A week-long photo exhibit to celebrate Philippine Eagle Week at SM City North EDSA has attracted many passers by. It is a collection of photographs taken by professional German photographer Klaus Nigge whose work has been published in numerous U.S. and European publications including the National Geographic. The Philippine Eagle or the Haring Ibon is one of the world’s rarest raptors.
According to the Haribon/BirdLife International Red Data Book, it is the top predator of the Philippine archipelago and inherently vulnerable to human activities because of its relatively low population density, relatively slow reproductive rate and its capacity to accumulate chemicals from prey in tissues that further reduces reproductive output. It is particularly susceptible because it is confined to the tropical rainforest, which is slowly being encroached upon by human settlements and human-related activities like logging, kaingin and conversion of the forest to other uses.
Many further factors afflict our national bird. At the time of first discovery, local people reported that the eagle carries off domestic poultry, small pigs, dogs and cats. Thus, records dating from the late 1960s showed that in four years, a total of 15 eagles were shot in Mindanao, clearly a persecution of the bird and a blow to its population. At least 25 birds were known to have been captured or shot in Sierra Madre in Luzon between 1970 to 1991 (Danielsen et.al 1992) and the species was judged to avoid lowland forest in the Sierra Madre in part owing to habitat destruction and in part owing to hunting pressure (Poulsen 1995). Local exploitation for food is another reason for population decline. Philippine eagles were also captured to satisfy international trade particularly for museums and zoos in San Diego, London and in Washington, USA. In the early 1960s, there was considerable concern over the number of eagles being exported for zoo exhibition around the world and this problem was identified as the principal cause of decline.
Philippine eagles are prized trophies and pets. Uncontrolled hunting for “mounting as parlor trophies” was significant in the 1960s, such trophies being status symbols (often bought by nonhunters from hunters) with strong competition to obtain the biggest ever recorded. To kill a bird with one’s own gun, as proof of one’s prowess as a hunter, was considered highly prestigious. According to Rabor (1965), “people are ruthlessly catching them alive and shooting them for trophies, all over Mindanao.” Similarly, the continued capture of nestlings for pets in the private residences of prominent families and for local zoo exhibition “does not help. “ (Rabor 1965, 1968)
The lack of law enforcement of whatever conservation laws and regulations has contributed to the steady decline of the bird’s population. The eagle’s natural enemies like the Rufous Hornbill, Writhed Hornbill and the Large-billed Crow never leave the eagle alone when it alights in their vicinity, however, they only pose any kind of threat to young or weak birds.
Over the last 30 years, measures were taken to protect the bird. In the 1960s, a total prohibition on the export was called for and implemented without success. The International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) spearheaded a campaign to persuade American and European zoos to observe a self-imposed ban on exhibiting the species to which they complied. Funding for research about the species poured in and awareness raising for the bird gained some success with the visit of the celebrated aviator, Charles Lindbergh in 1969, when a bill providing for the protection and conservation of the eagle and aiming to declare it the national bird was prepared.
In the 1970s, the Monkey-eating Eagle Conservation Program was launched which aimed but failed to identify key areas, establish research centers and achieve reserve status for them. In July 1975, trading on the bird was prohibited internationally through the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species. By this time, awareness on the importance of the bird started to gain some ground. In May 1978, then President Marcos changed the bird’s name from Monkey-eating Eagle to Philippine Eagle by PD 1732. In the 1980s, a three-year plan for the eagle was prepared by the ICBP in collaboration with the government but with very little results. Releases to the wild of donated or confiscated birds were done but no results of this were published. A program called “Adopt a Nest” was introduced in the late 1980s by the Philippine Eagle Conservation Program, which provided $150 to local groups who monitored a nest through to fledgling but again, did not produce the expected results.
The 1990s has seen certain changes in the pursuit of the conservation of the Philippine Eagle including the final recognition of Luzon as a target of study and conservation efforts and strengthening of the Philippine Eagle Foundation, Inc. The bird was finally named as the national bird through Presidential Proclamation 615 in July 1995. Some of the forest habitats of the bird have been proclaimed as protected areas while prosecution resulted from the implementation of the law and the bird was bred in captivity successfully. The Philippine Eagle Working Group composed of individuals from the government and private sector was reconstituted and has become more dynamic.
Currently, all these initiatives are in place but more is needed. Although national and international groups are working together to protect this magnificent and majestic bird, each Filipino is responsible in making sure that the Haring Ibon will never be included in the list of extinct species but remains as an lasting symbol of our continued effort to ensure the integrity of our environment for our survival.
by Annabelle Plantilla