Text and Photo by Henrylito D. Tacio
If the current rate of deforestation in the country continues, the Philippine eagles may no longer have a natural habitat to live on. After all, a pair of the critically endangered bird needs at least 7,000 to 13,000 hectares of forest as a nesting territory.
“Deforestation is terrible,” deplores Dennis Salvador, the executive director of Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF). “The Philippine eagle has become a critically endangered species because the loss of the forest had made it lose its natural habitat.”
“The forest is their only home,” PEF said in a statement. “It is where they obtain their food, and the place where they reproduce and nourish their offspring. The forests are becoming increasingly unhealthy and unable to satisfy the needs of the eagles for food and shelter.”
In a study conducted by the regional office of the Food and Agriculture Organization, it was found the Philippines lost about 270,000 hectares of forest a year between 2000 and 2005.
Assistant Secretary Marlo Mendoza of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reported recently that the country has 8 million hectares of unproductive land, primarily denuded, with only 7.2 million hectares regarded as forest cover.
According to PEF, the natural habitat of the Philippine eagle is mainly dipterocarp lowland forest where it is known to nest almost exclusively ranging from 100 to 1,000 meters above sea level. Estimates show only 500 pairs remaining in the wild.
Aside from deforestation, another threat to the survival of the country’s bird icon is hunting. “Philippine eagles are still hunted down despite the presence of laws protecting the bird,” the PEF said. “Very often, they are killed without provocation, and mostly out of fear and ignorance, or worse, just for sport.”
The PEF firmly believes that the fate of the Philippine eagle, the health of the country’s environment, and the quality of life of Filipinos are inextricably linked. “Since the Philippine eagle occupies the highest position in the food chain of the forest ecosystem, it is an effective gauge of the environment’s health and its conservation,” it explained.
“By using the Philippine eagle as the focal point of conservation,” Salvador adds, “we can create an umbrella of protection for all the unique life forms that dwell in the Philippine forest.”
The Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos, Baguio District in Davao City, is PEF’s base for the care and propagation of the endangered bird species. Primarily a research facility, the center is also a vital education venue and a key tourist attraction where visitors are given a glimpse of the country’s forest ecosystem.
Nestled at the rolling foothills of Mount Apo, the country’s highest peak, the center is not only home to Philippine eagles but other birds as well and plant species that are unique to the Philippines. There are also brown deers, monkeys, wild pigs, and a huge crocodile. Most of these wildlife species are placed in respective cages.
Thirty-two Philippine eagles have been raised as part of PEF’s breeding program. Most of them are being induced to breed in captivity. Pag-asa is one of its noted attractions; it made the headline around the world as the first tropical eagle conceived through artificial insemination. Pag-asa is the Tagalog word for “hope.”
“Pag-asa connotes hope for the continued survival of the Philippine eagle, hope that if people get together for the cause of the eagle, it shall not be doomed to die,” Salvador says.
The Philippines is among the world’s seventeen “megadiversity” countries, which together account for some 60-70 of total global biodiversity. The World Conservation Union has identified the country as one of the most endangered of the world’s biodiversity “hotspots” – threatened areas with very high levels of biodiversity.
The Philippine eagle is considered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as endangered. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora listed the bird under Category I, meaning the trade of species and subspecies is “strictly prohibited except for educational, scientific research or study purposes.”
The Philippine eagle (known in the science world as Pitchecophaga jefferyi) is the second largest eagle in the world (after the Harpy eagle of Central and South America). It was collected in the country as early as 1703, but it was until in 1896 that Dr. John Whitehead, an English naturalist, “discovered” the splendid raptor on the island of Samar.
Formerly known as monkey-eating eagle, the name was changed in 1978 after it was learned that monkeys comprise an insignificant portion of its diet, which consists mainly of flying lemurs, squirrels, snakes, civets, hornbills, rodents, and bats.
The Philippine eagle stands a meter high, weighs anything from four to seven kilograms and has a grip three times the strength of the strongest man on earth. With a wingspan of nearly seven feet and a top speed of 80 kilometers per hour, it can gracefully swoop down on an unsuspecting monkey and carry it off without breaking flight.
This giant raptor is endemic to the Philippines. Geographically, it is restricted to the islands of Luzon, Samar, Leyte, and Mindanao. These islands were once connected to each other during the mid-Pleistocene when the sea level was lower by 120 to 160 meters than at present.
Efforts to save the Philippine eagle was started way back 1965 by Jesus A. Alvarez, then director of the autonomous Parks and Wildlife Office, and Dioscoro S. Rabor, another founding father of Philippine conservation efforts.
From 1969 to 1972, America’s famed aviator Charles Lindbergh spearheaded a drive to save the bird, which he called as the “noblest flier.” Within this time frame, several helpful laws were passed.
In 1973, Peace Corps volunteer Robert S. Kennedy joined the Smithsonian-Peace Corps Environmental Program for the Philippines and came to assist in saving the Philippine eagle. Two other Peace Corps volunteers, Vaughn and Lorenne Rundquist, followed suit. Together, they established the Films and Research for an Endangered Environment (Free).
During the time of the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos, he declared the bird – which is bigger than the American Bald eagle – as the national bird. This brought the bird to the top of the priority list of Philippine wildlife conservation efforts. “If the national bird dies, so will all the country’s efforts at conserving its natural resources and treasures,” Ramos said at that time.
Will the Philippine eagle go to the same way as the extinct dodo? “If nothing drastic is done about deforestation of the remaining woodland areas in Mindanao, within the lifetime of the present generation, the heritage of the national bird of the Philippines will only be seen on DVD, or at best tethered to a stump of a dead tree in the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao,” contends the Netherlands ambassador to the Philippines Robert G. Brinks.