Southern Africa’s Big Three Eagles

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Africa’s big three eagles are the bird equivalents of the lion, the leopard and the cheetah.

The southern part of Africa is a place that is rich in its variety of habitats.  Deserts, wetlands, mountains, grasslands, forest and woodland are all represented somewhere in the region.  This diversity of landscapes also brings with it a diversity of animal life.  The big mammals that occur here are iconic and many people travel to parks and reserves to see them.

Less well-known are southern Africa’s eagles.  There are fifteen different species of eagle resident all year-round.  No other continent comes close to rivaling Africa when it comes to the variety of birds of prey that can be seen.

Martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus)

Martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus)

For me as a trip leader and safari guide, this is something to get excited about. Frustratingly though on typical safaris, it can be difficult to share with people just how imposing and impressive some of these eagles are and that is because our sightings of them are often quick or distant.  The true presence and power of the birds can only be appreciated when one gets a good view and that can be difficult to obtain unless you travel to specific localities to seek out the birds.

With this in mind, I visited a raptor rehabilitation centre located in the Eastern Cape of South Africa and run by a dedicated couple, who have a number of birds of prey that have been recovered from farmers. These birds were trapped or injured or are in some other unfortunate circumstance.  Big eagles sometimes eat livestock, either after killing it themselves or as carrion and they still suffer from heavy persecution in some parts of southern Africa.

Verreaux’s eagle (Aquila verreauxii)

Verreaux’s eagle (Aquila verreauxii)

At the rehab centre I photographed the three big eagles of southern Africa.  They are the Martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus), the Verreauxs eagle (Aquila verreauxii), and the African crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus).  These birds are the flying counterparts of the lion, the leopard and the cheetah.

They are three of the most imposing birds of prey to be found anywhere. Each has its own favoured habitat.  The martial is found in open country, grassland, savanna and especially in dry woodland. The Verreauxs eagle is found where there are mountains and it is the master of the winds that blow in such places. The crowned eagle is slightly smaller than the other two eagles, though no less powerful, and it lives in forests, nesting on the tallest trees.

All three eagles take large prey including mammals and these include antelope species such as impala, bush buck, suni, mountain reed buck and duiker.  Monkeys and immature baboons are also taken, as are monitor lizards.  Birds such as Kori bustards, young ostrich and any other game birds such as guinea fowl or francolins may fall victim to one or another of these powerful predators.

African crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus)

African crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus)

Although it is not always easy for a casual observer to find all these eagles, there are still many places in the region where they can be found.  Raptor conservation organizations have worked tirelessly with hundreds of farmers to help develop a more tolerant approach to these eagles and in many areas, it is working.  There are both farms and game reserves in South Africa itself where it is possible to see all three of these magnificent eagles in one day.

The eagles shown here were captive and unable to be released back into the wild.  Hopefully their stories and their pictures will help remind us what we need to continue working to protect in our world.

Grant Atkinson
Specialist Guide
For more of Grants photography, check out his website.

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