Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 109 – The Philippine Eagle

Philippine Eagle Center (PEC) on the outskirts of Davao City

“To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival”
Wendell Berry

Philippine eagleI always think of the mythical Phoenix when I see this beautiful and critically endangered bird. Not in as much as its story has any real bearing on the bird of the mythologies of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, et cetera – though it would be marvellous if numbers could rise anew from the kaingin ashes – but because its stunning, elongated crest feathers, resembling a war-like headdress, its huge wings and its long tail more-or-less fulfil my visual expectations of the legendary, sacred firebird.

But the majestic Philippine eagle is far from mythical, although in some parts it may seem so. Formerly known as the monkey-eating eagle, it was once abundant in the Philippines. Now it exists on only four of the Philippine islands: Luzon in the north, Mindanao in the south (where most of the birds are found) and Leyte in the Eastern Visayas. A recent rare sighting has also been made on Samar, again in the Eastern Visayas, bringing fresh hope to the islanders who had thought the species to be all but extirpated in their locality.

Philippine eagle, Mount Apo, Mindanao by Andre HoffmannIt is easy to see why the Filipinos are so proud of the eagle. This impressive raptor is one of the world’s largest birds of prey. Its seven-foot wingspan and long tail serve it well as a skilful hunter; swooping low with great agility and speed, and manoeuvring gracefully through the dense, tangled foliage of the rainforest. Civets and flying lemurs (which are not true lemurs, incidentally – those are only found in Madagascar) are its first choice of prey, and they are able to catch these with consummate ease. Unfortunately, such skills are no longer used as much as they were, since their prey, along with their habitat, is fast disappearing and they are struggling to survive. Vast tracts of tropical forest on the islands have been cleared and any further forest loss within their range must be prevented if the species is to have any future.

deforestationIncessant, needless deforestation by commercial logging, agriculture, settlement and open-pit mining has hastened the Philippine eagle along the path of extinction. Over ninety percent of its forest habitat has already been destroyed, hampering its chances of survival and making it the most exploited and most endangered avian species on earth.

The Philippine eagle has been aggressively hunted for food, shot as trophies and persecuted by local farmers in the belief their chickens are vulnerable to capture. Juveniles have been poached for zoos and other illegal wildlife trade markets, catering for private and public greed and display. Precious eggs have been stolen and sold for a high price on the black market. And to add to all that, the uncontrolled and widespread use of pesticides has brought about further fatalities amongst the populations and may have had an effect on reproductive output, which, at best, is extremely slow.

Flash flood caused partly by illegal logging near Iligan CityAnd let’s not forget the series of cataclysmic floods and mud slides which have occurred over the past few decades, and which have affected both human and non-human species. Whether or not such ‘natural’ disasters can be totally attributed to deforestation and mining in the islands is debatable. But clearly such actions have contributed enormously to the catastrophic effect, and the environment and its biodiversity has been irretrievably altered by them.

That is not to say, help is not being given. A great many Filipinos are working hard to prevent the loss of their eagle. These birds are endemic to the Philippines and are part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

Phillippine Eagle by Nigel VoadenConservation plans to protect the eagles are already in place and laws have been passed prohibiting hunting and protecting nests. Awareness is being raised and educational lectures are being given by the Philippine Eagle Foundation, in the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao City, Mindanao, to all visitors.

Whereas killing a Philippine eagle carries a relatively severe punishment, deaths are still occurring. Several captive eagles, which had been released back into the wild, have regrettably been found dead. Some had been shot, and, in one case, the cause of death unknown, only the feet were found buried in the ground.

Sadly, the magnificent Philippine eagle is a very easy target for malefactors. Weighing anything up to eighteen pounds, being well over three feet long and having a wingspan of between six and seven feet, this is one very large and conspicuous bird.

Philippine eagle The crown and crest of the bird is a pale caramelly-brown with black flashes. The large bill is blue to grey. The top of the body is covered with long, deep-brown feathers with pale tips and the undersides and chest are creamy-white. The tail is brown with darker bars and a white edge, and the feet are heavy and noticeably yellow. Needless to say, it has extremely powerful talons, perfectly adapted to its own hunting techniques.

Hunting in pairs, they operate as a duo. One bird will act as a decoy, while the other swoops in to attack. They are, in fact, opportunists and will often prey upon whatever they see first, although they do prefer prey living high in the trees, and the double-act can work well when spotting a group of monkeys.

Phillippine eagles on nestPairs seem to be a bit of thing for these birds. They are monogamous and will pair for life. Unless one dies, in which case the surviving eagle will find another mate. These pairs will nest once every two years. The breeding season is very much dependent on the location. When the time for egg laying approaches, the female becomes sickly and refuses food. This can last for up to ten days. At the same time she will drink a lot of water and make a lot of loud calls. Her wings become droopy and she begins to look altogether rather seedy. The name for this condition is “egg lethargy”.

Philippine eagle At this point nest-building begins. A single egg will be laid in the finished nest. There is an incubation period of up to sixty-eight days. Both parents will help with the incubation of the egg, but the female will take most of the day-time shift. Following successful incubation, the newly hatched chick will remain in the nest for up to five and a half months before taking its first flight. It will not leave its parents at this point, and will remain in their care for a further twelve months.

From the time the pair first come together to the time the juveniles leave the parental territory, a period of two years will have lapsed. This illustrates further the Philippine juvenile eagle leaving the nest by Mark Wilsonproblems these eagles are facing in trying to replenish their numbers in the wild.

Sadly, there is also a very high mortality rate amongst young chicks, but for those who do survive, a long life can be expected. Philippine eagles have been recorded as living up to forty-one years in captivity, though, as with other species, their life expectancy in the wild will be less.

A few extra thoughts…
John Whitehead, a British naturalist and explorer, was the first person to collect a specimen of the bird whilst visiting the island of Samar in 1896. After being told by the locals of Samar its diet consisted exclusively of monkeys, he named it first “Pithecophaga”, derived from the Greek “pithecus” meaning ape or monkey and “phagus” meaning eater of. The second name he chose, “jefferyi”, was in honour of his father who had backed all his expeditions.

For decades Pithecophaga jefferyi continued to be commonly known as the monkey-eating eagle. In 1978, during the “Marcos Dynasty”, a presidential proclamation declared by President Ferdinand E. Marcos renamed it the Philippine eagle. In 1995, a further proclamation was issued by President Fidel V. Ramos declaring the Philippine eagle the national bird, automatically replacing its predecessor, the maya.

Current distribution of Philippine eaglesNatural Habitat
Remnant patches of mountainous and lowland forest.
The islands of Luzon, Samar, Leyte and Mindanao. The majority can be found on the island of Mindanao.
What they eat
Flying lemurs, palm civets, flying squirrels, snakes, rats, monkeys and other such small to medium mammals.

Forest destruction and fragmentation, through commercial logging. Mining, more specifically, open-pit mining. Uncontrolled hunting for subsistence food. Capture for zoos and wildlife trade, and accidental capture. Pollution by pesticides is also playing a large role in the decline of the species, and occasionally, electrocution. A slow reproductive cycle is hindering any thoughts of rapid re-population.
Status: Critically Endangered
The Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered. It is also listed on CITES Appendices I and II.  In the Philippines, the species is protected by law. Killing a Philippine eagle carries a twelve year prison sentence. There are thought to be less than five hundred individuals left in the wild.
A major captive breeding programme conducted by the Philippine Eagle Foundation exists at the Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos, where currently thirty-six Philippine eagles are housed, half of which have been bred in the centre. In this centre, positive efforts are made to return the eagles to the wild.

Various protected areas exist throughout the species’ restricted range.

Related Articles
Pagasa: Philippine Eagle bred in captivity turns 22
New protection areas set out for Philippine Eagle
4th Philippine Eagle hatched in Zamboanga del Norte’s forests 
Getting to know the Philippine Eagle through the people
Foreign hunters kill endangered birds in the Philippines
Groups call for Samar forest protection

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 86 – The Martial Eagle

Martial eagle at Masai Mara, Kenya

Photographer: Erik A. Drablos

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority”
E.B. White

The largest of all African eagles, this magnificent raptor, the martial eagle, is losing out fast because of man’s encroachment upon, and degradation of, its habitat.  Not only has the land been cleared, huge modern pylons have been erected and steep-sided reservoirs built within its range.  Both of these have accounted for many untimely deaths of these apex predators.  Although they have drowned in the reservoirs, unable to get out, the pylons, which have electrocuted some of them, have been turned by others  to their advantage.  In the absence of adequate trees, the martial eagle will often choose to build its nest on top of one of these many towering metal structures. Martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) with prey.

But it doesn’t end there, the threats continue.  Martial eagles are persecuted by farmers, who deliberately shoot and trap them (in retaliation for livestock losses) and accidentally poison them.  It seems the larger agricultural enterprises are chiefly responsible for the poisoning, but the smaller farmers can also be a problem. These two threats are the major cause of the current decline. Reduction in prey base may account for the eagles striking at farm stock, but there is a very likely chance this will see an increase as the birds continue to see less and less of their own natural prey. Then, there is the age-old threat of traditional medicine – in this case African muthi or muti. Parts of the martial eagle have been found for sale on stalls in Johannesburg’s Mai Mai market.  These parts, alongside those of endangered species, are sold out in the open, and because this is muthi, a blind eye is turned by the authorities. 

This is a very large eagle, measuring over three feet in length with a wingspan of up to eight feet six inches.  It can weigh up toImmature martial eagle fourteen pounds, making it the fifth heaviest eagle in the world.  Females tend to be larger than males.  The species has remarkably keen eyesight for spotting its prey from a great distance.  Most of its time is spent in flight, and it is capable of achieving heights great enough to hide it from the naked eye.

Martial eagles breed at various times of the year.  They build their nests as high as eighty feet from the ground.  They fashion them out of large sticks which they line with green leaves.  These basin-like structures are usually about six feet in diameter and four feet thick. Newly born martial eagle  the first of its species to be born in captivity After an incubation period of forty-five days, the egg will hatch, but the newborn will be very weak and parentally dependent.  The mother will feed the young one for roughly sixty days or until it starts to tear up its own food.  Full feathers appear after about seventy days.  A young bird will make its first flight at one hundred days.

Natural Habitat
Across its entire range: open woodland and woodland edges, wooded savannah, thorn-bush and wooded hillocks, semi-desert and open savannah with scattered trees.
Sub-Saharan Africa:  from Senegal through the Gambia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Namibia and Botswana to South Africa.
What they eat
Medium to large mammals, birds and reptiles.
Poisoning, electrocution by overhead power lines, drowning in reservoirs, habitat loss, direct persecution for livestock losses, reduction in prey base and pollution.
Status: Vulnerable
The martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable (at high risk of endangerment in the wild).   The species was elevated from Near Threatened in 2012 to Vulnerable in 2013.   There is no true assessment of population numbers available, but, it is estimated there are no more than six hundred pairs left in South Africa.   The range of the martial eagle is extensive, though the birds themselves are rare.   Many more are thought to survive in low-densities in the other locations.

Conservation Actions Proposed by the IUCN:
Introduce programmes combining awareness campaigns and compensation to farmers for stock losses across the species range. Install anti-electrocution devices on electricity pylons.  Implement education and awareness campaigns across its range to reduce the use of poisoned baits.  Carry out regular population monitoring across its range.

Related Articles
Newly-born martial eagle – the first of its species to be born in captivity – Nelspruit News
A young martial eagle attempting to take on a klipspringer  (amusing)
Interview with Alan Kemp about the Martial Eagle in Southern Africa (including the global problem of electrocution)
(American) Bald Eagle Electrocuted Shortly After Leaving the Nest (for the first time)
One South African student’s initiative to save the martial eagle
Durban’s muthi market
Durban’s muthi market attracts a large number of international pharmaceutical companies
Johannesburg’s Mai Mai Market