MANILA — “How can we rehabilitate a Philippine eagle during a lockdown?” That was the first thought Jayson Ibañez says crossed his mind after he answered a phone call bearing news of a rescued raptor on April 17.
As the Philippine Eagle Foundation’s resident eagle expert and head of its research team, Ibañez has always been at the front lines of eagle rehab. But this was a different case: the rescue happened at the height of the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, and Zamboanga del Norte, the province where the bird was found, is a 625-kilometer (390-mile) drive northwest from the foundation’s base in Davao City, both in the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines.
“The protocol for eagle rescues is to bring any eagle to the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao City for medical checkup and rehabilitation,” Ibañez tells Mongabay. “But with the lockdown, doing so is very difficult if not impossible.”
He found the answer in a combination of technology and decades of collaboration that had birthed protocols and established coordination mechanisms among partners, all with the greater goal of saving one of the world’s rarest birds.
With only an estimated 400 breeding pairs left in the dwindling Philippine wild, the Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) is a critically endangered bird of prey. Endemic to the country, these raptors once dominated the forests of the archipelago’s major island groups — from Luzon in the north to Samar and Leyte in the east, down to Mindanao in the south — perched atop their favorite dipterocarps: endemic lauan trees, which can grow as tall as 50 meters (164 feet).
At the other end of the phone call, the Zamboanga community environment and natural resources office (CENRO) had sprung into action. Years of working with the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) had accustomed the team to dealing with rescued eagles, says Krisma Rodriguez, regional director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
They’ve established partnerships as part of their wildlife rescue efforts, including an arrangement that sees the Department of Agriculture send a veterinarian to check up on any wildlife Rodriguez’s team rescues.
“We don’t have veterinarians here on the ground,” Rodriguez tells Mongabay by phone. “The doctors are all in the Biodiversity Management Bureau [BMB], which is in the head office in Manila. That’s why we partnered up with other agencies to fill in that necessary support.”
That night in April, Ibañez and other eagle experts from the PEF sat in front of their laptops at home, in conference calls, inspecting photographs and videos of the rescued eagle named Siocon. (It’s customary for eagles to be named after the community where they were rescued.)
It would only be the beginning. Flurries of web meetings and text messages, online planning sessions and checkups became their new normal as Siocon recuperated amid the pandemic, which blanketed the Philippines in strict lockdown measures that banned all domestic land, air and sea travel.
After more than a month, following a series of health tests that gave the all-clear, the group finally decided that Siocon was fit enough to be released back into the wild.
The Zamboanga Peninsula covers three provinces -- Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga Sibugay -- over roughly 17,000 square kilometers (6,600-square–mile). It protrudes off the northwest corner of the main island of Mindanao, dangling over the smaller island of Basilan like eagle talons reaching for its prey.
The municipality of Siocon in Zamboanga del Norte, where the eagle was found, has seen 37% of its primary forest lost in the past 20 years, according to Global Forest Watch. Since 2016, the municipality has lost more than 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of its primary forest cover — the most in the past two decades — despite being part of a declared watershed forest reserve since 1999.
But these deforestation events are small compared to the commercial logging activities that have hacked through the peninsula and the whole of the Philippines beginning in the late 1950s until the 1980s. The rapid rate of forest loss only started to decline in 2010. From an estimated 20 million hectares (49 million acres) in the 1900s, a mere 6.5 million hectares (16 million acres) of forest area is left today. It’s in this dwindling patchwork of green that more than 100 endemic species, like the Philippine eagle, cling on.
In the Zamboanga Peninsula and other areas in the archipelago, these rare eagles are hunted and sold, sometimes eaten, but often kept as pets, despite the fines, jail sentences and heightened enforcement laws against poaching and trafficking activities.
Siocon was turned over by a local village official on April 15 to the Eagle Watch team of the regional environment department. The male eagle was found in a grassy area, dazed and weak, according to reports. An initial assessment found he had a normal weight of 3.5 kilograms (7.7 pounds).
Blood samples were taken to be shipped to Manila for additional tests. It didn’t happen: all routes were closed, if not limited, as of March 15 as Metro Manila closed its borders, forcing other provinces to do the same.
Siocon’s temporary refuge was a holding cage for rescued wildlife. He was given vitamins and fed live chickens, which he swooped down on after a quick, deep glide. The feeding behavior was sufficient proof for his carers that Siocon still had the hunting instincts to survive in the wild.
“Rescued Philippine eagles need to be fed live animals so they can practice their hunting skills,” Rodriguez says. “If they are fed prepared food, they’ll get used to it and they’ll have a hard time living in the wild once they are released.”
When the test results returned negative for avian influenza and Newscastle disease — both of which occur in birds and can be transmitted to humans — Siocon was scheduled for release.
“A bird is releasable if it is fit,” Ibañez says. “This means it has good musculature, has complete tail and wing feathers … has good appetite, has normal blood values, is free of Newcastle disease virus and avian flu — and if it’s agile and aggressive.”
The big day began with a 15-hour drive by Ibañez’s team across central Mindanao, just to install a GPS tracker: Siocon would be the first eagle from the Zamboanga Peninsula to get one.
Their journey from Davao City took them across the borders of seven provinces, for each of which they needed a pass, and through 15 checkpoints.
“It was a challenge,” Ibañez says. “When we joined with Ma’am Krisma’s team, our veterinarian did one last final health checkup before we attached the trackers.”
During his captivity, Siocon had gained weight. He weighed 4.8 kg (10.6 lb) when he was released on the morning of May 20 in Balinguian, a one-hour drive north of the community he was named after. A month later, his tracker shows he has flown more than 5 km (3 mi) from his release site. With the tracker, the PEF team can monitor him for the next five years. And they can do so from the comfort of their homes as the pandemic blows over.
Finding the ‘Holy Grail’
The municipalities of Siocon and Balinguian are linked to a 1,300-hectare (3,200-acre) eagle habitat right in the middle of the Zamboanga Peninsula: the Lituban Quipit Key Biodiversity Area. Siocon is the latest addition to the seven known Philippine eagles there.
In Balinguian, the PEF and the environment department have been observing an eagle pair for more than a decade. This couple has one of the highest nesting success rates among sighted eagles in the peninsula. They’ve nested four times since 2007, and all four eaglets survived infancy and flew out of the nest, indicating spawning success. By 2013, another pair was spotted, this time in Midsalip in Zamboanga del Sur province, but this pair nested only once.
Despite the sightings and nest discoveries, the group had not encountered an active eagle nest — where researchers see a live chick in a nest — in Zamboanga since 2013. That changed in December last year, when they spotted a pair with an eaglet within the 17,000-hectare (42,000-acre) Pasonanca Natural Park, one of the last remaining forest blocks on the peninsula.
“The eagles of Zamboanga Peninsula are one of the least-studied eagle bloodlines in the country,” Ibañez says. “We think the eagles of the Zamboanga Peninsula bear genetic diversity that can help the whole species adapt to an ever-changing world.”
After three months of expedition and quietly tailing an eagle pair, PEF’s research team had found what they were looking for.
“The nest — the holy grail of the Zamboanga expeditions — was located, with the attending female eagle and its then one-month-old chick,” Ibañez wrote in a report. “This eagle pair and their ‘active nest’ is the first to be found within the protected area, and the third within the Zamboanga Peninsula. It is the 38th eagle pair to be monitored within the whole of Mindanao Island.”
But the discovery was short-lived: the chick had disappeared by the time the team returned in January, dying from natural causes, Ibañez says. Three out of 10 nesting attempts by eagle pairs can fail, according to PEF data. Inexperienced eagle parents breeding for the first time are likelier to lose their young, the figures show.
The team returned to the site several more times in the first quarter of the year and saw the pair more than a dozen more times. This time, the pair was displaying courtship behavior — mutual soaring, talon presentation, sexual vocalization — and it’s possible that by now there’s a new nest that researchers haven’t found yet, Ibañez says.
The team was searching for that possible new nest when the pandemic hit, forcing Ibañez to recall his team and suspend the expedition. With the lockdown nipping at their heels, the PEF’s eagle team boarded the last flight out and left the peninsula.
All hands on deck
While the pandemic curtailed the expedition, Ibañez says the recent years and the Zamboanga surveys have been among the most productive for the foundation, which has been doing eagle conservation for more than three decades.
Deforestation, hunting and poaching remain the biggest threats to these rare raptors, but there has been significant progress in conservation efforts. For one, the community’s reception to the eagles has improved markedly, according to the DENR’s Rodriguez.
“The mere fact that Siocon was handed over to us means our information campaigns are working,” she says. This heightened awareness about the importance of protecting wildlife isn’t centered around just the eagles, she adds, as the regional office receives more reports and registers more handovers of rescued wildlife, especially since the pandemic began.
Law enforcement has also improved in the region. The Zamboanga City water district, which manages the reservoir in Pasonanca, has deployed 100 armed forest guards to protect the watershed from hunters and illegal loggers. The United States Agency for International Development finances PEF’s expeditions and, through its Protect Wildlife project, has also conducted capacity-building seminars for managing the park. Private groups that handle integrated forest management agreements have also deployed security to protect the forests.
It’s this confluence of synchronized efforts that has helped the conservation of Philippine eagles in the region, Rodriguez says. “It’s no longer just the DENR now. We have partnered with the Philippine Army, from the local government units … they are more active in requesting to be deputized so they can help in the enforcement of environmental laws.”
On the research front, Ibañez says there’s a need to improve monitoring efforts, and this time, to use technologies like remote cameras in nests and telemetry for remote monitoring. This way, researchers can still continue their work no matter the situation on the ground.
With many provinces still reporting community outbreaks of COVID-19, more than three months after lockdown, returning to the field is still seen as risky. But the PEF is eyeing another expedition to Pasonanca in September if conditions improve on the ground. “We learned that collaboration is the key to achieving success,” Ibañez says. “Also, the attitude of not giving up on your goals, and continue with your mission, with or without COVID-19.”
This story was originally published on Mongabay on 9 July 2020 as part of an EJN-supported project called Mongabay Environews Philippines.
Banner image: The Philippine eagle is the national bird of the Philippines / Image courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology