Southern Banded Snake Eagle
CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

The Southern Banded Snake Eagle Circaetus fasciolatus appears to be restricted to the coastal forests of northern KwaZulu-Natal, with the small national population possibly concentrated in the mosaic of formally protected areas making up the iSimangaliso Wetland Park complex and its surrounding network of public and private nature reserves. The species is a flagship for this threatened ecosystem.

Photo right: Jo Balmer

Biology

Biology

Southern Banded Snake Eagles occupy the ecotone between coastal dune/sand forest and coastal lowland grassland. They will perch on shrubs, trees or in more recent times electrical or railway pylons during the early morning and watch for prey in the grassland or open areas below.

Of the few breeding records that have been recorded, breeding takes place between August and October with nests built in large tree canopies with good cover from canopy creepers, providing a secretive location for the birds.

Their main source of food is snakes, particularly night adders and spotted bush snakes, but they have been recorded capturing amphibians, lizards and small rodents as well. In the heat of the day they appear to retreat to the denser shadows of the coastal forest making visual detection difficult.

The current population estimate for this species within South Africa is no more than 50 mature individuals with a global population estimate of 670 – 2000 individuals. Unfortunately both of these estimates are course and have little scientific evidence to back them up. BirdLife South Africa is working to establish a more robust estimate fof the South African population.

Distribution

Distribution

Southern Banded Snake Eagles have a narrow and fragmented distribution, stretching from southern Somalia to north-eastern South Africa along the eastern coast of Africa.

In southern Africa, there are three apparent sub-populations – (i) central Mozambique (between the Zambezi River and Beira), (ii) eastern Zimbabwe, and (iii) southern Mozambique and south to the coastal lowlands of Maputaland, KwaZulu-Natal.

The species is considered to be globally Near-threatened, and in South Africa it has recently been uplisted to Critically Endangered.

In South Africa, the species appears to be restricted to the coastal forests of northern KwaZulu-Natal, with the small national population possibly concentrated in the mosaic of formally protected areas making up the iSimangaliso Wetland Park complex and its surrounding network of public and private nature reserves.

Recent work by BirdLife South Africa indicates that the remnant patches of indigenous forest may provide suitable habitat for Southern Banded Snake Eagles providing the ecosystem services within these patches are intact and a suitable prey biomass remains.

Conservation & Research

Conservation & Research

BirdLife South Africa contracted AVISENSE Consulting in 2015 to design a research and monitoring initiative focused on the Southern Banded Snake Eagle. A follow up study was undertaken by Dr Shane McPherson in August 2016. During his survey, he identified a nest within a pocket of natural forest in the Mtunzini plantations.

Using the findings from both of these surveys, Dr Melissa Whitecross, set out to learn more through a survey of the northern KwaZulu-Natal plantation matrix. She is investigating the efficacy of remnant pockets of indigenous forest within the plantation matrix to provide critical habitat for the Southern Banded Snake Eagle and other raptors. The records she has collected are being fed into a broader ecological niche model for the species that includes records from several citizen science repositories.

This model will assist in identifying key areas of suitable habitat that can be further surveyed for the presence of Southern Banded Snake Eagles. It will also highlight key areas for electrical infrastructure retrofitting to reduce the significant threat of electrocution for this species in partnership with Eskom and the Ingula Partnership.

Research and Conservation Objectives

The core objectives of the project are:

  1. To establish a scientifically robust population estimate for the South African population of Southern Banded Snake Eagles.
  2. To determine the amount of remaining suitable habitat for the Southern Banded Snake Eagle across both (a) South Africa and (b) Africa using a combination of remote sensing, ground-truthing surveys and ecological niche modelling.
  3. To complete a threat assessment for the Southern Banded Snake Eagle so that effective mitigation strategies can be developed using scientifically-based evidence.
  4. Use all of the information collected from the above objectives to conduct a reassessment of the global IUCN conservation status of the Southern Banded Snake Eagle and potentially upgrade it to a higher threat status.

BirdLife South Africa is collaborating with Forestry South Africa and their affiliates to determine how the pockets of indigenous forest within the plantation matrix of northern KwaZulu-Natal can potentially act as a refuge for the Southern Banded Snake Eagle and other raptor species. Read the case study report here.

Meet the Team

The 2018 Southern Banded Snake Eagle Survey Team: Dr Melissa Whitecross, Sphamandla Junior Gabela, Caroline Howes

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Rio Tinto, Airports Company South Africa for their financial support of the initial population assessment of the regionally Critically Endangered Southern Banded Snake Eagle, and to the Durban Museum of Natural Science for providing a vehicle for fieldwork.

Thanks to Airports Company South Africa and the Ingula Partnership for their financial support of the current project. Thanks also to Forestry South Africa, Sappi, Mondi and SiyaQubheka for their logistical assistance during the 2018 survey.

The 2019 survey is being supported the Leslie Brown Memorial Grant from the Raptor Research Foundation and we are grateful to them for this support.