Practical Actions for Preserving the Main European Population of the Lanner Falcon

Project location: ITALY, Sicily, Central Italy
Project start date: May 2016 - Project end date: October 2017
Project number: 2016-006
Beneficiary: Dipartimento di Scienze e Tecnologie Biologiche, Chimiche e Farmaceutiche – Università di Palermo (STEBICEF)


The Lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus feldeggii) is a rare and threatened diurnal raptor fast declining due to anthropogenic impact. Most of the European population of the feldeggii lives in Italy. In the past century, Sicily was the stronghold of this falcon with some 80-100 pairs, which are now likely reduced to more than half of the former estimate. Concrete conservation actions are needed to halt the drivers of such decline.
Former studies applied to Lanner conservation evidenced a list of problems potentially determining the population decline in Sicily:
Human alteration of steppe-like habitats induces site desertion, and these vacant sites are taken by the more ecologically flexible Peregrine.
Illegal falconry annually steals many juveniles, decreasing population productivity.
Due to the above (a-b) disturbances, high quality productive sites are at high risk of desertion and recruitment into the breeding population is very low. Annual losses cannot be easily replaced and population is turning down.
Practical conservation actions should therefore trigger:
1) A large population monitoring in order to create a database of breeding sites ranked by their quality.
2) Nest guarding camps to limit illegal robberies in order to increase productivity.
3) Satellite tracking of juvenile and adult birds to understand post-fledging dispersal and mortality rates of Lanners.

The project proposed to Nando and Elisa Peretti Foundation (NeEPF) addresses such issues describing in detail the expertise of the applicant, which is the laboratory of Zoogeography and Animal Ecology (www.labzea.it) of the Department STEBICEF at Palermo University, the operational procedures, methodology and time-tables for monitoring population, tagging birds, and carrying on guard activities. Such details explain how the goals of the project will be achieved and on how dissemination of results via scientific articles, conferences, workshops and social media will give large visibility to the project during its implementation.

The project aims to support the conservation of the threatened European subspecies of Lanner falcon (F. b. feldeggii). The projects abstracted here is the natural prosecution of activities carried out by the project “Climate change and animal populations: predictive models for mammals and birds” supported by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (PRIN2010/2011-20108TZKHC). Actually, the PRIN project gives financial resources for maintaining activities until early spring 2016 and the support of NeEPF is asked here until October 2017.
The Lanner is included in Annex I of the 2009/147/EC Bird Directive and is classified as vulnerable, due to its small population and dispersal range. Apart from the large populations found in Sicily, the Lanner range extends to continental Italy, and to Eastern Europe (Balkan area, Greece) and Middle East. Such Eastern European and Middle Eastern populations are largely unexplored and their estimates and range boundaries (intergrading with the neighbour F. b. tanypterus subspecies) are old and unreliable.
The rarity and unfavourable conservation status of the feldeggii population in Italy rouse a National Action plan (Andreotti & Leonardi 2007), still largely left unattended. A more recent investigation (Sarà 2014) suggested that the alteration of traditional agro-ecosystems might enhance interference competition with the Peregrine falcon and limit Lanner occupancy thus reinforcing supposed competitive interactions between the two species; with the increasing Peregrine population displacing the decreasing Lanner population from breeding cliffs.
During the past 2014 and 2015 reproductive seasons, four juvenile Lanners and six juveniles Peregrines were provided with GPS-GSM satellite tags to start collecting data on comparative post-fledging dispersal and survival of these potentially competitive species.
These outcomes coupled with additional evidence of the crucial role of habitat and nest site quality (Amato et al. 2014) shape the first aim of the project, i.e. monitoring the Lanner population and understanding the ecological relationships with the Peregrine.
The second aim of the project regards nest raids to get chicks which are after illegally introduced in the black market of falconry. Every year several pairs that start egg incubation and brood growing suddenly abandon their breeding site. Year after year, such losses regularly occur in the same narrow time slot and in the same sites, being independent from random climatic or environmental conditions. This fact coupled with Cites’ officers intelligence actions, consented annually to confiscate juvenile Lanners and urges to stop illegal falconry heavily affecting the species.
Citizen science is actually increasing as direct involvement of people in biodiversity conservation and the project will plan guard camps in two strategic areas where chick robbery annually occurs. First Degree and Master Degree students of Natural and Biological Sciences are the major expected basin from which to get volunteers. 

The project addressed to the Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation would assure budget for maintaining activities after the end of the PRIN project. The combination of the two projects would allow more than three years of actions continuously put in place for Lanner conservation. The final outcome of such actions would be a better understanding of the population status in a strategic area for preserving the species by monitoring the breeding sites in most of Sicily, the ranking of sites on which concentrate all conservation actions, and the knowledge of movement ecology. Citizen participation in concrete conservation actions (guard camps) will decrease nest vandalism and chick robberies and increase public awareness on the species. Conservation guide-lines will be integrant part of the final outcome and a special issue will cover all the activities of the project.

Project Details

The project will take place mostly in Sicily, but some tagging activities will be done also in Continental Italy (Abrutium, Marche, Molise). Steppe-like areas of eastern and western Sicily will be explored to improve the population monitoring together with sample areas routinely covered in Central Sicily in the last years (Fig.1a and 1b), guard camps will be located in annually raided breeding sites (Fig. 2-4).
Probably the most challenging task will be the coordination with Cites and police officers to get a rapid intervention in the field when a site is at risk of theft. This project is a unique and well balanced mix of research applied to conservation (site monitoring and bird tagging) plus citizen and voluntary involvement in active protection (safeguard camps).
The organization of guard camps during May 2017, after those carried out in May 2015 and 2016, will be important for the direct protection of at least 10 Lanner sites with the potential fledging of 16-20 juveniles at the current breeding success rates of the species. Therefore continue protection for three breeding seasons (2015-17) will increase the protected-until-fledging juveniles in a significant way for sustaining the population of such rare species. The last but not the least is the ‘by-product’ of guard camps prosecuted for three years: i) some volunteers and coordinators become more expert and involved in Lanner protection, ii) citizen awareness about the problem would increase, iii) field activities would become coordinated with Cites’s officers, iv) black falconers would be more discouraged by prolonged controls.
The NeEPF budget is therefore strategic as can become the primer for further long-term Lanner conservation planning in following years (e.g. 2014-2020 LIFE+ program, PRIN, etc).
The second important outcome is the completion of territorial exploration in Sicilian provinces actually unexplored. New information of occupancy, breeding success, and anthropogenic impacts will add to the existing population monitoring to build a complete database of the most important European Lanner population. A full knowledge of the status of Lanner in Sicily is the baseline for further conservation management and planning.
The third important outcome is the completion of comparative satellite tracking of Lanner and Peregrine. The PRIN project until 2016 would have allowed the satellite tracking of at least 16 Lanners and Peregrines. The NeEPF project would grant the satellite tracking of 10 more individuals in 2017. This cumulative sample will be enough to understand the post-fledging dispersal and survival of Lanner by pair-wise comparison between species (Lanner vs Peregrine) and areas (Sicily vs Italy). Satellite tracking in Italy is important to understand the movement ecology of the target species without the constraint of the insular condition.
Satellite tracking will record fine-grain and spatially explicit data to be added to those (breeding success, ringing, occupancy rates, biometry, etc) recorded during routine (2010-2016) population monitoring and the exploration (2017) survey, in order to estimate vital statistics (survival, recruitment, home ranges, etc). The final achievement of satellite tracking and routine population monitoring is the possibility to run demographic modelling by specific software, and to predict population projections and the fate of Lanner in the next future (2020-2040).
The NeEPF grant would allow a year and half of full activity (May 2016 - October 2017), with large territorial coverage. Important dates will be the opening workshop held on October 2016 at the Museum of Zoology of Palermo University, to inform citizens, students, stakeholders and all people potentially involved in active Lanner conservation. Field activities will be run in spring 2017 (May-June). Other important dates will be in September-October 2017 during the XIX Italian Ornithological congress (Turin, Italy) and the IV International Conference on Peregrine (Budapest, Hungary), where dissemination of results will be provided by oral contributions, posters and workshops. Social media communication by a blog site will inform people about data, news and meetings.
 
Conclusion
The project granted by NeEPF supports solid conservation of the threatened Lanner falcon, which is quickly declining by human persecution and habitat degradation in Sicily. Population monitoring and movement ecology surveys in most of the areas where Lanners live will focus on the vital breeding parameters and sites for species preservation. Safeguard camps and public awareness by social media will decrease the heavy annual losses caused by chick stealing, helping population to recover. The NPF project giving continuity to former projects, will avert the danger of regional extinction of one of the most charismatic raptors living in Europe.

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