinion eco-tourism is a very important topic but not the Holy Grail. That is because by definition it should be kept in a sustainable and small scale way – so in many cases it won´t be the way to give the whole local community an income, but only some people as guest house owners or local guides. Eco-tourism has to be incorporated in a bigger concept, where the local communities profit from the natural ressources in a very diverse and sustainable way. This will include farming, forestry, energy production, tourism and other things. The key is to do all activities in a decentralized and sustainable way that gives benefit and independence directly to farmers and other local people in the long run and not to some big investor who goes in and wants to earn as much money as possible in a very short time or maybe even just wants to wash some illegal money. As I said: It is our philosophy at EuroNature to integrate also the economic needs of the local people into the conservation work, because we think that it is the only way to achieve sustainable and long lasting results. Clearly this is not always easy but bird-watching tourism can play an important part also in showing the locals that people actually travel from far away to their area in order to see species that might be a quite common sight to themselves. So beside additional income it is also a good way to make them realize the value and to make them proud of their rich nature and landscape. A good example for ecotourism is the Madzharovo vulture feeding site in the Eastern Rhodopes, where birdwatching is well developed and is supporting the local community and the conservation of vultures and birds of prey. Of course one has to be very careful to set it up in a way that cannot disturb the animals or even chase them away.

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

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