Iberian Imperial Eagle

The Iberian Imperial Eagle: A Success Story in Conservation

Conservation efforts have been successful in keeping the Iberian Imperial Eagle, A Mediterranean endemic species, from extinction. Between 2021 and 2022, there were 821 pairs in Spain and 20 in Portugal, an increase of 53% since 2017.

(Above photo by Photo by José Antonio Lagier Martin – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74215438)

The LIFE Imperial project

The Iberian Imperial Eagle Working Group, made up of representatives of environmental agencies from Spain and Portugal and with the advice of experts and specialized entities, has presented the results of the monitoring and conservation work carried out in favor of one of the emblematic species of the Spanish fauna, and the only endemic raptor of the Iberian Peninsula.

Between 2021 and 2022, a minimum of 841 pairs of Iberian Imperial Eagle were recorded, 821 in Spain and 20 estimated in Portugal. This data represents an increase of 53% of the population since 2017, the previous year in which a coordinated census at the Iberian level was compiled, which then offered 536 pairs.

The Iberian Imperial Eagle
The Iberian Imperial Eagle: A Success Story in Conservation – Photo by Baldo Carrillo from the Portuguese Imperial eagle project: https://lifeimperial.lpn.pt/en/

The species is still distributed in five Spanish autonomous communities, although the number of provinces with the presence of territories has increased in this last coordinated census to 21. Since 2018, Granada, Cuenca and Palencia already host breeding pairs of the species.

Castilla-La Mancha is the autonomous community that hosts the largest number of breeding pairs; in 2022, 396 Iberian Imperial Eagle territories were recorded here. This represents 47% of the total existing in Spain.

The large areas of this region that have very favorable habitats for the species, mainly associated with the Tajo Valley, the Sierra Morena area and the Campo de Montiel region, have allowed a significant increase in pairs and, at the same time, in the number of dispersing specimens settled in Castilian-Manchego territory. Toledo is revealed as the key province for this species, with 212 territories counted.

The Iberian Imperial Eagle: A Success Story in Conservation
An Iberian imperial eagle with its chick on the nest.

In Andalusia as well, there has been a very significant increase in pairs, from the 70 registered in 2011 to the 136 of 2022, with a notable expansion of the species’ settlement area that has reached in recent years the Subbética Mountains and the province of Granada. Castilla y León has 131 pairs in a clear expansive trend, mainly towards the north of the region. The Community of Madrid also hosts a high density of imperial eagles, reaching 83 pairs in 2022 (in 2008 there were 30). In Extremadura, the population of imperial eagles is also increasing, although at a slower pace, hosting a total of 75 pairs in 2022.

For its part, Portugal reports a minimum of 17 pairs in its territory, with an estimated presence of 20, mainly distributed in the Alentejo region and in border areas with Extremadura.

Recovery of the species

The breeding population of the Iberian Imperial Eagle has shown an upward trend since the monitoring and conservation work began, following the protection of the species and its inclusion in the Spanish Catalogue of Threatened Species. The first national census of the species, carried out in 1974 by Jesús Garzón, counted only 39 pairs. Fourteen years after that first census, the 100-pair mark was already exceeded (104) and the population continued to grow, at an average rate of 6% per year to reach 841 in 2022. In 2023, a new complete census is expected to be updated, which will allow to confirm the growing trend of the species.

The work carried out by public administrations, private landowners, conservation entities and researchers has contributed to the recovery of one of the most representative species of the Iberian fauna. The financial contribution of the LIFE program of the European Union also represented in the 1990s an important boost to improve knowledge of this species and the threats it faces, as well as to develop a coordinated action program in our country.

Adapting power lines

The work of adapting the technical characteristics of dangerous power lines has been essential to improve the survival of the species, as electrocution on these structures has been and remains the main non-natural mortality factor of the Iberian Imperial Eagle.

A dead Iberian Imperial Eagle after being Electrocuted on power lines
A dead Iberian Imperial Eagle after being Electrocuted on power lines (phot GREFA)

Since the approval of Royal Decree 1432/2008 establishing measures to protect avifauna against collision and electrocution on high-voltage power lines, public administrations have invested at least €30 million in the period 2008-2020, which will be complemented by another 60 million for the period 2021-2026 from the Next-Generation funds of the European Union.

Poison and other mortality risks

Another important factor of non-natural mortality has been poisoning with illegally placed toxic baits in the natural environment. Between 1992 and 2017, 195 specimens were detected dead for this reason. The approval of action plans at the autonomous level and the investment in methods of prevention and persecution of the illegal use of poisoned baits have made it possible for this threat to be reduced proportionally in recent years.

However, there are other threats that continue to affect the species: among them, direct persecution with illicit methods (shooting, for example), poisoning by ingestion of prey with high levels of heavy metals (lead mainly) and, the development of infrastructure that may negatively affect this recovery.

For this reason, despite these positive results and the successful example that the conservation work carried out with the Iberian Imperial Eagle, which has allowed to significantly reduce its risk of extinction, it is still necessary to continue maintaining the efforts of monitoring and research, investment in the repair of power lines, protection of critical areas in the face of habitat transformations due to the implementation of energy developments and the reconciliation of the practices developed in the rural environment.

As it is an endemic species, Spain and Portugal have the maximum responsibility at a global level to ensure the conservation of this species considered a priority in the set of international norms and agreements on biodiversity conservation.

The Iberian Imperial Eagle: A Success Story in Conservation
The Iberian Imperial Eagle: A Success Story in Conservation

This article has been translated from the official Spanish press release here

  • The Iberian Imperial Eagle: A Success Story in Conservation
  • The Iberian Imperial Eagle: A Comeback from the Brink of Extinction
  • How Spain and Portugal are Saving the Iberian Imperial Eagle
  • The Iberian Imperial Eagle: A Bird of Prey to Watch
  • The Iberian Imperial Eagle: A Symbol of Hope for Biodiversity
Further reading

The first LIFE project 1992 to1999 has some excellent background information: https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/life/publicWebsite/index.cfm?fuseaction=search.dspPage&n_proj_id=198

The project in Portugal: https://lifeimperial.lpn.pt/en/

The wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_imperial_eagle

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