Philippine Eagles Facing Extinction, Deforestation Main Cause

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao 1 August 2009. Visitors, both foreigners and locals, who come to Davao City for the first time, are almost always attracted to the Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos, Calinan. Some 30 kilometers northwest and about an hour’s ride from downtown Davao, the center is the transient home of the Philippine eagle. Here, a dozen male and female eagles are being induced to breed in captivity.

Pag-asa, the first tropical eagle conceived through artificial insemination, just celebrated his 17th birthday last January 15. The bird was given the name Pag-asa, which 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,” said Dennis Salvador, the executive director of Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF).

PEF manages the eagle center. A private, non-stock organization, it is dedicated to saving the endangered bird. “By using the Philippine eagle as the focal point of conservation, we are, in the process, saving wildlife and their habitat,” said Salvador.

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.

Pag-asa, the first tropical eagle conceived through artificial insemination, celebrated its 17th birthday.

Pag-asa, the first tropical eagle conceived through artificial insemination, celebrated its 17th birthday.

The Philippine eagle is one of the most endangered species in the country. According to Salvador, the reason for this was due to massive deforestation. “Deforestation is terrible,” he pointed out. “The Philippine eagle has become a critically endangered species because the loss of the forest had made it lose its natural habitat.”

Forest covered 57 percent (or 17.1 million hectares) of the total land area of the country in 1934. By 1990, this has been substantially reduced to 6.1 million hectares. Today, only about 800,000 hectares of the remaining area is classified as primary forest.

At the eagle center, visitors can see more than a dozen eagles, some of which were rescued after they were trapped or shot. PEF aims someday to release birds back into its natural habitat. “If time will come that we have enough stocks, where shall we release them” Salvador asked. “And how will the eagles sighted in the wild survive if factors which threaten their lives continue to haunt them?”

The principal causes of deforestation in the Philippines are logging (both legal and illegal), shifting cultivation (locally known as kaingin farming), and forest fires, as well as conversion to agricultural lands and human settlements. About 20 million people currently live in upland areas, where most of the forests are located.

General Charles Lindberg, a well-known aviator, spearheaded a drive to save the bird which he described as “the world’s noblest flier” from 1969 to 1972. Within this time frame, several helpful laws were passed.

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.

Deforestration in Philippines

Deforestration in Philippines

The eagle center has been doing its best to educate the Filipino people as to the importance of the bird and its habitat. Its facility was actually opened to the public in 1988 to raise awareness among those who visit the center. Majority of its visitors are children on school-sponsored field trips.

“Many of these children came from all over Mindanao,” Salvador said. “We use the opportunity in telling them the importance of wildlife conservation. Our mode of dissemination ranges from providing lectures, slide and film presentations, to guide tours.”

A painting of the endangered Philippine Eagle.

A painting of the endangered Philippine Eagle.

Foreigners and adults also visit the center. “Knowing what they are doing and how the birds are faring is one of the highlights of my visit to Davao,” said Melvin O. Uy Matiao, an information technology specialist from Dumaguete.

The Philippine eagle was formerly known as monkey-eating eagle (its generic name, Pithecophaga, comes from the Greek words pithekos or monkey and phagein meaning eater). It was later renamed the Philippine eagle by Presidential Decree No. 1732 in 1978 after it was learned that monkeys comprise an insignificant portion of its diet, which consists mainly of flying lemurs, civet cats, bats, rodents, and snakes.

The 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 wing span of nearly seven feet and a top speed at 80 kilometers per hour, it can carry unsuspecting monkey and carry it off without breaking flight.

Unlike most animals and humans, Philippine eagles are monogamous and bond for life. Once an eagle reaches sexual maturity – at around five years for females and seven years for males – it is bound for life with its mate. They can be seen soaring in pairs in the skies.

The female eagle lays once every two years. The breeding season ranges as early as July to as late as February. During the breeding season, the eagles do aerial courtship and mate in the nest or near it. Female eagle lays only one egg. Both parents alternately incubate the egg for about 60 days, although the female spends more time incubating while the male hunts.

Upon hatching, the eaglet remains in the nest for about five and half months. Once it fledges, the eagle parents will continue to look after its young for as long as 17 to 18 months teaching the young eagle how to fly, hunt, and to survive on its own. The young eagle matures in about six years.

The Philippine eagle is truly a Filipino pride. This is the reason why they have to be protected and saved from disappearance in our land. If only Philippine eagle could speak, these would be his pleading:

“I have watched forests disappear, rivers dry up, floods ravage the soil, droughts spawn uncontrolled fires, hundreds of my forest friends vanish forever and men leave the land because it was no longer productive. I am witness to the earth becoming arid. I know all life will eventually suffer and die if this onslaught continues. I am a story teller, and I want you to listen before it’s too late.”

 Please, listen!