Must We Say Good-bye to Another Bird?
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
LOVERS of wildlife are pained at its wanton destruction by thoughtless individuals. Here in the Philippines we may be nearing the point of saying good-bye to another bird. Sadly, it is a rare species, found nowhere else in the world.
People who study birds call the endangered creature Pithecophaga jefferyi. The first of these terms means ‘ape eating,’ referring to the peculiar diet of this bird. Live monkeys are a frequent item on its menu. This flying creature is known popularly as “the monkey-eating eagle.”
A closeup view of this bird is impressive. When adult, it measures three and a half feet (one meter) from bill to tail, with a wingspread of ten feet (three meters). Many view the ‘monkey eater’ as the largest of the eagle family (though the harpy eagle of America may be heavier). The male of this species features rich-brown feathers on the upper portion of its body and buff-white feathers lower down. Lady eagle, however, has darker, more glossy plumes and a white breast.
Near Mount Apo, tallest peak in the Philippines, is an eagle research center known as the “Summer Camp.” Here one can observe caretakers feeding the monkey-eating eagle. When workers throw into the huge wire enclosures a chicken, housecat or pigeon, the bird swoops down and catches it with one foot. The lance-like talons of this eagle spell instant disaster for any creature it may choose for food. A bite at the nape of the neck decapitates the prey and it soon disappears.
Why Danger of Extinction?
Only a few years ago this massive winged creature numbered about a hundred. But now, based on actual sightings in the rain forests of Mindanao Island, they have dwindled to about forty, maybe less. A few are said to be holding out in parts of the Sierra Madre mountain range on Luzon Island. But these areas are inaccessible to humans.
The Red Data Sheet, a quarterly supplement of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, provides information about wildlife in danger of extinction. On the list of the world’s most endangered species the monkey-eating eagle ranks high. With a reported annual mortality rate of 19.6 birds, this eagle could well disappear within two or three years.
What is responsible for its decline? To some extent the bird itself is to blame, due to its breeding habits. The female lays an average of one egg a year and has a life-span of around forty years. And to date it has not bred in captivity.
The most prominent enemy of this eagle, however, is man. He comes in the form of the inveterate hunter, the trapper-collector, the compromising official, the unscrupulous logger and the kainginero, a nomadic cultivator who follows the logger and practices ‘slash and burn’ agriculture.
Hunters have various motives. These eagles are in demand for zoos and as pets. Many persons wish to stuff and mount them as parlor trophies. The hunting process itself, which requires skill, brings prestige. Moreover, the bird brings a colossal price on the world market. It is said that available price quotations from Europe go as high as one million dollars for a single eagle.
Loggers, too, bear their share of responsibility. The Philippines is now losing 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres) of forest annually. More than half of this loss, 90,000 hectares (222,400 acres), occurs on the island of Mindanao. This deforestation is considered the most important single cause of decline for the monkey-eating eagle.
Efforts at Preservation
As danger of extinction looms ever nearer, some steps have been taken to preserve this great bird. Why? For one thing, many are coming to realize that what happens to wildlife is closely linked to the welfare of humans. “Humankind clings to but one thread of the mysterious web of life on earth,” noted an article in Reader’s Digest of June 1975. “We pluck on the others at our peril.” In illustration of this, the article pointed to extermination in Europe of the lynx and the wolf, natural predators of deer. As a result, the deer population increased and brought extensive damage to commercial forests and crops. Too, in Great Britain a decline in the number of ordinary frogs resulted in an upsurge of insect pests.
As for the Philippines, preserving the monkey-eating eagle means keeping intact its habitat of rain forests, which, in turn, means soil stabilization. Indicating the importance of this are these comments in Expressweek of June 17, 1976: “When mountains are denuded of trees, whose roots are nature’s deterrents to over flooding of the lowlands, the rainfall that falls in these mountains cascades in totality to the lower areas, carrying . . . earth and other solid materials. This is called erosion which also brings about landslides.” Investigators have pinpointed forest denudation as “the main cause of yearly floods,” one of which recently inundated fifty towns on the island of Luzon.
Some legislation favorable to preserving this bird is now on the books. It includes prohibition of logging in national parks, and bans, as well as other strict measures, regarding hunting and exportation of this eagle. A campaign for its preservation, organized by the director of the World Wildlife Fund, has gained new impetus recently. It involves a continuing information/education program presented by radio, in newspapers, brochures, posters and through public displays of photos and other materials.
It has now become a crime to catch, possess, wound or kill the monkey-eating eagle. A Reuters dispatch from Manila reported: “Philippine wildlife officials are hopeful that a three-year program . . . has helped save the indigenous monkey-eating eagle which is in danger of becoming extinct. . . . Officials said more and more nesting sites of the bird are being sighted and protected from hunters and predators by parks and wildlife game wardens.” Also, there have been recommendations for eagle sanctuaries, and proposals for setting aside areas of forest for exclusive use of the eagle and other wildlife.
Happily, more and more people feel a sense of responsibility to preserve wild places and wild creatures. Due to the sincerity and diligent efforts of such individuals, perhaps it will not be necessary to say good-bye to another bird.