Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus


Justification of Red List Category
This species is listed as Vulnerable because it is suspected to have undergone rapid declines during the past three generations (56 years) owing to deliberate and incidental poisoning, habitat loss, reduction in available prey, pollution and collisions with power lines; threats that are likely to continue this trend into the future. Further information on trends across its large range may lead to its uplisting to Endangered in the future.

Population justification
The global population has not been quantified, but was estimated as probably 'in tens of thousands' by Ferguson-Lees and Christie (2001). The population in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland is believed to be c.800 pairs (Taylor 2015); the population in Namibia is estimated at <350 pairs (Simmons 2015)

Trend justification
Declines have taken place across much of this species's range owing to habitat loss, deliberate and incidental poisoning, collisions with power lines, and pollution. Comparison of South African Bird Atlas Project data suggests that the species's range there may have reduced by >50%, and decreases in reporting rates could represent a >40% decrease there (Taylor 2015). The rate of decline between 1987-1993 and 2007-2012 in protected areas in South Africa was 42% over this period, including declines of 54% in Kruger National Park and 45% in the Kalahari National Park (Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) (D. Cloete per R. van Eeden in litt. 2013), although the species is still five times more likely to be seen in protected areas than non-protected areas (Cloete 2013). Rapid declines have almost certainly taken place in Kenya, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, and road counts in Tsavo National Park since the 1970s indicate a 50% decline, although the data have not yet been analysed (S. Thomsett in litt. 2013). The overall rate of decline is difficult to quantify but is suspected to have been rapid or possibly even very rapid over the past three generations (56 years). It is consequently placed in the band 30-49%, but better data may show that declines are even more severe.

Distribution and population

Polemaetus bellicosus has an extensive range across much of sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal and the Gambia east to Ethiopia and north-west Somalia, and south to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. It is generally scarce to uncommon or rare, but is reasonably common in some areas (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001). It is suspected to have undergone declines in much of its range, including west Africa (Thiollay 2006, H. Rainey in litt. 2013), Namibia (C. Brown in litt. 2009), Nigeria (P. Hall in litt. 2009), Kenya (S. Thomsett in litt. 2013) and South Africa (R. van Eeden in litt. 2013).


It inhabits open woodland, wooded savanna, bushy grassland, thornbush and, in southern Africa, more open country and even subdesert, from sea level to 3,000 m but mainly below 1,500 m (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001). The main prey is sizeable mammals, birds and reptiles (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001).


The species suffers from direct persecution (shooting and trapping) by farmers, indirect poisoning (these two threats by far the most important causes of losses), drowning in sheer-walled reservoirs, electrocution on power lines, and habitat alteration and degradation (Global Raptor Information Network 2009). Poisoning is largely carried out by a few large-scale commercial farmers, but is also a problem in tribal small-stock farming communities. Deforestation may be having less of an impact on this species than on other large eagles, as this species can utilise man-made structures for nesting. Large mammal populations in west Africa are highly threatened, and the threats are likely to increase in the future as human populations continue to grow. (H. Rainey in litt. 2013).  Reduction in natural prey may lead to an increase in predation on domestic animals, which may in turn lead to increased persecution by farmers. In some areas, birds may be taken for use in traditional medicine, and parts have been found in muthi markets in Johannesburg (R. Coetzee in litt. 2013). The majority of protected areas in Kenya are too small to hold a single pair (S. Thomsett in litt. 2013), and the size of territory means that birds nesting in protected areas will generally forage far outside them, making them more vulnerable to persecution. In South Africa, the highest declines were observed in areas with the greatest increase in temperature and areas with high densities of power lines, probably due to collisions and electrocutions. In Kruger National Park, higher densities of elephants were related to larger declines in Martial Eagles, probably as a result of a reduction in nesting sites or changes in habitat quality (Cloete 2013, R. van Eeden in litt. 2013). The species can use power pylons as nesting sites, which can lead to power outages, and so create human-wildlife conflict (Jenkins et al. 2013).

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
A system to compensate farmers for stock losses has been initiated in South Africa. The species is listed as Endangered in Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (Simmons 2015, Taylor 2015).

Conservation Actions Proposed
Introduce programmes combining awareness campaigns and compensation to farmers for stock losses across the species's range. Install anti-electrocution devices on electricity pylons. Implement education and awareness campaigns across its range to reduce the use of poisoned baits. Carry out regular population monitoring across its range.


Text account compilers
Symes, A., Westrip, J., Butchart, S., Harding, M., Ekstrom, J.

Cloete, D., Hall, P., Coetzee, R., Rainey, H., Brown, C., van Eeden, R., Thomsett, S.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2020) Species factsheet: Polemaetus bellicosus. Downloaded from on 15/08/2020. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2020) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 15/08/2020.