Bald eagles slaughtered for black market

Canadian wildlife officers are tracking smugglers in the macabre slaughter and mutilation of 40 bald eagles, which has shaken aboriginal people on Canada’s west coast.

The first dead birds were discovered on February 2 by a woman walking her dog on the reserve of the Burrard Indian band, a forested area across an ocean inlet from Vancouver, in British Columbia.

Julie Bryson-McElwee said her dog led her to the shallow graves of 26 eagles, all of which had their legs and feathers cut off.

On February 21, a Burrard member out walking with her two grandchildren found another 14 mutilated birds. The band called in the police and conservation service.

“We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg here,” warned British Columbia conservation officer Colin Copland. “For every 40 killed, there may have been 40 injured that flew away.”

Eagle feathers and claws are used in sacred ceremonies by North American aboriginals.
When illegally exported across the border to the United States, said Copland, each eagle is worth hundreds of dollars on the black market.

The birds are an endangered species in Canada.

The 395-member Burrard band, also known as the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, has donated 2 000 Canadian dollars (R9 200) toward a reward for the capture of the poacher or poachers. State governments and other agencies have chipped in for 10 000 Canadian dollars (R46 400).

Killing and mutilating eagles “is not part of our belief system, not part of our traditions, it’s not our truth and its not our law”, said band leader Leah George-Wilson. “We would like these individuals caught and prosecuted.”

Maximum Canadian penalties for poaching, trafficking or illegally exporting eagle parts are 200 000 Canadian dollars (R928 000) and five years in jail.

But the threat of punishment does not seem to be a deterrent, and cases of eagle poaching continue to be discovered.

Four years ago, more than 90 mutilated eagles were found on Cowichan Indian band territory on Vancouver Island. A Cowichan band member was convicted and sentenced to 24 months in jail.

“We know there is a black market for eagle feathers and eagle parts,” said George-Wilson. “Many first nations, or tribes as they are called in the US, use eagle feathers and claws in ceremony and on regalia.”

But, she said, aboriginals do not condone poaching.

“People are horrified and outraged and incredibly sad that these eagles were found in our community,” she said.

The giant birds, the US national emblem, have a 2,4m wing span, fierce yellow eyes and a snow-white head, and are strong enough to lift large salmon in their claws. They mate for life, and can live as long as 40 years.

Every November, about 2 500 birds migrate from the north-western US and Canada to this urban metropolis. The flocks gorge on salmon spawning in local rivers until late February, before flying home to nest.

Canadian conservation officers have formed a task force to tackle smuggling of eagle parts to the US.—Sapa-AFP

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