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Text Messages Sent by Roaming Eagles Bankrupt Scientific Study

A steppe eagle named Min spent months out of range before reappearing in Iran and sending hundreds of expensive SMS texts

A steppe eagle with an SMS tracker attached. (I. Karyakin/Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network)
smithsonian.com

When a team of Russian researchers set out to track endangered steppe eagles using a device that sends the birds’ locations via text messages, they knew they would occasionally lose track of the birds when they flew into regions with little or no cellular coverage. Going off the grid isn’t a huge deal; usually when that happens, the messages are sent once the eagles flew back into range, which works great as long as they stay in network. With a solid cellular plan, the study should have been cost effective.

But what they didn’t plan for was Min, a globetrotting steppe eagle whose taste for adventure turned into a big international texting habit.

The Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network team had equipped 13 steppe eagles with SMS text-based tracking devices. Four times a day, the devices would send the coordinates of the eagles so researchers could figure out where they spend their time. However, the birds often spend most of the summer breeding season in regions with little or no cellular coverage, mostly in Kazakhstan. Once they move on, the device sends dozens—or sometimes hundreds—of backlogged tracking messages all at once.

That’s not a problem when the birds send messages on the Kazakh or Russian networks. But when Min reappeared in early October after being out of range, the eagle did so in Iran, where roaming rates are sky-high.

“He disappeared for five months, and all of a sudden here he is, with a very, very heavy phone bill,” Elena Shnayder, a scientist who works for the network, tells Elian Peltier at the New York Times.

Min sent hundreds of text messages at once at about 77 cents each. That price is five times the typical price on the Russian network, wiping out the project's budget in one fell swoop. The budget had already taken a hit when other eagles took off to other places in Central Asia with high roaming charges. According to The Siberian Times, another eagle named Khakas is hanging out near the border of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. One nation has reasonable roaming charges and the other is quite expensive—and Khakas was toeing that line. Other eagles have sent messages from expensive networks in Tajikistan and Pakistan.

According to a blog post, the research team raised about $5,000 in crowdfunding to help cover the costs so they can continue tracking the eagles through the end of the year and into 2020. Peltier reports that the network used by the eagles' text-trackers, Megafon, announced that it would refund several months worth of charges to the project and will now offer special rates for the wayward eagles. In fact, Shnayder says other phone companies have reached out offering free SIM cards for any new eagles the project tracks now that the story has gone viral.

“It’s quite an irony, because when we started the project and asked for discounts, many of them turned us down,” she tells Peltier.

The steppe eagle needs all the help it can get. As Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodo points out, the massive eagle with a 7-foot wingspan spends its breeding season hunting the open deserts, steppes and savannas of Central Asia before dispersing to southern Asia and parts of Africa for the winter. According to the IUCN, there are about 50,000 to 75,000 adult eagles remaining, but they face many threats. Areas in their preferred habitat are being converted to agricultural use and increases in wind turbines and power lines are also taking a toll on the species. Poachers and sport hunters also target the big eagles.

The steppe eagle is not the only raptor species facing problems. According to a recent study in the journal Biological Conservation, 18 percent of the world’s 557 raptor species face extinction and 52 percent have declining populations.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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