Major lead exposure from hunting ammunition in eagles from Sweden
Exposure to lead (Pb) from ammunition in scavenging and raptorial birds has achieved worldwide recognition based on incidences of lethal poisoning, but exposure implies also sublethal levels with potential harmful effects. Background and elevated Pb levels in liver from 116 golden eagles (GE, Aquila chrysaetos) and 200 white-tailed Sea eagles (WTSE, Haliaeetus albicilla) from Sweden 2003–2011 are here examined, with supporting data from a previous WTSE report and eagle owl (EO, Bubu bubo) report. GE and WTSE display seasonal patterns, with no Pb level exceeding a generally accepted threshold for subclinical effects during summer but strongly elevated levels from October. Fledged juveniles show significantly lower levels than all other age classes, but reach levels found in older birds in autumn after the start of hunting seasons. Pb levels in EO (non-scavenger) show no seasonal changes and indicate no influence from ammunition, and are close to levels observed in juvenile eagles before October. In all, 15% WTSE and 7% GE were lethally poisoned. In areas with high-exposure to hunting ammunition, 24% of WTSE showed lethal Pb levels, compared to 7% in both eagle species from low-exposure areas. Lethal poisoning of WTSE remained as frequent after (15%) as before (13%) a partial ban on use of Pb-based shotgun ammunition over shallow waters (2002). Pb levels increased significantly in WTSE 1981–2011, in contrast to other biota from the same period. A significant decrease of Pb in WTSE liver occurred below a threshold at 0.25 μg/g (dry weight), exceeded by 81% of the birds. Trend patterns in Pb isotope ratios lend further support to this estimated cut-off level for environmental background concentrations. Pb from spent ammunition affects a range of scavenging and predatory species. A shift to Pb-free ammunition to save wildlife from unnecessary harm is an important environmental and ethical issue.