With a BSc in Environment, Economics and Ecology, Sarah has long been fascinated with the challenge of balancing human needs and environmental protection.
On 6 August 2012, during a routine survey of the medium-voltage electricity pylons near Sudik village in eastern Macedonia, two researchers – Metodija Velevski and Bobi Arsovski – from the Macedonian Ecological Society (MES) were disturbed to find three dead lesser kestrels, which had been killed with pellet shotguns.
The team located the shotgun capsules near the dead birds and found several more in a perimeter of 300 metres. They also found a survivor – a female who, despite sustaining injuries to her forehead and breast, was mercifully still alive (though severely dehydrated).
They instantly rushed her back to Skopje for emergency treatment at the National Veterinary Institute, where X-rays revealed two pellets stuck in the skin but no broken bones.
A very poorly kestrel receives urgent medical attention. Credit: Macedonian Ecological Society.
Once her wounds had been disinfected, the researchers took the kestrel back to an improvised shelter that had been put together by Mr Arsovski, one of MES’s most active members.
“Although the injuries from the pellets were not too serious in themselves, the bird was extremely stressed, and the vet advised us that this would be the biggest threat to her survival because stress can kill,” said Danka Uzunova, intern at MES and alumnus of the Conservation Leadership Programme.
“He said that if the kestrel started feeding and flying while in recovery then there would be a chance of her surviving and being returned to the wild, so all we could do was wait and hope for the best.”
After a few days the team began to see real improvements. “For the first couple of days she was very timid, and would not leave the corner of her shelter, and I had to actually put the food in her beak to make her eat,” explained Mr Arsovski. “But then she started to trust me, and began flying freely in the shelter – it was sight of real triumph. After a while I started putting several small mice in the shelter and she would catch them, like the pro predator she is,” he added with a smile.
After 10 days in the shelter, the survivor had recovered from her wounds and regained her confidence. She had also gained back enough weight to face the migratory challenge ahead.
On 16 August, the MES team returned to the scene of the crime, this time to release the kestrel in her home grounds.
In the neighbouring cereal crop fields they spotted around 70 other lesser kestrels, feeding and aggregating before the migration back to Africa. Their presence was reassuring for the team as they knew their feathered friend would have time to interact with the group prior to their departure.
The team gets ready to release the kestrel. Credit: Macedonian Ecological Society.
Once released, the kestrel made some short, clumsy flights from one electricity pole to the next (“She looked like a young kestrel who was just learning to fly, she was flapping her wings so vigorously!” said Danka). But then a soft, warm wind picked up, and from that moment on, her movements became smooth and elegant – she was back on track.
After watching their kestrel interact with others in the colony and perform a typical gliding flight (used by kestrels when soaring and hunting), the team returned home filled with relief, hope and happiness.
Macedonia once held 6% of Europe’s lesser kestrel population, but the latest information indicates that this percentage has fallen by half over the last ten years. Although these birds are strictly protected under Macedonian law, their relatively large size and steady flight patterns make them an easy target for hunters.
As a result, the National and Regional Hunting Inspectors (who had been informed of the incident) have issued a written warning to all hunting societies in the Sveti Nikole region and to all hunters registered in the area.
There are however many illegal, unregistered hunters in the region, and the Hunting Inspectorate believes that these are the most likely suspects in the case.
“So far, the Inspectorate has filed a charge against an unknown hunter on the basis of our report into this illegal hunting incident,” says Danka. “Although the process is still ongoing, hopefully it will serve as a warning to others. At the very least, it reminds us that there are people out there who care about these beautiful birds.”
This story was brought to the attention of Fauna & Flora International by Danka Uzunova, one of the researchers who released the kestrel. Danka is an alumnus of the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) – a partnership between BirdLife International, Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society that works to develop future conservation leaders.
Danka has been volunteering and working with the Macedonian Ecological Society since 2006, and in 2011 was awarded funding from the CLP for her work on assessing the threats to the lesser kestrel, imperial eagle and Egyptian vulture in two proposed Important Bird Areas in Macedonia. Today she is an intern at the society, and her placement is also funded by the CLP.