The imperial eagles of Doñana have nothing to eat and survive with "supermarkets" of rabbits

An ecosystem in decline. The imperial eagles of Doñana survive on the food that humans give them. In the national park there is no food for the winged emblem of the Spanish Mediterranean mountain.

The adalberti of Doñana must be fed so that they can survive in a habitat whose official designation qualifies as "unique biodiversity in Europe". The established specimens are provided with rabbit meat near their nests while live specimens of these lagomorphs are released in enclosures so that the birds can catch them, as described by the Spanish Society of Ornithology SEO-Birdlife.

The voice of alarm has been given by this organization that has been monitoring the species for 20 years: "In Doñana there are no rabbits," explains its delegate in the marshes, Carlos Dávila. The species has disappeared, victim of diseases. "But these eagles had a plan B, which was waterfowl" for which Doñana is the most important refuge in Europe. However, that alternative is fading away.

82% of the more than 60 endangered species that were protected in the Doñana marshes are declining, according to the trends collected in the Program for Emergencies, Epidemiological Control and Monitoring of Wild Fauna of Andalusia. Among them, those aquatic varieties that depend on a wetland that goes through low hours stand out. Or very low.

Two ducks have already disappeared from the marsh: the so-called canelo jar and the brown pochard "which were common only two decades ago," they recount in the SEO. In 2021, the White-headed Duck stopped breeding in the marshes for the first time in 17 years. Nor did the Moorish coot "which accumulates three years in a row failing."

It illustrates the danger of degradation in Doñana that the most endangered species of duck in Spain, the marbled teal, "now only breeds outside the limits of the park," says the technician.

So with no Plan A for food (wild rabbits) and Plan B (waterfowl) dwindling, the pairs of eagles that reside here have to be fed. The technique of filling a closed farm with rabbits – "a kind of supermarket for imperials", in the words of Dávila – was already used in the emergency plan. Supplemental feeding "has been key and a normal performance." What happens now is that it seems essential.

"It is an aggressive management resource, but positive. There is no other", analyzes Dávila, but, at the same time, "a symptom of the poor state of the ecosystem to be able to house the species".

If the recovery of the imperial eagles is a success story in Spain, it is currently not so much in Doñana. While the populations in other points grow, the raptors of the park, after improving with the plan that lasted until 2010, experience a slow downward slope. In addition to the habitat not providing food for them, pairs are failing to reproduce and those that do are losing chicks.

In 2021, eight imperial eagle territories were recorded in Doñana, each with a pair. One had been lost. "There are five couples that started the reproductive process, but some have failed and others have not been able to raise their offspring," says the SEO delegate.

"Doñana is the only point in Spain where the Aquila adalberti is still in poor condition," summarizes the NGO's evaluation. "It has become an increasingly less appropriate place to house these birds of prey threatened by extinction," they conclude.

The problems of the national park are, paradoxically, outside its limits. And inextricably linked to water. Doñana lacks liquid. It loses it due to the aggression of climate change and the overexploitation of aquifers by humans.

The extraction of water to feed irrigated farms around the area have sucked more liquid than is replenished naturally. Three of the five bodies of groundwater from which the park is nourished are declared "in poor condition" and it is not expected that "they can reach a good condition by the time the Hydrological Plan comes into force" which should work in 2022 , according to the latest report status of the Doñana aquifers of the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation (CHG).

In this sense, the Popular Party of Andalusia promoted -together with Vox and Ciudadanos- a regional law to regularize some 1,500 hectares of irrigated farms without authorization around this environment. Farms that have been using the water from these aquifers without permission.

The Doñana National Park is managed by the Andalusian Government, now chaired by Juan Manuel Moreno Bonilla (PP), who has assured that he will take up all the initiatives that failed in the Andalusian Parliament due to his decision to advance the elections. That proposition of law deserved the reproach of the European Commission, the Ministry of Ecological Transition and UNESCO.

Coupled with this, the ecosystem suffers from a lack of rainfall. A dry cycle that lasts for decades and for which in the hydrological year 2020-2021 it rained much less than the historical average: 164 mm by 531 of the normal average.

With less rain, blamed on the climate crisis, less water replenishes aquifers. The dryness is palpable both in the marsh and in the complex of peridunares lagoons, "perhaps the most emblematic place in Doñana", describes the Confederation.

These permanent freshwater lagoons are located on the inner face of the dunes that protect Doñana from the sea. The ten most representative barely have flooded a little more than 50% over the median calculated between 1993-2000. Some, such as Charco del Toro and El Sapo, have 0% of their surface area flooded.

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