DAVAO CITY, Philippines — The courtship involves a partition screen in an enclosure the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) calls a pairing dome, where two Philippine eagles (Pithecophaga jefferyi) are stationed to adapt to each other.
They’ve been in a mating process for the last two years.
“They’re inching closer to each other,” Lace Viojan, a 26-year-old biologist who has been working at the 8.4-hectare (21-acre) eagle conservation center for two months, gushes as she points at the eagles inside the dome, both perched on different branches of the same tree, and both soaked in the afternoon rain.
Soon, she says, the barriers will be lifted, and if the female shows signs of aggression, the male will be paired with a different female, beginning a mating period that could last for another two years. This is the second attempt at pairing him, says Viojan. The first partner rejected him.
The Philippine eagle, listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is one of the hardest species to breed, says Dennis Joseph Salvador, executive director of the PEF. Efforts to save the species from extinction began as early as1978, through a government-led program that eventually created the PEF in 1987, when government funding ceased after the end of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law.
Eagles reach sexual maturity after six to seven years and only then can they be paired. “An eagle needs at least a decade to sire eaglets,” Salvador says, adding that a female eagle only lays eggs once every two years.
Located in the foothills of Mount Apo, the tallest peak in the country, the eagle center was once home to 32 of the birds, with 28 bred in captivity through natural mating or cooperative artificial insemination. Thirteen eagles were released in the forests of Mindanao and 17 remained in the center’s breeding program. Two were sent to Singapore on June 4 in a 10-year breeding agreement.
A decade of negotiations
Sending the eagles to the Singapore Wildlife Reserve was no easy feat. The process took a full 10 years to accomplish, Salvador says.
“We were concerned with the avian flu when it struck Hong Kong as early as 1997,” he says. Knowing it was only a matter of time before the disease reached the Philippines, Salvador and his team crafted a program with an “interactive menagerie,” which involved moving species to different habitats.
“The intention was not to put all the eggs in one basket,” he says. “There are threats everywhere; if it’s not the flu, then there’s natural calamities and disease outbreaks.”
The PEF was already in talks with conservation facilities in the United States and Germany but this was dampened when the Philippines reported its first avian flu case in 2017, the same year outbreaks hit neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia. Negotiations fell apart, and the eagles were among those blacklisted from entering the United States.
But Singapore was persistent. With a country open to a breeding agreement, the PEF continued the rigorous process of championing the program. It’s not the first time the Philippines has entered into a species loan program, but it was a first for these raptors. Sending off the eagles would require passing through stringent bureaucracy, as the species is legally recognized as the Philippines’ national bird, says Salvador.
The proposal was initially presented, discussed and dissected with the Philippine Eagle Working Group (PEWG) under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), but was shelved each time it reached the desk of successive department secretaries. The program was cast aside for years, Salvador says, until it was brought to the attention of the current department secretary, Roy Cimatu.
“They don’t have deep expertise in raptor conservation, that’s why the discussions took a long time,” he adds. “But our side kept on following up year after year. We kept explaining why this is important. Finally, the secretary [Cimatu] summoned us [PEF] for a briefing.”
Within a year, Singapore and the Philippines had reached a mutually binding renewable loan agreement, and the eagles arrived earlier this month to a welcome parade at the Jurong Bird Park, their new home for the coming decade.
‘Little space’ in the Philippine wild
The PEF, a nonprofit, was created for the “sole purpose” of improving the Philippine eagle’s conservation status from critically endangered. After 32 years, though, these birds of prey remain in the red, with fewer than 400 breeding pairs recorded in the forests of Mindanao, Luzon and Samar-Leyte, the Philippines’ main island groups.
An eagle’s average life span in the center is 30 to 40 years; out in the wild, it can only survive for up to 30 years. The eagles are vulnerable, with humans the biggest threat to their conservation. Development, including the construction of road networks across verdant forest reserves, sport hunting, mining and logging activities contribute to the eagles’ dwindling population.
Through the years of studying Philippine eagles in Samar-Leyte, Viojan says the bird only perches on certain species of dipterocarps, a family of tall tropical hardwood trees, and shy away from exotic trees not endemic to the region.
The PEF runs projects on community reforestation and “rainforestation,” the planting of tree species endemic to a given area. “This means no Luzon tree species in Mindanao forests,” Viojan says.
These endemic trees serve as food sources for the fawns, wild pigs, hornbills, snakes, lemurs, monkeys and wild cats that constitute the common prey of Philippine eagles.
Changing weather patterns have also affected tropical forests, driving the eagles’ prey to change their eating habits and move to different areas. The scarcity of food forces the eagles to take “risky behaviors,” such as encroaching into human habitations to feed on poultry stock.
National awareness of the need to protect the eagles is high — every year, the country celebrates Philippine Eagle Week in June — yet implementation of existing laws against hunters and traffickers suffers from limited manpower and resources.
Shooting incidents are recorded around the country annually. This year, three shooting cases have already been reported with the PEF; most suspects are neither caught nor identified. One man was caught shooting a Philippine eagle in 2011, but the case has yet to be resolved. Killing a Philippine eagle carries a maximum prison sentence of 12 years under the country’s law.
“The reality is, there is little space for them in the wild,” Salvador says. “The government has to invest heavily in the conservation of the eagles in the same way other countries do for their national animals.”
A part of the community
Despite these threats, the PEF continues its conservation education program and focuses on indigenous communities, tapping them as protectors of Philippine eagles.
The Bagobo Tagabawa of Mount Apo are one of the indigenous communities that serve as stewards of this 10,000-hectare (24,700-acre) ancestral forest domain and of the eagles.
“The eagles are part of the community,” says Datu Hernan Ambe, chair of the Sinab’badankag Tugal’lanka Sibulan(Unity of Elders in Sibulan). He cites incidents when the raptors would visit the community and feed on chickens, and the community allowed it to happen.
Unlike other communities that regard the eagles as pests, the Bagobo Tagabawa’s veneration of the eagles is rooted in their founding folklore: a datu (chieftain) called Pawa named his son Banog, after the young eagle he was nursed with. Banog founded the villages of Tudaya, Binaton, Sibulan and Kapatagan.
“The connection between our tribe and the eagles are deep,” Datu Ambe says. “That’s why it’s imbued in us to protect the eagles.”
The tribe has been assigned to monitor a pair of raptors for decades now, constantly monitoring their whereabouts.“They have an inakay[hatchling],” the chief says. “We’re looking after three Philippine eagles now.”
This article by Leilani Chavez was first published on Mongabay.com on 11 June 2019.