IT WAS a short walk by normal standards, less than an hour up. Except that the forest floor was teeming with leeches.
Unprepared for that, I was in trekking shorts and sockless Sanuks. It made the trek literally creepy, I was trekking like some pro on a trail jog.
I did survive the walk up and back, with not one single leech attaching itself on me. But that was because I was walking so fast, I could feel my hipbones groaning in protest. In a race against leeches, even my unprepared state had enough adrenaline to keep me going. Rein Navarro of the Philippine Foundation for the Environment (PFE) was not as quick on her feet, she got five plump black leeches feasting on her legs.
The trek up a slope at sitio Cinchona in barangay Kaatuan, Lantapan, Bukidnon was to get my first-ever glimpse of a Philippine eagle chick in the wild.
It’s a two-month old chick, Philippine Eagle Foundation’s Jayson Ibanez told us.
It was on a nest on the high branches of an igem tree (Dacuycarpus imbricatus) and was borne during the 2012-2013 breeding season. It was laid sometime in October 2012 and hatched in December.
The last time a chick was hatched there by a natural pair in the forest was in the 2010-2011 breeding season.
The PEF monitors all nests in the wild, and for this season, there are just two chicks, the other one is in barangay Tubaon in Tarragona, Davao Oriental.
“But three more are scheduled to breed this season: Cabuaya in Mati, Davao Oriental, Guilang-guilang in Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon, and Hagpa in Impasug-ong, Bukidnon,” PEF executive director Dennis Joseph I. Salvador said.
The Kitanglad Mountain Range has the most number of the endangered Philippine eagles in the wild.
“There are about 30 nests across Mindanao island. Communities basically monitor these sites and report once these are active. Our biologists and technicians then visit these sites to verify and provide rewards to the nest finder/guardian and the host community,” Salvador said.
PEF field staff members stay for weeks on end inside forests to observe and track down the eagles as they keep their inventory year in and year out.
It’s a tough job that they have embarked on, which becomes frustrating when yet another eagle is shot down.
Thus, forgiveness is not easy for one Bryan Balaon, the first person ever convicted for killing and eating a Philippine eagle.
Balaon is now serving, what PEF sees as a mere slap on the hand, a six-month to one year sentence at the Bukidnon Provincial Jail in Malaybalay City in Bukidnon.
Balaon’s seeming remorse, while talking to two journalists, was brushed off.
Asked if he now regrets what he did and what he intends to do once he’s freed, Balaon said, he’s willing to help spread the word about the importance of saving the Philippine eagle.
A Talaandig from Impasug-ong in Bukidnon, he insists he was never aware that Philippine eagles are endangered and that it’s against the law to kill them.
“Ang sulti dako daw nga langgam, dili man ‘to dako (People say the Philippine eagle is a huge bird, it wasn’t big),” he said, although he could not describe what he deems as a big bird.
Bala-on was convicted for shooting, cooking, and eating a Philippine eagle, a critically endangered species and the Philippine’s national bird, on July 10, 2008.
Killing a critically endangered species is punishable by six years and one day to 12 years and/or a fine of P100,000 to P1 million as provided for by the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act (Republic Act 9147).
It wasn’t just any eagle in the wild that Balaon killed. He killed Kagsabua.
Kagsabua was a juvenile when brought to the PEF Center in Davao City for treatment of gunshot wounds in September 2006.
It was released back to the wild on Mt. Kitanglad in Sumilao, Bukidnon in March 2008. It was strapped with a radio and satellite transmitter and a green leg band marked BW.
Four months later, however, PEF field biologist Giovanne Tampos reported that he was no longer receiving signals from Kagsabua’s transmitter. That was on July 10, 2008.
The PEF searched the area where the last signals were picked up in Ipasug-ong, Bukidnon and found nape feathers of an eagle near Mapolo Creek at the boundary of sitios Intavas and Lupiagan. They later unearthed the radio transmitter and antennae. Another PEF team unearthed the legs, one of which had the leg band marked BW.
Balaon at first admitted that he killed and cooked the eagle when confronted by Datu Lintikan. But he recanted and chose to face trial.
Asked for his comment on Balaon’s statement that he’s willing to help educate other residents about the importance of the Philippine eagle, Salvador said, he has been given the chance before the four-year court battle that cost the PEF so much, whatever he says now will not make his crime any lighter.
“We did ask him to do this and perform community service before the trial began if he pleads guilty and spare us the trial. But he refused and said he'd fight the charges. He probably thought he could lie his way through - so let's have him reflect the error of his ways in jail,” Salvador said.
Conserving the Philippine eagle is not just about conserving one species. Rather, it is conserving a whole ecosystem and preserving biodiversity.
“The PEF firmly believes that the fate of our vanishing Philippine Eagle, the health of our environment, and the quality of Philippine life are inextricably linked,” PEF says in its mission statement.
The current population status of the bird is not known as past census since the bird was discovered in 1896 has been at best crude, PEF says in its website.
This is because the eagle habitat is in the deep rainforests.
“However, base on systemic surveys in the last decade, breeding density estimate suggest there are about 200 pairs in Mindanao. Using the same estimates, about 300 pairs could be present in the other islands where it has been found,” the PEF added.
A pair needs 7,000-13,000 hectares of forest to survive and breed.
There is no longer that much contiguous forested lands even in Mindanao, because mountains are already denuded by mining, logging, agricultural plantations, and human settlements.
But people themselves need lush forests to ensure the sustainability of their water and food sources, and to ensure that there is air pure enough to maintain good health; thus, the campaign to save the eagles is in fact a campaign to save the people.