By Henrylito D. Tacio
FIRST time visitors to Davao City, whether local or foreigners, are almost always attracted to the Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos, Calinan, some 30 kilometers northwest and about an hour’s ride from downtown.
The transient home of the endangered Philippine eagle (“Pithecophaga jefferyii”), the center is operated by the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF). “We are solely responsible for preserving, breeding, and caring for the bird that symbolizes the Filipino worldwide,” says Lt. Gen. William A. Hotchkiss, the foundation’s president.
In 1995, then President Fidel V. Ramos declared the Philippine eagle as the country’s national bird. Six years earlier, the PEF came into existence. “By using the Philippine eagle as the flagship for conservation, we are able to address a host of issues associated with the conservation and management of wildlife in the Philippine rainforest,” pointed out Dennis Salvador, the foundation’s executive director.
Since Pag-asa, the first Philippine eagle born in captivity in 1992, the foundation has bred 22 eagles. Currently, the center is home to 36 eagles and many other wildlife species. As such, it has become an eco-tourism venue for visitors who want to see the Philippine eagle up close.
“When you protect the eagle, you’re also protecting the environment,” commented Dr. James Grier, the American wildlife scientist who helped hatched Pag-asa (which means “hope” in the country’s national dialect).
“Pag-asa connotes hope for the continued survival of the Philippine eagle, hope that if people get together for the cause of the Philippine eagle, it shall not be doomed to die,” Salvador says.
“This species is considered one of the largest and most powerful eagles in the world,” Salvador declares. “Unfortunately, it is also one of the world’s rarest and certainly among its most critically endangered vertebrate species.”
In fact, the Philippine eagle is on the watch list of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna treaty, which regulates and prohibits the commercial import of wild animal and plant species, deemed threatened by trade. Experts estimate that there are only 500 pairs remaining in the world today.
Two major threats to the Philippine eagle’s survival are hunting and deforestation. Hotchkiss says that forest cover is crucial to Philippine eagles. Without it, they are unable to find food and build nests to breed, hence the decline in population. Habitat and key prey populations are rapidly disappearing, likewise due to deforestation. Already more than 85 to 90 percent of the original tropical forest in the country disappeared because of legal and especially illegal logging, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
“The eagles no longer have a place to stay because they’re being pushed back by people,” said Domingo Tadena, who has devoted a good part of his life to caring for the endangered species. “The irony is that, man is the squatter in the eagle’s ancestral domain. Why can’t man share the forests with the eagles?”
The hunting and shooting of the Philippine eagle continues to persist, and eagles that have been turned over the PEF in recent years either had gunshot wounds or were trapped illegally in the wild. “Even birds that seemed healthy at the time of acquisition were found to have air gun pellets inside their bodies,” reports Hotchkiss.
“Human persecution continues to e a threat to the viability of the wild eagle population,” deplores Salvador. But he hopes that the Wildlife Act 9147 will help protect the endangered species.
The Philippine eagle is one of the world’s largest and most powerful eagles. It is one of the two largest eagles in the world. It ranks second to the Harpy eagle of Central and South America, but only in regards to weight (averaging 8.0 kilograms vs. 9.0 kilograms) and smaller feet and legs.
An English naturalist, Dr. John Whitehead, first reported this splendid raptor in 1896 on the island of Samar. It 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.
Formerly known as monkey-eating eagle, a Presidential Decree No. changed the name to Philippine eagle 1732 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 is found only in the Philippines. Geographically, it is restricted to the islands of Luzon, Samar, Leyte, and Mindanao. Today, most of the eagles can be found only in the surrounding areas of Mount Apo.
Efforts to save the Philippine eagle was started in 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.
Rabor fought for the recognition of the plight of the Philippine eagle at the world conference of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in Bangkok, Thailand. He succeeded when the IUCN — of which the Philippines is a signatory — was declared the Philippine eagle an endangered species.
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. These include the Administrative Order 235 of August 25, 1970, which prohibited acts that disturbed or harmed the eagle; the Republic Act No. 6147 of November 9, 1970, and its sequel, the Wildlife General Administrative Order No. 1 (Series of 1971), which protected the eagle and provided for nest-site sanctuaries.
“By using the Philippine eagle as the flagship for conservation, we are able to address a host of issues associated with the conservation and management of wildlife in the Philippine rainforest,” Salvador said. “In addition, the eagle provides a powerful symbol for rallying support of the Filipino people.”
By the way, it takes five to seven years for an eaglet to sexually mature, and it lives up to 20 years in the wild. — ###
Saving Philippine eagle from total oblivion
By Henrylito D. Tacio