ENVIRONMENT: A bigger dream for “Pangarap”

“With the dwindling population of the eagles, the need for conservation and protection of the eagles from hunting and further destruction of its habitat becomes more important than ever.” – Philippine Eagle Foundation

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Her name literally means “daydream” in English but it’s now a reality that Pangarap has finally reached her debut – if she were a human being. Last February 23, the eagle bred in captivity turned 18.

Thanks to the Aboitiz Power Corporation, the holding company for the Aboitiz Group’s investments in power generation, distribution, and retail electricity services, which adopted the eagle since 2010.

“That was the year when we were looking for a conservation effort done by the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) to support,” says Wilfredo Rodolfo III, the corporation’s manager of the branding and communication division.

The Aboitiz Group of Companies decided to adopt an eagle as a symbol of their support. “We then held a contest within the company for the best name of our eagle,” he recalls. “The name Pangarap won.”

On why the endangered Philippine eagle, Rodolfo explains: “She symbolizes the hopes and dreams of the company and its members not only in wildlife conservation but also our dreams for our country to take flight like the majestic eagle.”

A private non-profit organization, the PEF dedicates itself to the conservation and protection of the endangered Philippine eagle. “By using the eagle as its flagship for conservation, it has been able to undertake direct actions that benefit the species, other endemic wildlife and the people who share its rainforest habitat with the eagle,” it said in its briefing that was sent to this author.

Since 1987, the foundation was funded by private voluntary contributions. It wasn’t until in 2013 that the Philippine government started to invest in the work the foundation is doing. But as early as that, it has called private business companies to join its cause.

Aboitiz was one of the first to respond to the call. “We are grateful to Aboitiz Power for their commitment to the cause,” said Dennis Salvador, the foundation’s executive director of the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF), during the hatchday anniversary at Malagos in Calinan last month. “For seven years now, they have supported PEF through the adoption of Pangarap.”

Every year, the power company sponsors P150,000 for the eagle’s upkeep, research and conservation actions to guarantee the survival of the endangered bird.

“Their annual donation has greatly contributed to the progress of Pangarap in our captive breeding efforts,” Salvador added. “It is with partnerships like this that the mission is advanced.”

Conservation program

Pangarap is a product of the center’s captive-breeding conservation program through natural pairing. Born in 1999, she is the offspring of the pair Biomate and Robinhood. She was reared by a combination of hand and puppet rearing (where the caretaker uses a hand puppet shaped like a Philippine eagle; doing so makes the young bird feels secure).

As she has become matured, she was transferred to her own enclosure so she won’t be able to see other people in adjacent lot. “Pangarap has now adjusted to her enclosure,” said a statement released by PEF. “The disturbance from the adjacent lot has now been addressed by covering the side of her enclosure.”

The role of Pangarap at the eagle center in Malagos of Calinan district is to help augment the dwindling population of the Philippine eagle by producing the next generation offspring.

Studies have shown that a Philippine eagle can already produce an egg by the time she’s five years old. “When she was sexually matured, she was twice introduced to natural pairing. These attempts were unsuccessful due to her aggressive behavior toward the male Philippine eagles,” said a note which this author received.

When Pangarap was already 13 years old, she was able to lay an egg but unfertilized since she didn’t have a male partner when it was conceived. “We are hoping that in the next breeding season, she will lay a fertile egg,” Salvador said.

There are two ways of breeding eagle at the center: natural pairing and artificial insemination.

In captivity, natural pairing seems to take forever. The reason: Philippine eagles are monogamous by nature. Once it finds a partner, it will be for life. If that partner dies, the remaining one won’t find any other mate.

At the eagle center, pairing attempts are done in an introduction cage about 40 feet high. It has a partition in the middle to avoid the eagles from harming each other in the process. As they are highly territorial, they show aggression to each other if they are not compatible.

“Once an eagle finds a suitable female eagle for him, he will court her by giving her twigs. It’s like giving roses to us humans,” said Rai Gomez, PEF’s education administrator. “Once the pair successfully copulates, they are able to lay an egg. It takes 56 to 60 days to hatch an eagle egg.”

Artificial insemination

In the case of artificial insemination, the caretaker allows the male Philippine eagle to mount while the caretaker waits for the semen of the male to voluntarily comes out. The semen is then injected into the genital of the female eagle.

Pangarap is among the seven eagle at the center to be artificially inseminated. “Once semen is collected, she will be stimulated for the production of fertile egg,” the press statement said.

In the past, many pioneering efforts to breed certain endangered species in captivity failed. According to Salvador, breeders of captive eagle and other birds find it a Herculean task to induce captive birds to reproduce. Many factors like food, protection and nesting needs have to be considered.

Salvador, who was named as one of The Outstanding Young Men in 2000 for “his contributions to the country’s wildlife conservation efforts,” cited five reasons why the eagle center resorted to the artificial insemination method.

These are: (1) while the male gets into all stages of the breeding cycle, he still fails to copulate; (2) most eagles at the center are already “sexually imprinted” on humans, meaning the eagle has already accepted a human as its sexual partner; (3) there is shortage of unrelated sexually mature male eagles; (4) crippled or disabled eagles cannot have natural sex; and (5) some pairs of eagles of opposite sexes would rather kill one another than have sex.

Currently, Pangarap is being fed 250 grams of meat. Her diet is composed of rabbit and white rate with one ration per day. Live feeding is still being done once a week as a form of enrichment activity to keep the eagle physically fit.

Threatened bird

The Philippine eagle is listed by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as among the country’s threatened birds. In July 1995, then President Fidel V. Ramos signed Proclamation No. 615 naming the Philippine eagle as the country’s national bird.

Ramos said that the bird is found only in the Philippines and as such it should be a source of national pride. If the national bird dies, the former president said, “so will all the country’s efforts at conserving its natural resources and treasures.”

It was English naturalist John Whitehead who discovered the bird in Samar in 1896. He called it “monkey-eating eagle” based on the reports that the bird fed primarily on monkeys. So much so that the scientific name, Pithcophaga jefferyi, came out of that belief.

The word Pithocophaga was derived from two Greek words: “pitekos” meaning “monkey” and “phagien” meaning “to eat.” The specific name jefferyi was Whitehead’s tribute to his father Jeffrey who financed his expedition.

The bird was later renamed Philippine eagle under the administration of Ferdinand E. Marcos when it was learned that monkeys comprise “an insignificant portion of its diet,” which consists mainly of flying lemurs, civet cats, bats, rodents, and snakes.

Efforts to save the Philippine eagle was started in 1965 by Jesus A. Alvarez, then director of the Autonomous Parks and Wildlife Office, and Dr. Dioscoro S. Rabor, another founding father of Philippine conservation efforts.

General Charles Lindberg, an aviator, spearheaded a drive to save the bird (which he called as “the air’s noblest flier”) from 1969 to 1972. His vigorous campaign eventually led to the establishment of the eagle conservation program which the Congress supported by enacting Republic Act No. 6147 to protect the bird.


First eagle center

Today, PEF is trying to save the endangered bird from extinction. It came into existence in 1979. Unknowingly, not too many people know that the first facility was built at barangay Baracatan in Toril.

Salvador, at that time, was in-charge with the eagles’ food. “Every week, I had to go down to the town and purchased native chickens and goats,” he recalled. “I loaded them up to the roof of the public jeepney then riding along with them all the way to Baracatan. But the jeepney terminal was about two kilometers away from the camp so I had to carry the chickens on my back while pulling the goats.”

Since insurgency was at its peak then, they were often isolated and left alone as neighbors would go to evacuation centers. “At night, we would dread hearing the dogs barking because that meant the rebels were just around the corner,” Salvador said.

Another pressure they had to face at that time was from a government agency. “They were hot on our heels trying their best to take the eagles from us and relocating the entire operation to a state university in Luzon,” he said. “In the end, they simply stopped funding the project.”

Media attention and support from the local government unit of Davao City kept the agency from taking the eagles “so they just left us on our own.” It was not until a couple of howitzer shells that fell some 50 meters from its facility that they finally decided to leave Baracatan and move to Malagos.

Programs and projects

The eagle center has come a long, long way. According to Salvador, it has two tasks: in situ and ex situ conservation of the Philippine eagle. In situ is the raising of birds in its original habitat while ex situ is the method of breeding the species in captivity.

The foundation has also operating programs involving two components: field research and community-based resource management. Research activities include habitat assessment, prey counts, monitoring of nests in the wild, verification of eagle sightings and retrieval operations.

In 1988, PEF opened its facility in Malagos to the public as an education resource center. “Many of those who come are from Mindanao although we have also visitors from other parts of the country,” Salvador said. “There are also foreigners who come to the center every now and then.”

Through the above program, the foundation is able to tell the visitors the importance of wildlife conservation. “Our mode of dissemination ranges from providing lectures, slide and film presentation, to guide tours.”

According to Salvador, “the eagle center is probably the biggest tool we have in educating the people.” He added: “The facility enables us to bring the Philippine eagle and other wildlife closer to our people.”


Captive breeding

But the captive breeding is the center’s top program as its main objective is to augment wild populations of the endangered bird while serving as a “genetic insurance” for the species.

Studies conducted by the center indicate that more than 90% of fledglings and juveniles do not reach breeding age or adulthood primarily because of human persecution (mainly shooting followed by trapping-capture incidents). A Philippine eagle is considered adult when it reaches the age of six to seven years.

If the old breeding pairs in the wild are not being replaced, Salvador said, it is more likely that the whole Philippine eagle population could suddenly collapse. “Before we know it, we’d probably lose the Philippine eagle. We’ll have a national bird that doesn’t exist,” Salvador warned.

Deforestation has been blamed for the fast disappearance of the world’s second largest eagle. “The Philippine eagle has become a critically endangered species because the loss of the forest had made it lose its natural habitat,” he pointed out.

In the 1920s, forest still covered 18 million hectares of 60% of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares. It went down to 50% (15 million hectares) in the 1950s. In 1963, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published data that placed forest cover of the country at 40% (12 million hectares).

By 1970s, the forest cover shrunk to 34% (10.2 million hectares). From 1977 to 1980, deforestation reached an all-time high — over 300,000 hectares a year, according to a booklet published by Environmental Science for Social Change.

Between 2000 and 2005, the country lost about 270,000 hectares of forest a year, according to a study made the regional office of FAO in Bangkok. A pair of Philippine eagle needs at least 7,000 to 13,000 hectares of forest as a nesting territory.

“Without the forest, the species cannot survive over the long term,” Salvador said. “Without the forest, not only the Philippine eagle will go extinct, but so will the dreams and aspirations of millions of marginal income families who rely on the forest to survive.”