IN its 35th year, the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) has made groundbreaking contributions to conserving the Philippine Eagle over the decades, but despite the efforts, there is still a long way to go from saving the eagles from the brink of extinction.
At the continuous rate of the threats to the eagle -- like poaching, shooting, hunting, and deforestation of its natural habitats -- the national bird endemic to the Philippines may be extinct in the next 50 years, according to Dr. Jayson Ibañez, Director for Research and Conservation of PEF.
Based on Ibañez’s latest research as of May 2022, there are around 300 pairs of Philippine Eagles left in the wild, mostly occupying nesting territories in the forests of Mindanao, the Cordilleras in Luzon, and the provinces of Leyte and Samar in the Visayas.
In Luzon, there are less than a hundred pairs of eagles and around 17 pairs left in Leyte and Samar. The PEF speculates that most of the eagle pairs in the Visayas were wiped out when super typhoon Yolanda hit the region in 2013.
Ibañez said Mindanao is home to most of the monitored Philippine Eagle pairs with about 200 pairs.
“That makes Mindanao a stronghold. We have the most number of Philippine Eagle pairs found so far,” he said, adding that the population is still declining.
Since it was founded in 1970, initially as Mt. Apo Philippine Eagle Research Center, the Philippine Eagle Center (PEC) has cared for a total of 92 eagles that were harmed in varying manners.
Based on the data presented by Ibañez, the most common cause of admission of eagles to the PEC is gunshot which totaled 24 out of the 92 admissions, followed by 18 that were trapped, and 11 that were hand-captured.
Data shows that human activities are the most common cause of admissions wherein six out of every ten eagles are harmed by man-made causes.
“Ang dalawang pinakarason kung bakit nanganganib ang mga Philippine Eagles natin ay ang pamamaril at ang pagsilo o ang trapping (Two main threats to the eagles are shooting and trapping)," Ibañez said. He mentioned some of the 24 had airgun pellets and jolen balls or marbles found in their body.
The rest of the causes include eagles that crash landed at sea, mobbed by crows, poached from the nest, and sold and confiscated. There were also 13 admissions without an identified exact cause of harm.
Since 2008, 16 rehabilitated eagles were released back into the wild. Eight of it are alive, four were shot and killed, two have no updated records, while another two were eventually removed from the wild and kept at the PEC in Malagos, Davao City.
As of current, the Center is housing four eagles that cannot be released back into the wild because of their acquired injuries. Fortunately, the disabled eagles remain healthy and in good welfare because of the care they are receiving.
In fact, disabled eagles have actually contributed to the breeding program of PEF.
“Hindi mo na sila pwede i-release back sa wild, it's either they are already blind or amputee, mga disabled eagles, pero we can still use them for education and also use them for breeding," Ibañez said.
One of Ibañez’s examples is a female eagle with two missing talons and a male eagle with a broken wing that were able to mate and breed through the efforts of the program. Overall, PEF’s breeding program has produced 29 captive-bred eaglets.
Despite these efforts, Ibañez said repopulating the Philippine Eagles will be difficult to achieve in the near future, however, it is also not entirely impossible.
“It's that period in our history where if we don't do anything, we will lose the Philippine Eagle in the next 50 years (but) we have models, we have examples where if we do it properly, it can work. Pero kailangan ng concerted effort from different sectors of the society.”
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the PEF has rescued record-breaking 13 eagles in a span of two years compared to the usual one to two eagles per year pre-pandemic.
According to Ibañez, the increase can be attributed to the economic poverty being experienced by uplanders or members of indigenous peoples (IP) groups who resorted to using the eagles as a means of survival after being affected by the pandemic.
The conservation team also observed that hunting is undeniably part of the culture of uplanders and IPs thus one of the main challenges is providing livelihood support and changing the perspective of the IPs to show them it is more beneficial and important to protect the eagles rather than harming them.
“Rather than looking at yung negatives like uplanders shooting or killing the eagles or doing the kaingin (trapping), we sit down and talk to them and then find a common a solution, know their challenges and often it's basically poverty,” Ibañez said.
Through education and community outreach programs, PEF executive director Dennis Salvador said they are engaging IPs as protectors of the eagles and their forest habitats through the Forest Guard Program.
However, the forest guard program is still a volunteer-based effort wherein the IPs are only given an allowance by the City Government of Davao in exchange for their work.
To address this, Salvador shared that the PEF is working on the accreditation of the forest guard program to give the volunteers proper merit for their important work.
“We're hoping to get community-based forest guards to be a legitimate income source and livelihood program for forest-based communities. As you know, many of these communities are among the poorest of the poor in the country... The forest guard program has helped alleviate some of that need but that is not enough,” he said.
Thus, the accreditation will provide a stable monthly income for the forest guards and offer proper training to equip them with the appropriate skills and tools to further protect the eagles and other wildlife from poaching and the forests from threats of illegal logging.
Currently, the accreditation plan is still being negotiated with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda) and is targeted to be in the works by next year, said Salvador.
In addition, the looming Avian Influenza or bird flu is posing a threat to the Philippine Eagle that could potentially wipe out the population.
Dr. Emilia Lastica-Ternura of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB) College of Veterinary Medicine, Wildlife Management and Medicine, Conservation Medicine, said there is no cure for the bird flu virus, only supportive treatment can be applied.
It cannot be fully determined yet whether the Philippine Eagles can recover once they are infected with bird flu but based on the studies done on other raptor species with bird flu, it could be dangerous and potentially deadly.
“We do not know kasi wala pang na i-infect na Philippine Eagle pero sana. Kasi based on the Newcastle Disease test na ginawa namin, they were able to recover,” Lastica-Ternura said, referring to some eagles at the center that were infected with Newcastle disease but remain healthy and asymptomatic.
Lastica-Ternura added that based on their 2018 study, eagles that are exposed to humans and domestic animals are more prone to catching infections and viruses thus strengthening biosecurity at the PEC and conducting regular testing is crucial.
"It's important also to make sure we study the pathogen, yang virus na yan, para malaman natin yung characteristics niya at yung behavior niya in the future and then study the host, yung Philippine Eagle and other raptors (the virus, for us to know its characteristics and behavior. We should also study its host -- the Philippine Eagle and other raptors),” she said.
Because of this, the PEF is working on transferring the breeding program of Philippine Eagles to a more isolated location in Barangay Toril, Davao City that will ensure their isolation from disease-carrying domestic animals.
According to Director Salvador, they will need an estimated P56 million for the new facility, which has proven to be a challenge given that the foundation is a non-profit and non-government organization relying on limited resources.
"We are barely making it, especially with the pandemic we had to close our gates and ang revenues from our gates represent nearly a third of our operational budget. It's only recently that nag Alert Level 1 tayo and nag open ang facility again to the public but we are still scrambling," Salvador said.For those who want to help in the Philippine Eagle conservation, you may visit https://www.philippineeaglefoundation.org/. ICM