Written by: Christof Schoeman
The martial eagle is a magnificently large raptor with a menacing appearance, and its name is derived from the latin word Martialis, meaning ‘from Mars’, who was the Roman god of war. This bird is a powerful hunter that spends hours of the day engaged in exploratory soaring or sitting secretly perched in a foliaged tree ready to ambush its next victim.
Crowned as the largest eagle in Africa and the fifth heaviest eagle (on average) in the world, the martial eagle has a wingspan of up to 2.6 metres, and it can lift prey weighing up to 8kg (although typically they lift only 1-4 kg). The martial eagle even occasionally preys upon the adult kori bustard, which may well be the heaviest flying animal alive today.
Martial eagles have extremely keen eyesight (3.0-3.6 times human acuity) and can spot potential prey up to five kilometres away!
The martial eagle can be found in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, wherever food is abundant and the environment favourable. Greater population densities exist in Southern Africa, especially in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Generally, these birds are more abundant in protected areas, such as the Kruger National Park and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa, or Etosha National Park in Namibia.
They tend to prefer desolate or protected areas. Their territory can vary greatly in size – from more than 1,000km² to areas where nests are less than 10km apart. This disparity is due to differences in food supply.
The diet of the martial eagle varies greatly depending on prey availability, and it can be dictated largely by opportunity. One study of the eagles in Kruger National Park found that 45% of their diet was made up of birds, particularly game birds and Egyptian geese.
The estimated population of the martial eagle is about 30,000 individuals, although this is difficult to ascertain given the eagle’s shy nature and avoidance of humans. Listed as Near Threatened due to a major decline in their numbers over the last few years, this eagle’s greatest threat comes from habitat loss and humans, as is the case with most apex birds of prey.
Viewed by farmers as a threat to livestock, the martial eagle is often poisoned and shot. However, most of this persecution is unfounded, as domestic animals make up a very small part of the eagle’s diet. Other threats come from powerline collisions and habitat destruction. The eagle’s low reproductive rate is also a problem for its long-term survival.
The future success of the martial eagle will depend greatly on educating African farmers to understand that this raptor is an integral part of a healthy environment. An increase in protected areas, so that the martial eagle can hunt and nest, will also greatly increase their chances of long-term survival.
Guests at Tintswalo Safari Lodge were very fortunate to find this big bird of prey standing in a small pool in Manyeleti Game Reserve. He stood for close to 30 minutes, having a drink before he took flight. With a flap of its wings he then rose immediately, and the whistling beat of the wings carried clearly in the silence.
I was astonished at how swiftly and strongly the eagle rose into the air! Time stood still for a moment as the raptor advanced into the wind, spreading its huge wings wider than it was tall, before flying off into the dusk. This made for yet another memorable moment whilst out on safari!