Harpy Eagles to the Rescue?

How the rainforest’s most powerful raptor — and a new ecotourism venture — could help combat deforestation in the Amazon.

“How many international airports do you think exist across the Amazon?”

The question caught me off-guard. Despite being a Brazilian ecologist, I had spent all my life in the southeastern part of the country, hundreds of miles away from the world’s largest rainforest, and I knew little about Amazonian infrastructure. Also, I was the one who was supposedly running the interview.

photo of harpy eagle
A new ecotourism project in Brazil pays landowners to conserve forest in key harpy eagle habitat. Photo by Beth Wilson.

Regardless, I bit. “Let me think…” There are few large cities across the rainforest, but I thought I should probably account for some extra airports. “Ten to fifteen?”

“Seventy-five.”

“Seventy-five?” I had thought fifteen was an overestimation.

“Yes, 75”, Charles Munn calmly reinforced.

I had heard of Munn a few times already through my years of ecological research, but that call on a February morning was the first time I had spoken with him directly. Munn is a man of solid academic credentials. He has a PhD in ecology and evolution from Princeton University, endless hours of field research in South American forests and several publications in outstanding scientific journals to show for his work. In 2005, however, Munn decided to leave academia behind in favor of a business model he believes can change the conservation game in places like the Brazilian Pantanal and the Amazon rainforest.

At first glance, SouthWild may seem like a regular ecotourism company, offering services that focus on charismatic fauna in wild places such as Brazil, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. But unlike the vast majority of its counterparts, many of SouthWild’s wildlife tours have the word “guaranteed” attached to them, carrying the precise meaning you would encounter in a retail advertisement: You either get to see the animal you want, or you get your money back. And this is an ambitious goal, given that most of the animals listed by the company are very difficult to spot in the wild.

The company started with jaguars, but soon expanded to encompass maned wolves, giant anteaters, golden lion tamarins, cougars, ocelots, and more, in several different locations across South America. Munn’s enterprise in what he calls “Jaguarland”, in Brazil’s Pantanal region, alone has generated more than 1,000 jobs for locals, and helped safeguard a bit of this important ecosystem. As an ornithologist, however, there was one particular bird that he always wanted to work with, but for a long time thought impossible.

“Any ornithologist or birdwatcher is going to be fascinated with harpies, but it is normally considered an unattainable goal to see them regularly,” Munn says. Working in the Amazon in the 1970s and ’80s, Munn had been lucky enough to see the largest eagle in the rainforest — which can have a wingspan of up to seven feet — a few times, but he “just considered it to be an animal that you could never, honestly, see in your leisure time, [or] show it to people and then generate jobs to protect it and its forest.”

All that changed in the early 1990s, when he heard that Victor Emanuel Nature Tours — which Munn affectionately calls “the Rolls Royce of bird tour companies” — had had some successful sightings at nests in Venezuela by working alongside two leading harpy researchers. Munn was already thinking about ecotourism back then, and his conversation with Victor Emanuel, a world-renowned birder, was the beginning of a 20-year-long mission to replicate and perfect a promising conservation model. But, to that end, he would need to find quite a few nests, and that posed a problem.

Harpy eagles are top predators, which means that even in large, well conserved forests, there are few eagles. There are only around 8-15 nests per hundred square miles.To make matters more complicated, a good chunk of their diet consists of monkeys, sloths, and other creatures that live high up in the trees. Naturally, that is where they spend their time and build their nests, which usually stand anywhere from 50 to 150 feet high in the forest canopy, making them difficult to spot and photograph. The species is considered to be near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, but that situation could easily change for the worse: the species has already lost 41 percent of its global distribution since the nineteenth century.

Harpies take a very long time to reach adulthood — from four to six years. Their eggs take about 55 days to hatch, and young eagles remain in the nest for something between five and seven months. Both parents are always around during that stage, making it an optimal time for sighting and photography. From that point on, juvenile harpy eagles will fly around the nest, receiving food from adults less and less often as the months go by, until they finally reach independence at around two-and-a-half to three years of age.

For a long time, Munn’s efforts were frustrated by the sheer difficulty of locating nests he could work with. He approached local conservationists and researchers for help, but the nests they managed to show him were usually too few and far apart to make sightings likely for birdwatchers. At one point, a couple of adults were killed in one of the most promising places he had found. Direct killing by locals — who often fear the predation of their farm animals — is one of the serious problems harpies face in Brazil, and it is one of the things Munn hopes to change by showing people how live eagles can be a source of local wealth.

In December 2016, he finally caught a lucky break, in the form of a young Brazilian conservationist named Everton Miranda. Miranda is a professor at Mato Grosso State University and lead researcher of one of the largest harpy eagle conservation projects in Brazil.. A specialist in predators, he has published several studies on the ecology and conservation of yellow anacondas, jaguars, and harpies. He lives and works in the north of Mato Grosso, a region that is part of the Amazon’s Arc of deforestation, a 190 thousand-square-mile area where agricultural lands constantly advance over the forest. It is in the Arc that the highest rates of deforestation — primarily driven by cattle ranches — occur in the Amazon. It is also there that harpy eagles face the largest threats to their habitat. Today, 93 percent of the species’ global distribution lies within the Amazon, and losing this habitat would also mean losing the eagle in the wild.

Miranda’s day-to-day activities include searching for nests — often, by rewarding small farmers and Brazil nut collectors for pointing him towards one — and placing automatic cameras nearby to monitor the eagles’ activities. He documents what they are eating and how their young are faring. But part of the initial resources for his project came from The Rufford Foundation, a UK-based trust that funds nature conservation projects, and they were interested in more than just data.

“When I submitted my first project to Rufford, they specified that its objectives should go beyond research,” recalls Miranda. “I had to find a way to deliver something more than scientific papers on harpy conservation.” As it happens, he knew about Munn’s enterprise, Jaguarland, and similar initiatives designed to protect animals and change how ranchers perceived jaguars; eco-tourism immediately came to mind.

In Miranda’s view, three things would be vital to build a model of ecotourism that could really help harpy conservation. First, landowners needed to be financially rewarded for keeping parts of their properties protected. Second, part of the funds raised by the enterprise should be used to drive research and direct conservation action. And third, local people had to be employed in the initiative, because that would be a powerful way to involve them directly in harpy conservation, and prove to them that a standing forest could provide them with a living wage.

“People usually see the forest as an economically sterile land,” says Miranda, “and this stands in the way of its conservation.” In other words, the business model should assure that every party — eagles, landowners, and the local population — would be better off. This is precisely the kind of positive sum game that Munn is used to playing.

When the two men first met, Miranda had around six nests on his radar. Today, that number is closing in on 30, nearly all of them located on private land. The harpy initiative is still in its infancy, employing three full-time local workers (and occasionally another half-dozen part-time employees), with the prospect of receiving 75 guests in 2019. Each landowner receives about 80 Brazilian reais (around US $20) per day for every visitor brought to their land, without having to provide any services or resources themselves. Visitors on a SouthWild tour ascend up mobile watchtowers to safely observe the eagles at eye level, often spending several hours in search of the perfect photograph, and staying for a few days at local lodges.

The tour already bears the “guaranteed” stamp on SouthWild’s website. It’s an assurance that Munn can make because of the large number of nests they track, the constant monitoring of each nest, and the long time adults remain in the same area while their young develop. Munn explains that given these conditions, it is highly unlikely that a visitor will miss out on an opportunity to contemplate one of Amazon’s largest eagles, even without the use of baits or similar techniques to attract the birds.

Nowhere is a conservation effort like this so desperately needed as it is in the Arc of Deforestation. However, even if the harpy branch of SouthWild keeps growing until it reaches Jaguarland proportions, a single initiative will not be sufficient to safeguard the future of harpies and other rainforest inhabitants. The reason Munn is so eager to talk about the details of his business is because he actively hopes it will be reproduced. “It is a conservation model that can work for the Amazon,” he firmly believes. “It is not rocket science. Many people can replicate it.”

Which brings us back around to the 75 airports scattered across the Amazon.

“You have to be able to get to a lodge the same day your commercial flight lands at an airport,” Munn explained to me, as I asked him about the viability of this kind of enterprise in such a remote area. “You have to be able to get to it in under five hours.” With so many points of access throughout the forest, there is a vast area that could be explored to the benefit not only of local economies, but of the hundreds of species whose survival is threatened by the callous advance of millions of cattle.

At the heart of the problem that created the Arc of Deforestation, is that many people are trying to make a living in the region, but people that see the forest not as a source of wealth, or as a key part of a sustainable future, but as something that stands in the way of a better life. Establishment of national parks, environmental legislation, and wildlife management will continue to be indispensable to conservation, but perhaps one of the most important things we can do for the Amazon now is to try and change people’s minds about the value — both economic and otherwise — of safeguarding the forest.

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