1.1.15 Case study: The eastern imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) – critically endangered species

Institution/Author: Environmental Protection Agency/Slaviša Popović, Society for the Study and Protection of Birds/Dr Dimitrije Radišić 

Assessment: Twenty years ago Serbian sky was adorned with about ten pairs of the eastern imperial eagle, a bird that adorns Serbian coat of arms, and today it has fallen to one pair, which lives in the proximity of a small Serbian village Krstur. In the last two years the pair raised three young fledglings that were born. The last remaining couple of this bird in Serbian Krstur is guarded by members of national nature protection NGO within the international project ”Pannon Eagle Life” which our country conducts in cooperation with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary.

The eastern imperial eagle is a Euroasian species, and today it is more present in the Mongolian and Kazakhstani steppe, while in Europe, unlike earlier times its number is drastically lower. For example, up to twenty years ago on Fruška Gora there were three pairs of eastern imperial eagle and Deliblatska pescara there were only seven or eight. Today they are no longer there, and the only remaining couple in our country has nested on Canadian Populous tree in the steppe near the village of Serbian Kostur, where this year it also has laid eggs. The eastern imperial eagle was once a trophy bird for many hunters – beautiful and large with a span of wings two meters wide, yet accessible because it does not live in the mountains but in the steppe, this has also reduced their population. In addition to the lack of habitat the reasons behind this bird disappearing are the lack of tall and old trees which they usually choose for their nest, and the biggest problem for them is poisoning. Good news come from Hungary. In 1995 they had only 30 pairs of the eagle left and since they have invested in projects, so today they have about 150 pairs. Since their eagle is recovering it is possible that some of them might come down to Serbia and form a pair with our young birds.

How this eagle did ended up on the Serbian coat of arms, and was this bird really an inspiration? There are two stories, one says that it is the bird most seen in this region nesting on oak trees, a tree that our people consider sacred. The oak tree was considered a sacred place (shrine). Especially oaks over 100 years old which our people marked with a cross. The eastern imperial eagle (eagle of the cross in Serbian) likes old trees and this is why it got this folk name, because people saw a big eagle on a holy tree. It is logical that the bird which had symbolism in the people was an inspiration for the coat of arms. The second story tells us that we are not the only one to have this eagle on our coat of arms and that we probably took it from others, because Roman emperors, Austrian Emperors, Napoleon Bonaparte, and even the Germans during the Second world war recognized this bird as a symbol and used it on their flags or seals.