Rare eagles are making an unusual flight from Tel Aviv to the Czech Republic Thursday night – cured of injuries sustained during migration, they're flying home on El Al.
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Or at least, the three birds, who remain disabled and unable to return to nature, are being taken to the Liberec Zoo in their general habitat region for breeding purposes.
One is a booted eagle, which is not endangered. The other two are Eastern imperial eagles, a male and female. Because these birds originated in the wild and not from breeding programs, they can serve as founders for a breeding group, once brought into proximity with others.
Not being native to Israel, there aren't any others like them in the local zoos and they couldn't be bred here, explains Sagit Horowitz, spokeswoman of the Ramat Gan Safari Park. Somehow the three had, separately, become injured during their seasonal migration over ten years ago. Found by Israel's equivalent of game wardens – National Parks inspectors – they were brought to the Safari hospital for treatment. They survived but remained handicapped.
For some ten years, the eagles were kept in a special exhibit of rescued animals that could not be returned to nature at the Safari zoo, Horowitz says. "Last year, we had a change of mind-set," she told Haaretz: to pursue breeding for them, so their offspring could be returned to nature.
These eagles may winter throughout the Middle East, going as far south as Yemen. But they don’t mate and breed around here and the three couldn’t be bred locally.
So the Safari reached out to find them an appropriate home in their natural habitat, which is central and eastern Europe (they nest chiefly Russia, Horowitz adds). The Liberec zoo – established in 1919, the first zoo in the Czech Republic - coordinates raptor repopulation programs in all Europe's zoos. Just as importantly, it has birds for these eagles to breed with: eight Eastern imperial eagles (five males and three females), Horowitz says.
How rare are they? European zoos have 62 Eastern imperial eagles; in nature it's anybody's guess, but the estimates range from about 1,000 to ten times that many. Which means, Horowitz points out, that there are only between 360 to 600 breeding pairs of the bird, to as many as 2,000. Still, that's not much.
While the booted eagle isn't considered in danger, Liberec wants to breed it too. The Czech zoo has four specimens (two females and two males) who nonetheless have not procreated. The hope is that they will do the deed with the arriving bird, which has the advantage of bringing in new genes. Its
While it is common practice to sedate pets for flights, the birds will be making the El Al flight fully awake, which is normal for wild animals. "They didn’t even need to be sedated to be put into their traveling cages," Horowitz says.