The Philippine Eagle:
'King of Birds'

By Karen Puracan

From DVRC Journal Fall/Winter 95

Phillipine Eagle pen and ink
Ka Brian, a Phillipine Eagle assuming posture.
Pen and ink by Julie Collier

The Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) is one of the two largest eagles in the world. It ranks second to the Harpy eagle of Central and South America, but only in regards to weight (averaging 8.0 kgs. vs. 9.0 kgs) and smaller feet and legs. It is undoubtedly the tallest, and holds the world record for wingspan in any eagle . . . it can exceed eight feet.

Early in the 1960's, Filipino biologist (Dioscoro) Rabor alerted the world that this magnificent bird was in serious danger of extinction. Eagles were found on only four of the 1,700 islands of the Philippine Archipelago. A handful of birds were reported on Leyte and Samar, with the majority on the islands of Luzor and Mindanao.

From the very beginning of the studies that soon followed, it became clear to all concerned that the major culprit in the rapid decline in numbers was deforestation. When the rainforests that the eagles lived in disappeared, so did the eagles.

Originally 94% of the Philippines was covered in lush tropical rainforests. After World War II, this fell to 40%. Current estimates place the figures at 25% (some say even 18%). This represents a 55% loss from 1950 to 1991 . . . only 41 years. Rainforests continue to be cut at the astonishing rate of 170,000 hectares a year. At this rate, if it continues, experts predict the rainforests will be completely gone by the end of the century. No forests-no eagles.

As bleak as the future appears to be for the Philippine eagle a single but steady ray of hope shines from the city of Davao-on the southern most island of Mindanao.

The Philippine Eagle Foundation Inc. is a non-government, non-profit organization dedicated to saving this majestic bird. It is the acknowledged leader in raptor and wildlife care in the nation. By using the eagle as the focal point of conservation, they draw much needed attention to the plight of Philippine wildlife and it's environment in general.

To quote the mission statement, "P.E.F.I. believes that the fate of the vanishing Philippine eagle, the health of our environment and the quality of Philippine life are inextricably linked. We are therefore committed to promote the survival of the Philippine eagle, the biodiversity it represents, and the sustainable use of our forest resources for future generations to enjoy."

Field operations are divided into two components-field research and community-based resource management. Field research activities include habitat study and assessment, prey counts, nest monitoring in the forests, eagle-sighting verifications and retrieval if necessary. Much remains to be known, many more studies need to be done to effectively manage both the wild and the captive populations.

A unique but highly effective aspect of field operations is the community-based resource management programs. Where an eagle or a pair of eagles is reported, P.E.F.l. organized the community, trains them in proper, modern, more productive methods of agriculture-an alternative to the destructive slash-and-burn method the villagers use. They are also given the means to implement what they have learned. In return, the people are asked to protect the forest and it's resident eagle or pair, and are required to conduct reforestation.

As an added source of motivation, P.E.F.I. offers cash rewards of P1,000.00 (one thousand pesos) for each newly-sighted bird. Another thousand is given when a pair produces an egg. And yet another thousand when that eaglet fledges. (One thousand pesos is almost $35.00 - not much by American standards, but that amount can easily feed an adult for one month with good rice, fish, and fresh vegetables!) Three thousand pesos cash merely for allowing the eagle to be free and safe.

In 1992, the world's first captive-bred Philippine eagle was hatched at the Philippino Eagle Research and Nature Center - located in the mountains outside of Davao city. A perfect female this eaglet was the product of 14 years of learning and developing methods of captive propagation of this species. Her arrival produced a large spark of hope in the staff, and indeed all conservationists around the world. The staff promptly named her "Pag-Asa" - meaning "Hope."

The second eaglet arrived soon after. Also a female, she was named "Pagka-kaisa"-"Unity" - symbolizing the unity of man and nature.

Every breeding season is filled with hope that at least one eaglet will be added to the tiny population. To date, only 64 individuals have been positively identified. Fifteen of these are at the P.E.R.N.C.-nearly 25% of the total population.

Everyday, scores of people, tourists and Filipinos alike, take the tour of the Nature Center. Here one can find several different species of Philippine wildlife including the most endemic and endangered species. Many raptor species are also here. One may see the diminutive but fiesty Philippine serpent eagle, the fierce grey-headed fishing eagle, and the large white-breasted sea eagle-the size of a golden eagle.

As beautiful as these "smaller" eagles are, most visitors are eager to see the biggest of the big-the Philippine eagle, Pag-Asa and Pagkakaisa in particular. Crowds of school children gather in front of their large flight cages and listen to the guide tell them about the importance of the forests and the eagle. Adults and children alike are awe-struck when Pag-Asa sails to the front branch and slaps her seven-foot wings in a show of territoriality. Her crest raised, wings open, and long tail bobbing, she is the cause of many gasps, small shrieks and open-mouthed gaping from the crowds!

To see such a creature at close range-the lovely crest, the strong feet, dagger length talons (of three inches!), the powerfully narrow beak, the heavy brow and piercing stare is truly an unforgettable experience. To see one flying takes one's breath away. It is not difficult to see why Charles Lindbergh called it "Air's Noblest Flier." But perhaps even more fitting is the tagalong name for him-the people of the islands call him "Haring Ibon"-King of Birds.


If you would like more information on how you can help save the Philippine Eagle, please write:
                            The Philippine Eagle Foundation
                            Garnet cor. Diamond St. Marfori Heights
                            Davao City 8000 Philippines
                            Tel: (082) 224-3021
                            Fax: (082) 224-3022


Karen Puracan is a graduate of biology from Silliman University, in Dumaguete City, Philippines. She and her husband Jef were fortunate enough to work for four months with P.E.F.I. Karen studied the feather-molting pattern of the Philippine Eagle, gave educational tours of the facilities, and gave lectures. Jef, learned the basic techniques of falconry, and recently finished training a Philippine Hawk-Eagle. Their work was cut short by their moving to the United States in April 1994.