The Conservation Status of Eagles in South African Law
This contribution is an introductory survey and preliminary evaluation of the conservation status of eagles in South African law. The methodology is primarily an interdisciplinary literature study of legal texts and texts from the natural sciences. Eagles are some of the largest and most powerful avian predators, and the human response to their presence is dualistic and polarised. At the one extreme, many people admire eagles, while at the other extreme they are perceived as a threat to economic and other interests, and may even be actively persecuted in a conviction that they are vermin. This duality in the human perception of eagles is also prevalent in South Africa and complicates their conservation. The mobility of eagles and other birds of prey means that they cannot be restrained by fencing national parks and other protected areas, and this heightens the likelihood of their entering into conflict with human interests. The conservation problems faced by eagles in South Africa can broadly be divided into direct and indirect threats. Direct threats include the intentional killing of eagles, and trade in eagles and their eggs. Indirect threats include non-targeted poisoning (where poisoned bait is used to control other predators, but eagles find the bait, feed on it, and succumb); habitat loss; mortality induced by dangerous structures; and disturbance.
The legal status of eagles is influenced by a large body of legislative provisions, ranging from international and regional legal instruments, through national legislation, to provincial legislative measures. An overview of these provisions is given, with concise explanations of how they apply to the legal status of eagles and other birds of prey in South Africa. The conservation status of eagles in South African law is subsequently evaluated by considering the contribution of the applicable laws to three main types of conservation interventions. In respect of the first, habitat preservation, the relevant legal provisions contribute to an impressive array of conserved habitats in national parks and other protected areas. However, the mobility of eagles, and the fact that some species occur mainly outside protected areas, make it imperative for eagles also to be afforded legal protection outside of protected areas. In respect of the second type of intervention, namely management activities to conserve the species in their habitats, an inquiry is made into how the law addresses the threats of the intentional killing of eagles; trade in eagles and their eggs; non-targeted poisoning; mortality induced by dangerous structures; and disturbance. The protection is found to be sound in principle. In respect of the third and most intensive intervention, captive breeding, a regulatory framework is in place, but no such intervention on eagle species is known to be operative in South Africa.
In conclusion a number of recommendations are made. The existing laws can be improved by aligning the legal status of species with their Red List status; listing all bird of prey species that are not Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable, as Protected for the purpose of national environmental legislation; and, in the medium rather than the short term, considering the imposition of legal obligations on electricity suppliers to implement measures that will mitigate mortalities on electricity structures. Better application of the existing laws could be achieved by improving compliance and enforcement, and by facilitating the optimal use of Biodiversity Management Plans, environmental research, and environmental education.
Keywords: Environmental law; conservation; biodiversity; eagles; birds of prey; conservation threats.