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Coming to the Rescue of the Endangered Philippine Eagle

Can captive breeding and community-based conservation save this great raptor?

The Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), endemic to the Philippines and one of the world’s largest and heaviest eagles, continues to face the threat of extinction due to ignorance and deforestation.

philippine EaglePhoto courtesy of HCruz985/Flickr rOne of the world’s largest and heaviest eagles and the only blue-eyed raptor on Earth continues to face the threat of extinction. Only about 400 pairs of these raptors remain in the wild.

“At least one Philippine eagle is killed every year because of shooting,” laments Jayson Ibañez, research and conservation director of the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF), a non-government organization based in Davao City in southern Phillippine. Ibañez says that deforestation due to timber poaching and slash-and-burn farming also significantly endanger this rarest of eagles.

Only an estimated 400 pairs of Philippine eagles remain in the wild, landing the raptor on the “critically endangered” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Preventing the Philippine eagle population from dwindling further remains a tough battle, with pessimists decades ago disparaging its conservation as a “lost cause.”

This formidable challenge gave birth to the Philippine Eagle Center, a volunteer and donor-dependent organization formed by the foundation 30 years ago. The center is dedicated solely to the conservation of the majestic bird with a seven-foot wingspan — and the only blue-eyed raptor on Earth.

The eight-hectare center, on the outskirts of Davao City, made history in 1992 when it successfully hatched Pag-asa, the first captive-bred Philippine eagle.

True to her name, Pag-asa — which means “hope” in Filipino — gave the center's personnel the courage and inspiration to continue pursuing what was once deemed the impossible dream of breeding and hatching Philippine eagles in captivity. The center has successfully bred 28 Philippine eagles since the birth of Pag-asa, who turned 26 in January.

Pag-asa remains a resident of the center where she “symbolizes the breakthrough in Philippine eagle conservation in the country,” says Amira Madrazo, PEF’s communications officer. The raptor wasn’t released to the wild for the center’s worker and the public to be reminded that breeding eagle in captivity is not impossible, Madrazo adds.

Simulating a tropical rain forest environment, the center offers visitors a glimpse of the country’s forest ecosystem. The facility is located at the foothills of Mount Apo, the country’s highest peak.

“Our goal is to help increase the Philippine eagle’s population," says Dennis Joseph Salvador, executive director of the foundation. "We employ natural breeding methods and artificial insemination. The captive-bred eagles are either released to the wild or kept in the center for breeding purposes.” The center currently houses 34 Philippine eagles and 14 other species.

Captive eagles are usually "adopted" by donors — often a corporation or a wealthy individual — to cover upkeep costs, which run about P125,000 (approximately US $2,500) annually, mainly for food supplies.

The carnivorous Philippine eagle, formerly known as the monkey-eating eagle, feeds on monkeys, flying lemurs, palm civets, rats, snakes, bats, and other birds. Philippine eagles can live for 30 to 60 years.

Philippine Eagle at the eagle centerPhoto courtesy of Klaus StiefelThe eight-hectare Philippine Eagle Center, on the outskirts of Davao City, has successfully bred 28 Philippine eagles since in 1992.

Although captive-bred eagles housed at the center are safe and well provided with food, many individuals are released into the wild to multiply where they naturally belong — and where great danger lurks.

“Philippine eagles are still being shot or captured despite the presence of laws protecting them. Very often, they are killed without provocation, and mostly out of fear and ignorance, or worse, just for sport [shooting],” says Ibañez.

Studies show that a pair of Philippine eagle needs at least 7,000 to 13,000 hectares of forest for nesting territory. Ibañez adds: “The forest is the only home for the great Philippine eagle. It is where they obtain food, reproduce and nourish their offspring. Unfortunately, illegal logging and irresponsible use of resources resulted to the disappearance of their forest habitat.”

As part of its efforts to conserve the Philippine eagle, the foundation is employing indigenous peoples as forest guards and providing remote indigenous communities with sustainable livelihood opportunities like handicraft ventures, as well as with health and education services.

According to Ibañez, indigenous peoples who have spent their lives close to the forest are the perfect stewards of both the forest and the eagles because they have an intimate and practical knowledge of wildlife. “Their traditional kinship and culture are also tied with forest lands, so that they have the spiritual, cultural and social reasons to care for their ancestral domains" beyond the material reasons, he says.

The foundation also conducts eagle and forest preservation awareness activities in partnership with schools, local government units, private businesses, and the media.

Amid the deforestation issue and other human threats, the foundation's Philippine eagle conservation efforts are gaining more supporters.

“We have a long list of donors waiting to adopt a Philippine eagle,” says Madrazo, the foundation's communications officer, noting that the raptors are monogamous and females lay only one egg every two years. Eagles reach sexual maturity at 5 (females) to 7 (males) years.

In January 2017, the local government unit of Maitum township in Sarangani province (southern Philippines) turned over a captured juvenile Philippine eagle to the foundation in support of eagle conservation. The eagle was found by a local resident who surrendered her to authorities.

Maitum Mayor Alexander Reganit cites the need to protect the township’s forests, as they serve as home not only to the Philippine eagle but to other wildlife elements as well. “We are happy to know that the rare Philippine eagle lives in our forests. We ought to protect endangered species for our future generations,” says Reganit.

Weighing as much as eight kilograms, the Philippine eagle is considered the top predator of the country's tropical rainforest. The eagle "plays an important role in keeping the ecosystem in balance and provides an umbrella of protection to all other life forms in its territory,” Ibañez explains.

To further drum up support to the raptor’s conservation, the Philippines celebrates Philippine Eagle Week every June.

Indeed, Philippine eagle conservation looks brighter than ever, despite the lingering human threats. Just recently, a philanthropic family donated 23 hectares in Compostella Valley province to the foundation, which plans to create a satellite Philippine eagle breeding facility on the property.

Bong S. Sarmiento
Bong S. Sarmiento is a Filipino journalist based in the southern Philippines.

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