by Tonji Ramos
Birders were heartbroken and disturbed to hear the news of the violent and untimely death of yet another Philippine Eagle. The victim was a well-known eagle, part of a nesting pair and the mother of a young eaglet. Many birders had witnessed first hand this particular eagle feeding and caring for her chick.
Some news reports made it appear that this was just another random case of poaching. Was this another random killing or is there more to it? WBCP member Tonji Ramos looks deeper into death of the Philippine Eagle and invites you to make your own conclusions.
An encounter with the Philippine Eagle in the wild is always special. There are only an estimated 400 or so individuals remaining in the wild. They are classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, the highest extinction risk level.
We don’t often get to see them in the wild. Last February 3, 2014, Sylvia Ramos, Christian Perez and I had our best encounter ever with a Philippine Eagle. We were on the slopes of Mt. Apo in Davao when an adult female Philippine Eagle flew out from the trees towards us. As she approached us, she banked and gave us a display of her beautiful feathers and her impressive wingspan. I got to take some great photos and film the parents feeding their young white chick. The few minutes we spent there left us with smiles that remained stuck on our faces for months afterwards.
On August 25 I was stunned to read the headline news that this same eagle we photographed was found dead. The initial reports said that it looked like it was shot and that the assailant was unknown. Like everyone else I was shocked that anyone would commit such a senseless act of violence. I read all the news stories online but didn’t find a satisfying answer. There were a lot of holes in the stories. I felt compelled to find out more. I wanted to understand what happened.
The Discovery of the Dead Eagle
I called the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) and got to talk to Jason Ibañez, PEF Research and Conservation division head and he was kind enough to discuss the incident as well as some of the challenges they face in their efforts to conserve the Philippine Eagle. I talked to some of the professional guides as well as some people who were there when the news of the dead eagle broke out.
Based on the mortality report forwarded to me by the Philippine Eagle Foundation and my discussion with Mr. Ibañez, these are the events that occurred:
April 9, 2014 – A GPS tracking device and a radio transmitter were attached to the female Philippine Eagle by the PEF. The foundation receives data from the devices every 10 days or so.
August 11, 2014 – PEF saw that the GPS readings were clustered in a particular area at the base of Mt. Apo . The location was around 10 km in a straight line from the nest site.
August 14, 2014 – PEF assembled a team composed of PEF field investigators Ron Taraya and John Balaba with Lumad forest guards Jojo Errano and Rene Ancia. They went to Barangay Kapatagan, Davao del Sur towards Sitio Mariras of Barangay Sibulan, the community nearest to the last known GPS coordinates. They first interviewed the locals about possible eagle sightings or any reports of an eagle being shot down. This turned out to be negative.
August 15, 2014 – The team searched along the forests above Sitio Mariras. They locked into the faint radio signal. The signal was in mortality mode. When the transmitter on the Eagle is not moving and is stationary, the signal emitted by the radio changes to what they call mortality mode. The signal was eventually tracked and they found the skeletonized carcass of the eagle.
The PEF suspect that the bird had died around 3 weeks prior based on the level of decomposition. The skeleton was complete and did not seem to have been disturbed by any scavengers. The keel bone of the eagle was broken, prompting the investigators to think that it was most likely shot. As of the time I talked to them, they were planning to consult a ballistics expert to determine if a bullet caused the puncture.
History and Background
The Philippine Eagle is an apex predator; they don’t really have enemies in the wild except for humans. Based on the sad experience of PEF a lot of the Philippine Eagles that come to them are shot. PEF gets reports of almost two incidents of eagles shot or hunted every year.
When we visited the eagle site in February 2014, the locals mentioned that Philippine Eagles have been nesting in their mountainside for many years. They were proud that they had provided protection for the eagles all these years. It is hard to determine whether this particular female that was shot is the same female that had been nesting in the location for the past years. Only by banding the birds would we know for sure the identities of each individual bird.
Philippine Eagles have definitely been in the area for years. The earliest reports I have read of eagles in this particular place are from Robert Kennedy in 1972 (Threatened Birds of the Philippines, Collar, Mallari, Tabaranza). It’s also quite possible that there have been different males and females occupying that part of the mountain over the years.
From Obscurity to Celebrity
The eagles used to nest almost unnoticed season after season in relative isolation and obscurity. They were in the background, part of the landscape. The locals did not give them any special attention. But this year the secret nest became big news. The pictures came out in the front page of a national newspaper and were all over the Internet. The location leaked and soon birders from all over came to see the nesting birds. Philippine Eagles are rare and are usually found in rather inaccessible places that require a certain amount of hiking to reach. But this site was not difficult to get to; it was quite accessible, even to older people. There could be just 400 of these birds left in the wild. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for a lot of birders to tick this rarity on their life list. Birders from all over the Philippines and foreign countries visited the eagle site. The Sinabadan Community headed by Datu Hernan Ambe and the Barangay Local Government headed by Captain Rosita Abalayon were the hosts of the birding community during the nesting season.
At first, the locals simply welcomed the visitors. When we saw the eagles in February 2014 they did not charge us any fees. But that soon changed. The fees started at a reasonable rate but steadily got higher and higher. Birders who had never seen the eagle paid the fees. It was a big infusion of money into an economy that never thought the eagles could be a source of income. But not everyone felt they got their share of the bounty. At one point even the Communist insurgent New People’s Army (NPA) wanted a share of the fees. In an area where there are few jobs and little money to be earned the influx of tourists was a windfall. But not everyone was happy with the way the money was distributed.
Things Go Wrong
PEF has a special trap to safely capture the eagles in order to attach tracking devices on them for monitoring and scientific studies. The eagles caught are fitted with two machines, a GPS tracker and a radio transmitter. When the eagle was reported dead, it was also reported that an unknown person destroyed this expensive trap. He left a written warning in the native dialect. The warning when translated read, “ Everyone should benefit, the next to be destroyed will be the eagle.”
A chilling warning and an eagle that was apparently shot, I can only assume that these events are related.
Killing the breeding female when only very few birds are left in the wild is an act of destruction that goes beyond all reason. The whole town knew about the significance of the eagle, so it is clearly not a problem of education. They all knew there were economic benefits; the whole community would lose if the eagle were killed. But yet it was killed. Based on the warning threat this was a problem about money. And maybe the control one individual wanted to wield over the budding eco tourism project.
All these years the tribe peacefully coexisted with the eagle. Then money entered the picture and the community harmony was destroyed. These people who live in the forest edge and the eagles are in contact because there is no more habitat left for the eagle. These eagles live at the edge, vulnerable to men, because they have no other place to go.
In this case eco tourism and the money it brought did not protect our most endangered species. Who could have predicted such a result? Did we put this bird in danger just to get a look or take a great picture? Is it the job of the eagle to uplift an entire tribe? Did the fees we paid set the stage for community strife and jealousy and in the process set up the eagle to be killed? Were promises made that were not fulfilled? Or did the lure of easy money make some people lose their heads and try to get a bigger slice of the pie? Surely we cannot blame the entire tribe for the actions of one individual. Where do we go from here?
Conservation work is a complicated, long-term effort. It seems throwing money into a situation without understanding the community dynamics and addressing all the stakeholder issues was a recipe for disaster. There are no simplistic quick fixes.
In the end we try to pin the blame on a particular person. The money warped person who thinks he did not get his share, so he retaliates by killing the eagle. But unless someone admits to the crime or tags the shooter, the eagle killer may be difficult to find and his twisted logic for killing the bird may never be known for certain. The bird could have been shot a long distance from where it was recovered. An expert told me that eagles have been known to glide far even after being mortally wounded. Hopefully in the coming days the eagle’s GPS data can give us a clue.
The death of the female is just one part of the tragedy. The eaglet left behind is only 7 months old and may not survive without assistance. Philippine Eagles feed their young for one year. It has been noted by some that the eagles are efficient when they hunt in pairs. Now there is only the male left to feed it the eaglet. PEF says that the eaglet has not been fed by the male regularly and is in very real danger of starvation. Philippine Eagle Foundation, the Regional Eagle Watch Team of DENR Region XI and the Lumad forest guards have started a supplemental feeding program, which they hope, will save the juvenile.
Is There Hope?
The Philippine Eagle is a strong symbol for all of us interested in conservation. We know that the Eagle shows us the state of health of our rainforest. If this top predator cannot survive it means the other species below it on the food chain are disappearing and the forest ecosystem is in danger. The Eagle is the rainforest. It is our national bird, the symbol of our country. This tale in the edge of the forest mirrors how easily a single person can destroy the creatures and the ecosystem that make our country so unique.
The news is terrible and the outlook looks grim. But I think it should spur us on to redouble our conservation efforts. It’s true that it only took a single bullet from a single person to destroy what could have been a beautiful story about a Philippine Eagle family raising their young on a mountainside. But it’s also true that one person working to protect the Philippine Eagle can make all the difference in saving a bird, a family, a species, and maybe even a forest. So, submit that trip report to the Records Committee. Take those pictures of birds. Write your notes and observations. Influence people in a positive way. Plant the trees, make the ponds, and create little wilderness areas. Do what you can. I believe the power of one to destroy does not remove the power of one person to save.