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Amazon landscape, home of the harpy eagle
Amazon, Colombia

In Search of Colombia's Harpy Eagle, an Emblematic Species Vulnerable to Extinction

The noise of crushed accompanies the footsteps. Whistling, bird song and insects can be heard. From time to time a clearing of light appears on the edge of the narrow path. It is August 12, 2023, and it will soon be 3 in the afternoon. Outside, the day is cool. Inside the forest, the humidity is intense. It has rained in the last few hours; drops of water are falling from the canopy and some puddles are visible on the ground.

Fifteen minutes after starting the tour through the Santuario Mayor Natural Reserve, the people walking stop. The eyes of guide Adriano Ortiz Ramos — who seconds before were wandering from branch to branch — focus on a stunted cedar tree where a feathered snowflake rests. The guide stretches his neck as far as it will go, focuses all his attention and says: " There is Macarena!"

It is a harpy eagle chick, the reason for the expedition, named as a tribute to the town where it was born. It is 10 months old, its body is white as snow and its wings exude earth tones. This species is also known as the churuquera eagle because part of its diet is churuco monkeys. Its scientific name is Harpia harpyja.

Macarena flies to a tree known as vanillo, and the tour participants duck around huge palm fronds to spot it again, trying not to make noise in the dense leaf litter.

Miguel Ángel, son of the guide, spies the chick and everyone runs to look. Meanwhile, Flor, Ortiz Ramos's wife, appears with something in her hands. She points to a leaf and explains: this is excrement from yesterday, here are some food scraps and a feather. From above where it has perched, Macarena twists its neck and looks at them with curiosity.

harpy eagle
Harpy chick in the Greater Sanctuary / Credit: Adriano Ortiz Ramos.

The harpy eagle is an emblematic bird of the tropical forest, known as the "queen of birds" not only for its size and beauty but also because it is the largest in the western hemisphere and the strongest raptor in the world.

Its importance also lies in the fact that it is a top predator: It is at the top of the food chain and its presence indicates the good health of ecosystems.

The eagle controls populations of mammals such as monkeys, porcupines and large rodents, reptiles such as snakes, and other smaller birds. If it did not exist, an imbalance could be generated by the increase of this fauna.

A strategic region

The Greater Sanctuary is a private natural reserve of 160 hectares located in the municipality of La Macarena, Meta, at 233 meters high and at a distance of 225 kilometers from Villavicencio, capital of the department. It is a strategic area due to its high biodiversity and because it is a transition zone between the Andes, the Orinoquia and the Colombian Amazon.

It is known worldwide for having the so-called most beautiful river in the world, Caño Cristales, which has shifted its economy towards ecotourism, largely international. Also, because in 1999 it was part of the so-called clearance or detente zone. In recent years, the region has awakened an ecological spirit thanks to its biodiversity and the economy it has generated. In 2018 it received 18,000 visitors. Currently, the creation of sites for bird watching and the development of green projects is taking flight. It is one of the few municipalities in the country that already has its own publication, the La Macarena Bird Guide.

Adriano Ortiz Ramos / Credit: RPV.

The Greater Sanctuary is accessed by road from Villavicencio or through Neiva, Florencia-San Vicente del Caguán, and by air, from Bogotá and Medellín on two weekly flights and daily flights from Villavicencio. La Macarena has 27,000 inhabitants, of which 4,000 are in urban areas. The area is part of the Sierra de La Macarena and the La Macarena Special Management Area (AMEM), which integrates the Macarena, Tinigua national parks and part of Sumapaz and Los Picachos, the latter being the most impacted by deforestation in the country.

A feather / Credit: RPV.

The return of fauna

“It is a miracle of nature that the eagle is there, it is the only part in the entire region where it has been seen, this is part of the natural restoration process that has been going on for 13 years in the area,” explains the former director of La Macarena National Natural Park, Fernando Sacristán.

He applauds the community conservation process because he believes that at some point it can help the subsistence of several families and help the town focus more and more on being a go-to destination for bird watching. The municipality won two recent Global Big Days with more than 727 different species of birds seen on the same day. Sacristán assures that along with the eagle, mammals such as deer, palm honey bears, pumas and the rarely seen black panther have returned to Caño Cristales.

The presence of the eagle was detected after 12 years of not seeing it in the forest, Ortiz Ramos recalls.

Without much hope, in September of last year they organized a search with the owners of the property, Mónica López and Juan José Casas-Franco, two conservationists.

That day they were surprised when Miguel Ángel, Ortiz Ramos's son, found it and not only was it with a mate, but there was a baby in the nest.

Since then, the birds have been monitored and the owners of the reserve have established a series of control measures for their care, with the help of neighbors from the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Together they want to demonstrate the benefits of conserving the fauna and teach the people of Macarena that it is necessary and possible to coexist with the species.

The 43-year-old guide says that when he was a child and lived with his family in the countryside, everything was forest. "Eagles could be seen on the side of the road. Today it's grasslands with cattle ranching and roads crammed with cars and motorcycles. There were many eagles and we had the mentality that they ate the chickens and had to kill them. That is not the case. We see that as long as they have a forest and food, they don't look for food on the farms. I am grateful to the neighbors who help take care of them because they understand that the eagle is not a threat, on the contrary, it is an ally of the community.

In this sense, he thinks that the young people of the town should prepare themselves because citizens are needed to help conserve these species because that is the future of the region.

Bird monitoring

For Ortiz Ramos, the eagle represents the force of nature: “When it reaches a tree, all the animals, including the monkeys, begin to howl and the others become nervous. They are afraid of it, just as the jaguar is a terror on the ground, the eagle is a terror in the air.”

The family guarding the bird already knows the mountain perfectly and has learned to resist the ferocious mosquitoes with "chimú," a traditional remedy made with tobacco extract and alcohol. They have learned to imitate the murmurs of the forest, the sounds of the birds, to recognize animal tracks and to collect samples.

Before leaving home, in their backpack they pack a camera, the natural insecticide, the "preparada" or lemonade with cane sugar, the oilcloths, some "galguerías" or snacks and the "fiambre" — lunch wrapped in banana leaves — to support the day.

man walking in the forest
Monitoring the eagle / Credit: Adriano Ortiz Ramos. 

Then, they turn on the motorcycles and, along an unpaved road, they head to the "mountain," as they call the 160-hectare reserve that has been in the process of restoration since it was acquired. It is a relict that stands out in the middle of the extensive livestock savanna.

Ortiz Ramos and his family say the bird has changed their lives. Now they are constantly learning. They have met many nature-loving people such as the biologists from the I Am a Harpy Amazon Project, with whom they have trained on different topics, for example, how to carry out monitoring without disturbing the animal. Through direct observation they have understood how birds build the nest, how they hunt, at what times the mother provides food to the chick and many more secrets of the eagle and the forest.

They have taken many people to observe the bird: children of the school, neighbors of the village, the youth group of student bird watchers and bird guides trained by the teacher-birder Henry Abaunza at the municipal school, tourists and experts like Fernando Ayerbe, author of bird guides of La Macarena and Colombia.

This unique conservation exercise in the country is open to the specialized public who knows the rules for birdwatching. The owner of the reserve guards it with suspicion, yet to date it has not received the attention of any of the region's environmental authorities.

The impact on the town has not only been seeing some children crying because the rain did not allow them to see the eagle 'in situ', that is, in its habitat, but communities from other towns and municipalities have expressed their interest in carrying out the same process of conservation.

Ortiz Ramos and family finish their searches, make sure everything is okay, and return home happy. Macarena's parents were not spotted today because they are taking more and more time to bring the chick food in order to force it to leave the nest and learn to defend itself, flying and hunting.

Flor says that Macarena will soon grow up and leave the forest. When it reaches sexual development, in four years, it will start a family. Meanwhile the parents will return to the nest and bring forth a new life in two years. That is what the biology textbooks say is the window of reproduction for this raptor. Sometimes, excessive rainfall, environmental or human factors such as hunting, attacks, felling of trees where they nest, cause them not to thrive. That is why the populations are scarce and biologists and ornithologists (bird experts) insist on their urgent protection.

As long as the specialized tourism project in the Greater Sanctuary continues to promote sustainability thanks to the conservation of this ecosystem, the Ortíz Chacón family will continue as volunteer monitors for Macarena. Thus, before leaving along the uncovered road to look for it in the forest, they will continue preparing the chimú, the "preparada," the "galguerías" and the "fiambre" to keep vigil — morning, afternoon and night — of their dear friends, the churuquera eagles.

The Ortíz Chacón family monitoring the eagle / Credit: Adriano Ortiz Ramos. 

A vulnerable species

The Red Book of Birds of Colombia classifies the harpy eagle as a Nearly Threatened (NT) species. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorizes it worldwide as Vulnerable (VU) to extinction. This is due to the advance of destruction of the forests where it lives.

Researcher Camilo Yasnó explained to Red Prensa Verde that although there is no solid scientific information in the country regarding the current state of the harpy eagle, if the trend of deforestation and attacks on these individuals continues, its population density will tend to decrease, which will seriously jeopardize the permanence and conservation of this eagle not only in the Amazon but throughout its national distribution range.

For the expert, the lack of scientific research may represent another serious threat to the species, which is why it would be an error to consider it just as a Nearly Threatened species. "The reality of the species in the country is not unrelated to that of its entire range in the neotropics, where the aforementioned threats have considerably affected its population indices in pioneering countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador."

Causes of its decline

Camilo Yasnó of the I Am a Harpy Amazon Project (PSHA) explains the threats that the eagle faces: “We have found that the main threats that put the stability of the species in the Colombian Amazon at risk are, first of all, the loss of habitat. This factor, in turn, is driven by anthropogenic actions such as deforestation, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, extensive livestock farming, illegal mining and even the selective felling of timber trees."

"Likewise, actions such as poaching, driven mostly by ignorance and fear, but paradoxically also by curiosity. In many cases these are the arguments that justify the death of these individuals in the field."

However, there are also cases of retaliation, due to the loss of farm animals such as chickens, pigs, or goats, in many cases unjustified. Currently, there are reports of more than 50 direct attacks, of which approximately 95% have ended in death, and the remainder in injured individuals with zero possibility of returning to their natural environment.

"Finally, the illegal trafficking of fauna through the commercialization of its parts such as feathers, beaks, claws and even its meat, is another of the local threats that the species presents, taking into account that they can represent a high economic value. within the black market; The claws, for example, can be worth a million pesos.” 

One case that illustrates the above, reported by PSHA, is what occurred in the south of Caquetá department in 2014. An adult harpy eagle was the victim of a pellet attack, due to the human conflict that exists in the territory. It was treated by locals on a farm, where it had arrived injured; however it is unknown if in the end it survived or died.

Harpy eagle / Credit: PSHA.

Looking for the harpy eagle

Reach distant areas — loaded with heavy equipment — by road, trail, river or foot, in order to find a nest. Visit complex territories such as those of the Amazon, with high travel costs, as well as difficulties in communication and latent public order. Manage resources and carry out activities such as the sale of t-shirts to be able to serve the communities on field trips and eagle monitoring days.

These are some of the aspects that the I Am a Harpy Amazon Project (PSHA) deals with on a daily basis. This is a conservation initiative born of the scientific community created in 2021 by biologists Camilo Yasnó, Dayana Ospina and Leidy Cardona, from the University of the Amazon. Its goal is to generate contributions in the study, knowledge and conservation of this species in the departments of Caquetá, Meta and Putumayo, in the western area of ​​the Colombian Amazon.

So far they have focused on the search for harpy eagle nests and recording sightings of the bird with the help of local communities, through participatory monitoring, which consists of creating communication networks with Indigenous people and farmers who live alongside the animal.

For this they use environmental education with the eagles' neighbors and complement it with the scientific pillar, as they call nest monitoring. They use methodologies such as direct observation, sample collection and the installation of camera traps in the canopy.

Some of the nests are located in Puerto Leguízamo, Putumayo; La Macarena, Meta; and Bajo Caguán, Caquetá; the latter two have chicks of approximately 10 months old. These nests are guarded by the communities themselves, the axis of this process. This has allowed one of the nests (La Macarena) to be open to tourism, the researchers say.

When asking Yasnó about the origin of his organization, he says that it is a response to three historical problems in the Colombian Amazon: the high rates of deforestation, the constant reports of direct attacks on these individuals, and the gaps in scientific information that the species presents both in the Amazon region and throughout its distribution range.

working in the forest
Camilo Yasnó and Dayana Ospina processing the information from one of the work days / Credit: PSHA.

Chairá, the first eagle chick to be monitored

It happened in Bajo Caguán, Caquetá, in 2019, thanks to the work of Little Oiden and Fabian Suaza, who found and reported the first harpy eagle nest for the Colombian Amazon. From there and with the help of the Caquetá Ornithological Association, they made efforts to monitor a nest from the ground, through visits and information provided by the local community.

“Valuable information was collected from that nesting event, which lasted approximately two and a half years. We obtained data regarding the diet, movements  of the chick and its two parents, aspects such as Chairá's plumage changes; the juvenile was named after the community of the Lobitos village in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.”

However, at the end of the entire event, one of the main branches of the tree fell, along with the nest — something that often happens — and it was not rebuilt during the next nesting. Likewise, the strong deforestation and even the fires in the summer of 2022 significantly affected that forest of less than 5 hectares and the alternating patches on which this eagle couple fed. Given this, the nest changed and to date it has not been located. The good news, researchers say, is that occasional sightings of these adults have continued in the territory and the community is aware of their importance.

forest burning
Deforestation and fires threaten the harpy eagle's nesting areas / Credit: PSHA.
man talking in a maloka
The I Am a Harpy Amazon Project team, in a workshop with the Murui community in the Lagartococha Indigenous reservation / Credit: PSHA.
Chairá, the first chick monitored / Credit: PSHA.
La Teófila Indigenous reserve, Solano, Caquetá / Credit: PSHA.

From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. studying Macarena

In the first days of August, Adriano Ortiz Ramos and his family accompanied biologists Yasnó and Cardona for the third time to monitor the nest of Macarena, the harpy eagle chick growing up in the Greater Sanctuary of Meta.

To carry out this field work which sought to analyze the evolution of the eagle's breeding, they traveled from Florencia to San Vicente del Caguán, in Caquetá, for four hours. From there, they continued five more hours along Route 65 to La Macarena.

The first task was to arrive at the forest before 6 in the morning to verify if the chick had slept in the nest or if it is already using alternative areas.

Subsequently, they installed equipment such as cameras, cell phones, a distance meter, among others, in the lower part of the nest to observe. In this way, they examined the activity pattern, behavior and diet of the chick, in addition to collecting organic material.

Each of the visits uses different methods. One of these is the acoustic route using microphones to characterize the sound activity of birds.

The biologist explains that all the information is used until 6 in the evening and is archived in written and digital formats. The diet samples are taken to the University of the Amazon.

When they first arrived at the Sanctuary, the initial task was to characterize the nest tree, its measurements, ecology, botany and dietary samples. Precisely during that visit they collected remains of a hedgehog consumed the day before.

Experience tells them that these birds generally use trees such as achapos and ceibas, but they can occupy other types.

In other nests studied by the project, depending on the progress of the nesting event, the researchers might determine to ascend the tree themselves. For this, it is necessary that the activity of the parents has decreased noticeably. In the case of Macarena, the reserve temporarily decided not to climb the trees, so all monitoring is done from the ground.

monitoring the eagle
Macarena's nest being monitored from the ground / Credit: PSHA.

A nest in Putumayo

To go to Putumayo you need to go through a whole logistical process because the trip is longer than to La Macarena or Bajo Caguán.

It starts at 7 in the morning from Puerto Arango, on the Orteguaza River, to go down to the Caquetá River for seven hours. They arrive at La Tagua and from there take a car to Puerto Leguízamo for another half hour.

A boat takes them to the Lagartococha Indigenous Reservation of the Murui Muina Indigenous community and there they embark for 50 minutes on the Putumayo River.

When they arrive at the reservation they walk for three hours, deep into the jungle, until they see the nest.

In this case, a study is carried out from the top of the tree, where camera traps were installed. Also, ascents to the nest are made — with special equipment — to take the different samples. “They are two different experiences, very contrasting. One in an Indigenous context, of ancestral knowledge such as the Murui Muina people on the border with Peru and the other in a context of peasant communities that have a different management and perspective of their territory such as that of Meta. However, they agree on the desire to work for the conservation of the jungle. Two different experiences and efforts that show what it means to study and follow harpy eagles in the Colombian Amazon,” comment the biologists from I Am a Harpy Amazon Project.

Characterization of a nest-tree / Credit: PSHA.
Harpy educational campaign / Credit: PSHA.

Funders needed

Despite the achievements, the harpy research project faces a lack of budget because it does not have a permanent financial muscle. The eagle and its nests are usually found in quite remote territories and getting there involves complex and expensive logistics because movements take place along distant tertiary routes and large rivers.

The researchers state that, additionally, “These territories converge with very different social contexts from the center of the country and sometimes this can become a barrier to access to these remote areas.”

“It is necessary to change the image of the researcher and directly and honestly involve members of the communities. Another limitation, no less important, has been the lack of equipment such as binoculars and camera traps for local monitors, which are costly and necessary for optimal monitoring."

Macarena at five months / Credit: Leidy Cardona. 

Where do they want to fly to?

The challenge for the I Am a Harpy Amazon Project researchers is to reach new territories, add other nests and more scientific information for the species in the region. Likewise, involve more communities in these scientific exercises.

Yasnó, Ospina and Cardona warn that they have a lot to do and hope to consolidate the efforts of the communities that currently take care of their nests. For this, it is necessary to promote scientific research with sustainable productive strategies that directly involve communities and their Amazonian fruits. “This will favor the conservation of the tropical forest and the social, economic and educational development of these territories.”

They want to ally themselves with productive proposals based on the sustainable use of non-timber resources that can provide other economic alternatives in exchange for caring for the forest.

"We hope that the harpy eagle becomes an ambassador for conservation, as it acts like an umbrella — not only are we protecting this species, but also the Amazonian tropical humid forest and all the species of fauna and flora that live there."

Macarena / Credit: Olga Guerrero

The harpy eagle in Amazon countries

Distribution range: The harpy eagle inhabits forested areas from southern Mexico to northern Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Of these, the management and protection in Panama stands out, where the largest population in the region is located.

Ecuador: There is the Harpy Eagle Conservation Program, created by the Spanish biologist Ruth Muñiz, who has been studying the bird for more than two decades. Thanks to this, they have detected 27 active nests in the provinces of Sucumbíos, Pastaza, Orellana and Morona Santiago, with sightings in Esmeraldas. With tracking equipment, they have mapped the bird's trajectories, even near human populations. When this happens, the Ministry of the Environment and the Program team go to train the communities so that they do not hunt it. There are harpy eagle research and rescue programs at several universities.

Peru: The HarpyCam Initiative of the Wired Amazon project stands out, which has deployed more than 100 camera traps to record the bird from the Amazonas refuge to the Tambopata Research Center, studying the life of the animal from its birth until it leaves the nest. In this country, the hardy eagle is not an endangered species, but researchers are wary about the illegal felling of large trees.

Brazil: The organization Harpía Project has been developing studies and research for more than 20 years, with the help of local communities. Satellite tracking research as well as in situ and ex situ programs are recognized in several regions of the Amazon. World Land Trust has also developed programs that extend to Belize and Ecuador.

Read the original Spanish-language story here.

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Prensa Verde on September 11, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: The Greater Sanctuary, La Macarena, Meta / Credit: Camilo Yasnó.