Rescues of rare Philippine eagles soar during the pandemic

Its numbers have been steadily falling for the past fifty years due to human persecution, logging of the nation’s old-growth forests, and the conversion of lowland forests to farms and human settlements. But COVID-19 has added even more pressure. Before the pandemic, only one or two eagles a year were rescued by authorities.

Between April 2020 and March 2021, however, the nonprofit Philippine Eagle Foundation, a rescue, rehabilitation, and research foundation in Davao City, rescued 10–a historic high. “Rather than the usual narrative of ‘nature is healing,’ we think it’s a different case for the Philippine eagles,” said Jayson Ibanez, research and conservation director of the foundation. “We believe there is an increase in the frequency of intrusion in the forests.”

An icon in the crosshairs

The Philippines has had one of the world’s longest coronavirus lockdowns. With the economy slumping, conservationists have seen an uptick in the hunting of protected animals for food and illegal trade.

When ecotourism halted, rangers lost their jobs and conservation areas were left unprotected from poachers and other incursions. Of the 10 eagles rescued by the Philippine Eagle Foundation, two had been caught in traps intended for game. (Philippine eagles often ground stalk prey such as palm civets and snakes, making them vulnerable to such traps.) Two had been captured by farmers after the raptors had killed their piglets, chickens, pet dogs, and cats; two had been wounded with improvised hunting rifles; three had been found in the forest, weakened by starvation; and a two-month-old chick had been rescued from a farmer hoping to sell it. As an apex predator, the Philippine eagle serves as a barometer of forest health: The existence of a breeding pair is testament to a healthy ecosystem, as each couple needs some 17,300 acres of forest to survive.

Weighing between 10 and 18 pounds, with a wingspan that averages 6.5 feet, the Philippine eagle is among the world’s largest birds. It’s found on only four of the archipelago’s 7,641 islands, mostly in Mindanao. Thanks to public awareness campaigns and a national wildlife conservation law that imposes jail time and steep fines for killing protected animals, the Philippine eagle is no longer actively hunted as a trophy. “But poverty and lack of better opportunities in the uplands can still drive some to see these eagles as food or as a novelty and, therefore, an opportunity to earn money,” Ibanez said. (Here’s how the Philippines is saving some of the world’s rarest animals.)

Young eagles are particularly at risk, according to Juan Carlos Gonzalez, curator for birds at the Museum of Natural History at the University of the Philippines, Los Banos, as they try to identify new territory with towering treetops for their nests and sufficient prey. Birds that settle in degraded areas, for lack of anything better, often encounter livestock and people–meetings that usually end badly for the birds.

A story that brings hope

The environment department quickly turned over Mahumoc’s rescued eagle to the Philippine Eagle Foundation. Staff named him Rajah Cabungsuan, after the village where he’d been trapped, and they estimated he was about five years old.

Over eight months, Rajah Cabungsuan stayed at the Philippine Eagle Centre at the foothills of Mount Apo.

Veterinarians ensured that he was free from injuries and diseases, and keepers kept him happy and healthy as he regained his strength.