Urban ecology of the crowned eagle stephanoaetus coronatus in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Urban environments comprise a complex and dynamic landscape, and urban sprawl is irreversibly transforming large areas of land globally. Increasingly, the need for incorporating ecosystem services into urban landscapes provides opportunities for green-space to benefit biodiversity and indigenous wildlife. Enhancing urban green-space maximises indigenous biodiversity and provides conservation value, and can also benefit people by enriching their experience and awareness of nature. Large charismatic species can stimulate awe and interest as emblematic representatives of the wilderness. As the global population becomes ever more urban, this enriches the human experience. The crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) is a large predatory raptor and a threatened species that is increasingly known to inhabit the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’MOSS), within eThekwini municipality, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa. This research investigated the ecology of the crowned eagle in the urban environment and suggests opportunities for enhancing the urban landscape for conservation benefits. Globally, dramatic land use change typical of urbanisation negatively affects biodiversity, especially for top predators. The D’MOSS design faces the challenge of conserving biodiversity in a regional hotspot in the face of rapid urban growth in one of Africa’s major commercial hubs. Understanding habitat use of keystone and apex species provides urban planners with an opportunity to integrate biodiversity in a growing city. Consequently, we investigated habitat use and nest site selection of crowned eagles on various spatial scales within this urban mosaic. Unexpectedly the inter-nest distances were small in this human-dominated landscape. However, breeding sites were not evenly distributed through the landscape and were closely associated with natural forest, while nest trees were most frequently in patches of exotic large riverine Sydney blue gum (Eucalyptus saligna, Smith 1797) within the D’MOSS planning zones. Crowned eagles showed a strong tendency to avoid informal settlement areas, however they were tolerant of proximity to established formal settlements and occupied dwellings. Further, home range and habitat selection were investigated with GPS telemetry, albeit with a limited sample size (n =5) due to the limitations of abundance and dispersion of this apex predator. The 350 km2 urban core study area comprised a matrix of mainly formal settlements (44%), and DMOSS green space areas (29%). The study area was occupied by up to 22 active breeding pairs of crowned eagles. We documented a mean (n = 4) annual home range of 13 km2 (hull100%) containing 6.3 km2 of territory per pair (LKDE HLSCV 95%). These relatively small home ranges for a large eagle included shared territorial boundaries. Rapid replacement of vacancies at breeding sites suggests a saturated population. Habitat selection within the home range, thresholds of critical habitat, exotic trees, and correlation with DMOSS show the importance of pockets of indigenous forest in this urban mosaic landscape. These forests are fragmented and fragmentation increases the available edge habitats and landscape heterogeneity, potentially enhancing resource availability for crowned eagles in a highly modified landscape. The presence of remnant patches of mature Eucalyptus was more preferred than monotypic timber plantation stands. Consequently, continued protection of the D’MOSS system, and a considered approach to management of Eucalyptus are required for the persistence of the crowned eagle in this landscape The study of diet is pivotal in understanding a species, particularly for quantifying a predatory raptors’ economic niche and potential for human-wildlife conflict. In close association with urban development, the local population of crowned eagles has the potential to be a concern to the safety of domestic stock and pets. Time-lapse cameras were positioned at urban nest sites (n = 11) to identify the prey composition during breeding, particularly in regards to taxa with human associations. This was the first use of this technique for this species. The numerical proportion of avian prey, particularly hadeda ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) pulli, was several times greater than any previous diet description. The methodology used and the abundance of hadeda ibis in these urban environments are potential contributing factors. Rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) was the primary prey and where hyrax were unavailable, the diet composition was broader and included more vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus). Domestic stock comprised only 6% of the identifiable prey. Contrary to popular belief, no dogs (Canis familiaris) and few cats (Felis catus) were delivered to the nest by breeding eagles in this study. In situ pet attacks are most frequently attributed to juvenile and immature crowned eagles in winter and spring. Attacks on pets by crowned eagles, especially on small dog breeds, although relatively rare have a substantial influence on human-wildlife conflict and public perceptions. Pet attacks are generally attributed to juvenile and immature crowned eagles during periods of limited resources, particularly winter and during dispersal in the juveniles’ first spring. Negative social perceptions have resulted in persecution (n = 5), one of the main causes of recorded injury and mortality to crowned eagles in the region. Gunshot persecution, electrocution and collisions with anthropogenic structures have the greatest impact on juvenile and immature survival in the region. We provide management recommendations regarding various categories of crowned eagle human-wildlife interactions. Collaboration of wildlife authorities with NGO’s and public stakeholder input creates an environment for successful crowned eagle conservation and management of human-wildlife conflicts. Public awareness is an important aspect to the sustainability of the urban crowned eagle population. This study demonstrates that urban mosaic landscapes can provide conservation benefits for the crowned eagle. The land planning strategies enacted in Durban can guide urban expansion in tropical forest biomes to enhance indigenous biodiversity in urban mosaic landscapes in Africa, and globally.