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Egypt’s National Animal is Under Threat of Extinction

August 15, 2023

Once bountiful in numbers, Egypt’s national animal, the steppe eagle, is facing the unfortunate prospect of extinction, according to recent reports.

The steppe eagle is often associated with strength, resolve, and independence, holding cultural and historical significance to Egypt and its people.

Although the species is not endemic to Egypt, meaning that it is not the only place it resides, these migratory eagles dominate the Egyptian skies during the winter between October and January.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, these large, well-feathered raptors were thought to be endangered in their northern range only. However, more recent studies show that their population outside Europe is also declining at an alarming rate; By comparing data from 1997 to 2011 and that from 2013 to 2015, scientists now believe that the species’ number has been reduced by more than 50 percent over the past and present three generations period, which spans the years from 2013 to 2027.

Unless the threats to the species are effectively mitigated, this decline is projected to persist at a similar rate for the next three generations.

Historical Significance

As one of a handful of birds of prey often associated with the goddess Nekhbet, the steppe eagle was frequently depicted in temple decorations in ancient Egypt. Known as the ‘protector of the king’, Nekhbet has one of the oldest temples in Egypt in Nekhen, located in what is now Awsan. The winged goddess was revered as Upper Egypt’s patron deity.

Conflicting accounts show Salah Al-din Al-Ayyubi, the founder of the Ayubbid dynasty and famed Sultan of Egypt, either taking the steppe eagle or the Egyptian golden eagle as his personal standard. The Cairo Citadel, constructed under Salah Al-din’s reign, features a prominent eagle on its western wall, widely considered to symbolize the former sultan’s insignia.

In the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Egypt’s newly-instated government replaced the green, crescent-and-stars emblazoned flag of the Kingdom of Egypt with the Arab Liberation flag – a red, white, and black flag that has Salah Al-din’s eagle at the center rendered in gold. These emblems become symbols closely associated with republican Egypt and the broader movement of Arab nationalism.
A Unique Predator

Boasting a wingspan of over two meters, Aquila nipalensis, or as it is commonly known, the steppe eagle, is found in numerous habitats in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, including steppe, desert, open savanna, agricultural fields, and grasslands. It is large and sturdy in appearance, with dark brown plumage and a long yet thick neck. This imposing predator specializes in hunting ground rodents.

The steppe eagle has long baffled scientists because it is the only eagle to have its nest primarily on the ground, preferring to nest in open, arid habitats in upland and lowland regions. They are known to nest close to roads as well. The nest is a sizable stick platform that can vary in size depending on available materials. The female lays one to three eggs, which are incubated for about 45 days.

The decline in viable habitats and food availability due to the destruction of nests is responsible for lower chances of mating success.

An Ongoing Threat

The steppe eagle faces significant dangers threatening its population, including habitat loss, human-inflicted harm, wildfires, and predation.

The factors contributing to the decline are multifaceted and include poaching, poisonings as part of rodent control efforts, intentional poisoning aimed at predators, illicit trade, food scarcity, and collisions with wires. The degradation of habitats due to road construction, tourism, mining, overharvesting vegetation, and overgrazing by livestock compounds the problem.

A steppe eagle perching over a mound in Nepal. Photo credit: Koshy Koshy.

Poisoning and powerline accidents are notably prevalent in certain areas, such as the Altais. Shooting of Steppe eagles remains a concern, especially for those migrating or wintering in countries like Georgia, Armenia, Iraq, and Jordan. In these regions, the eagles are sometimes even sold in local markets. Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s shift towards intensive farming has significantly diminished suitable habitats for steppe eagles.

Preserving grassland habitats in Europe and other regions of significance to the eagle is of the highest priority to conservation efforts. Educating residents about these eagles’ cultural and ecological significance is also critical, according to conservation experts. The use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to monitor migration routes can reveal potential hazards and risks.

Currently, Egypt does not have a conservation program specific to the protection of the steppe eagle; however, it has a migratory birds conservation program because of its central position in the migratory routes of numerous species.

The Minister of the Environment Yasmin Fouad told the press earlier this year that Egypt, in its approach to dealing with the issue of protecting migratory birds, went beyond the official and governmental level. The efforts were extended to include all stakeholders from civil society, local communities, tourism companies, youth, and others.

She also pointed out that the ministry organized various training sessions to raise awareness and involve all parties in environmental protection. These included specialized training for graduates in the field of monitoring and observing migratory birds, as well as training for those working in the tourism sector and companies. This effort also extended to establishing a bird observation point in Sharm El Sheikh as one of the tourist attractions that companies include in their tourism programs.

Yet, without a united global endeavor, this vital species could fade into mere nostalgia, existing only in Egypt’s insignia to remind the world of the once mighty animal that roamed the Egyptian skies.

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