The critically endangered Philippine eagle, the national bird, may be soaring across mountain ranges not only in Mindanao but also in Luzon and the Visayas, conservationists said Thursday.
Described by American aviator Charles Lindbergh as the world’s “noblest flier,” the Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) has been sighted as far north as Apayao province in the Cordilleras in northern Luzon and “rediscovered” in Leyte in Central Visayas, where it had been thought extinct since the 1980s, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said.
“For the first time, we’re having sightings of the Philippine eagle out of Mindanao… That’s a big leap,” said Perry Ong, a professor at the University of the Philippines’ (UP) Institute of Biology in Diliman, Quezon City.
Only 340 pairs of the species—among the largest raptors in the world—are estimated to be left in the wild based on a 2003 study of the Mindanao eagle population.
Despite the new sightings, environment officials, conservationists and academics remained guarded in making any claims or conclusions about the Philippine eagle’s survival.
“There is no scientific basis to say whether the number of Philippine eagles is rising or falling,” Environment Undersecretary Demetrio Ignacio told a press briefing. “But the fact is there are more eagles out there than we know.”
The Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) was even more cautious, saying the discoveries indicated only the improving capabilities of conservationists in spotting the eagles but not necessarily an increase in their number.
“The fact that we saw these birds doesn’t mean what we saw was a healthy and stable population. We don’t know if they belong to a healthy population or are just the remnants of a healthy population,” said Dennis Salvador, PEF executive director.
“For all we know, these are just one or two remaining pairs,” Salvador said.
Still exciting news
Yet, he said he still considered “very exciting news” the finding of a Philippine eagle nest in Apayao, the “second nest ever found on Luzon island.”
“As far as conservation is concerned, nests are very important because they will allow us to study the species and how it behaves in its territory,” Salvador said.
According to Director Ma. Theresa Mundita Lim of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB), the Philippine eagle was sighted in at least two areas in Apayao—Mt. Lambayo in Barangay (village) Lydia, Pudtol, on Nov. 18, 2012, and Mt. Asi, Baliwanan, in Kabugao on Nov. 26, 2012.
Another sighting was reported at Mt. Gabunan Range in Rogongon, Iligan City, on Oct. 25, 2012.
In March, the Philippine eagle was found again in Upper Marabong Kagbana in Burauen town and other places in Leyte, Lim said.
Surprise in Leyte
The Leyte discoveries were unexpected, Ong said. “Our impression was Leyte is gone… It’s really surprising that there’s an intact forest in Leyte.”
He noted that the Philippine eagle would only thrive in pristine habitats.
Ong said a team of researchers and conservationists was determining whether Philippine eagles were still in Leyte, as part of a continuing study on the viability of reintroducing the species to the province.
“Because there are Philippine eagles in the area, then there might be no more need to reintroduce them,” he said. But he added that reintroducing the raptor in places other than Mindanao remained a good bet, considering the threat of bird flu.
In a statement, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said the new sightings offered “new beacons of hope” for the survival of the species.
The Philippine eagle replaced the maya (black-headed or chestnut munia) as the country’s national bird in 1995.
First discovered on Bonga Island in Samar by John Whitehead in 1896, it was once called by Lindbergh as the world’s noblest flier. It is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and BirdLife International for its diminishing numbers in the wild, mostly due to habitat destruction and poaching.
Through the Philippine Raptors Conservation Program of the PAWB, the DENR has allied with organizations such as the PEF, UP and Haribon Foundation in protecting the remaining population of the Philippine eagle and raising public awareness about it.
The conservation program is implemented in 10 regions nationwide. Survey and monitoring activities document the locations of breeding pairs and nests in the wild.
More than a bird
Lim said the fresh discoveries of the eagle underscored the urgency of preserving the country’s remaining forest habitats. “The Philippine eagle’s presence in the forest speaks of a healthy and sustainable environment,” she said.
As a natural predator, the eagle upholds the ecological balance in the forests by regulating the population of smaller animals, like rodents and snakes, that can destroy agricultural crops and pose danger to humans, she said.
Filipinos should stop looking at the Philippine eagle as just another bird, Ignacio said. The species possesses ecological, sociocultural, economic and political value, he pointed out.
As a charismatic species, the Philippine eagle could serve as a “rallying point for unity” in advancing the conservation of the environment, he added.
The DENR celebrates Philippine Eagle Week from June 4 to 10.