The heroic effort in the Amazon to save the world’s largest eagle

Brazil nut collectors, landowners, and ecotourism operators are joining forces on an innovative program to save harpy eagles.

Photograph by Karine Aigner
Read Caption

Harpy eagles are the world’s largest eagles, weighing up to 25 pounds, with claws larger than a grizzly bear’s. Since the 1800s, their range across Central and South America has declined by nearly half.

Photograph by Karine Aigner

It was supposed to be a shortcut. Now, waist high in latte-brown water, I find myself stumbling over submerged logs, ducking under ant-teeming briars, and pushing through sticky curtains of spiderwebs—following a trail blazed by Brazilian biologist Everton Miranda. One expensive camera has already gone belly up after field assistant Edson Oliveira face-planted into an engorged puddle, and a wasp sting on photographer Karine Aigner’s forearm has ballooned into a welt the size and color of a plump tomato.

But if turning back is on anyone’s mind, they keep the thought to themselves. Our mission is too important. We’re here to locate an elusive harpy eagle nest, rumored to be about a mile inside this patch of virgin Amazon rainforest in Mato Grosso, a Brazilian state the size of Nigeria.

View Images

The Amazon rainforest contains more than 90 percent of remaining habitat occupied by harpy eagles, but timber cutting eats away at the trees they nest in and the forest that supports them with prey. Conservationists hope that tourist towers such as this one, built within sight of harpy nests, will bring in enough money for cattle ranchers that they will agree to limit tree cutting on their lands.

With their sleek monochrome bodies, ferocious green eyes, and exuberant facial feathers resembling avian pigtails, harpy eagles—the largest of all the eagles—are often ranked among the planet’s most spectacular birds, at the top of many birders’ lists. They can weigh up to 25 pounds and have claws larger than a grizzly bear’s, capable of exerting several hundred pounds of pressure. Indigenous myths speak of harpy eagles carrying away children, and although no evidence of this exists, they can snatch a grown sloth off a tree and take down a 20-pound deer. “They look like an animal from a fantasy book,” Miranda says.

As top predators, harpy eagles play a crucial ecological role, keeping populations of prey species in check; their presence in a forest is indicative of a healthy, functioning environment. No one knows how many remain in the wild, but scientists do know that they’re disappearing. The giant raptors once lived from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, but since the 19th century their range has declined by nearly half, leaving the Amazon with 93 percent of the species’ remaining occupied habitat. Deforestation—the primary threat to harpy eagles’ survival—shows no signs of slowing. Last year, the world watched as massive tracts of the Amazon went up in flames, and right now 45 acres of Brazilian Amazon are being razed every hour.

Range of the Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja)

Source: IUCN

Miranda is a former mixed martial arts fighter who turned to science and is at the forefront of efforts to save the country’s harpy eagles. He says he’s certain that without effective conservation action, the raptors will soon disappear from their Brazilian stronghold—the so-called arc of deforestation, a vast, fragmented landscape encircling the southeastern Amazon, like a crooked grin. He believes that rampant habitat loss can be combated by showing Brazilians that the forests are more profitable standing than felled, and that harpy eagles can be a part of that solution. To that end he recently helped launch an innovative ecotourism program to give landowners incentive to protect the eagles and their habitats.

View Images

Harpy eagles have a relatively short wingspan, allowing them to gracefully navigate through the dense jungle. They can snatch a grown sloth hanging upside down off a tree and take down a 20-pound deer.

“If you achieve conservation for harpy eagles, you achieve conservation for pretty much all biodiversity in the ecosystem they inhabit,” says Richard Watson, president and CEO of the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit conservation organization that leads a harpy eagle program in Panama. Mapping harpy eagle nests to identify the kinds of places where they still live, and then protecting those places, is a first step for ensuring a future for the birds.

If we find the nest we’ve been searching for, it will add another crucial data point for estimating harpy eagle numbers in Brazil. Miranda pauses to glance at a GPS pin in Google Maps, marking the spot where he believes the nest to be. A racing stream, too deep for us to ford, blocks our way. Undeterred, he locates a toppled, half-rotten log, which miraculously holds our weight as we take turns scooching across. Scrambling up a muddy embankment, now finally on solid ground, we zip through the last half mile until we spot the wide, stately trunk of a Brazil nut tree. The towering canopy branches of this protected species are the choice nesting spot for harpy eagles. We approach quietly—eagles with a chick can be aggressive—and peer into the thick foliage above. About a hundred feet up, a peephole reveals a giant mass of twigs. The nest!

Miranda found this nest not by scouring the dense jungle on his own but by enlisting the help of local people who collect Brazil nuts to supplement their livelihoods. They’d spotted the nest weeks earlier and shared the GPS coordinates with him.

“Rachel, if you find a bone or feather, I’ll make you a caipirinha,” Miranda whispers with a wink, referring to Brazil’s deceptively strong and dangerously delicious national drink. He quickly discovers one slender white feather, but my bloodhound-like efforts fail to turn up further evidence that the nest is occupied. Playback of recorded harpy eagle calls—a piercing series of screeches—also fails to elicit any replies. The chick, Miranda guesses, must be an adolescent that’s already in the process of leaving the nest after its three-year time with mom and dad.

View Images

Biologist Everton Miranda (center) with Marc, a juvenile harpy eagle who was rescued by a logger after his nest was cut down to clear forest for cattle. Miranda and his colleagues rehabilitated Marc and in January began the process of reintroducing him to the wild.

Harpy eagles, if left undisturbed, will use a single nest for decades, and Miranda says this one likely will have a new resident chick toward the end of 2020. If all goes well, he hopes, tourists will be brought here to marvel at it—and to help protect it.

Nuts for eagles

Rather than study harpy eagles in the unspoiled Amazon, Miranda chose to focus on the arc of deforestation because of the urgency of the threats there. Until a few decades ago, indigenous communities were virtually the only inhabitants of that swath of the Amazon, but in 1966, the Brazilian government launched a major colonization project in the region. Officials sold huge tracts of forest, sometimes up to 500 square miles, to wealthy buyers and handed out small homesteads to poorer Brazilians. The result was the world’s largest state-sponsored migration outside China, and a Brazilian Amazon economy based on forest clearing for cattle ranching and industrial-scale farming.

View Images

Everton Miranda, listening for the birds’ call and looking for nests based on GPS coordinates he enters on his phone, concentrates his efforts to study and conserve harpy eagles in Brazil’s “arc of deforestation.” Nearly 50 acres of forest are cleared every hour in Brazil, but Miranda believes that harpy eagle tourism and other sustainable solutions can help counteract that destruction.

Deforestation, much of it eventually driven by illegal land grabs, metastasized until international pressure spurred the government to intervene. From 2004 to 2012, Brazil reduced its deforestation rate by 83 percent, to 1,700-square miles of forest lost a year. But then slash-and-burn started picking up again as cattle and soybean barons began buying influence with politicians. Jair Bolsonaro, who became president in 2019, scaled back efforts to curb illegal cutting, resulting in a 30-percent increase in deforestation. By some estimates, 95 percent of today’s expanding deforestation is illegal. As Miranda says, “We had a situation that was bad and is now getting much worse.”

When he arrived in the arc of deforestation, everyone told him harpy eagles had already disappeared. He based himself in ONF-Brasil, a French research station 155 miles west of Alta Floresta, a town with 50,000 people and 700,000 cattle. Reminders that he was in the heart of active deforestation were all around. Cows grazed in grassy, barren fields, and for sale signs hung in front of burned tracts of forest. The skeletal remains of towering Brazil nut trees—a species illegal to cut but frequently killed in land-clearing fires—served as ghostly watermarks for the once towering canopy.

To begin his research, Miranda needed to find nests. Based on the experience he’d had with anacondas for his master’s thesis, he was sure he could pull this off on his own. For that snake work, he’d needed to collect a large sample to show how size and sex affected the anacondas’ diet. He set a goal of catching 200 in 45 days, which his advisor and other experts told him would be impossible. Miranda tallied 220 anacondas in a month and a half. Headstrong from this success, he decided to find the harpy nests himself—on foot.

Looking back, he realizes “this was a big act of arrogance on my part.” After slogging through 30 miles of jungle, Miranda finally spotted his first nest. He congratulated himself and figured that at this pace he could find a few nests each month. Three months and 250 miles later, however, he’d failed to locate a single additional nest. He needed help.

View Images

Brazil nut collectors rove the forest in search of fallen nuts, the basis of a profitable, sustainable industry. They’ve become key partners in Everton Miranda’s eagle conservation and research efforts.

Miranda began putting up posters soliciting information about harpy eagles and offering a $150 reward for anyone who found a nest. His search led him to Brazil nut collectors, who rove the forest in search of fallen nuts, the basis of a profitable, sustainable industry. “I realized there was people doing transects in the bush for free, all the time,” he says. He starting reaching out to Brazil nut associations across Mato Grosso state.

“I remember hearing about this crazy guy looking for harpy eagles in the Amazon,” recalls Veridiana Vieira, president of the Brazil Nut Collector Association of the Green Valley Settlement. Before meeting Miranda, Vieira says she thought of harpy eagles only as chicken killers, although she’d never seen one herself. She especially liked the idea of contributing to science, so she signed her association up to take part in the project. Miranda taught her and the other nut collectors how to do eagle call playbacks on their phones and how to spot signs of a nest on the forest floor. “Now, everyone exchanges harpy eagle information by WhatsApp,” Vieira says.

So far, Vieira and her colleagues across the state have helped Miranda locate more than 30 nests—a “remarkable and incredibly valuable and unusual” dataset, according to Watson, who has compiled the only other comparable nest record, in Panama.

Unlikely champion

Among biologists, Miranda, 32, is something of an odd bird. Animals fascinated him during his childhood in Brasilia—to his mother’s horror, he loved catching tarantulas—but really it was violence and gore that got his blood pumping. “My parents were absolutely concerned,” he says. Soccer and other team sports proved too tame a release valve, so Miranda found his way to martial arts. He began training seriously when he was 12, pursued a sports degree in college, and started fighting professionally in mixed martial arts cage competitions. “It’s the worst thing you can imagine—like a human dog fight,” he says.

When the pay from pro fighting proved too little, Miranda started participating in illegal fights held at the harbor in Rio de Janeiro, where, he says, he never lost a match. But after a few years, he found himself questioning the morality of people hurting each other for entertainment. Learning that some gamblers had a hit out on his life was the prompt he needed. He stopped fighting, finished his sports degree, and switched tracks to biology—specifically, predator biology.

“In nature, I found a violence that’s not immoral. I was able to put my deep love of blood and violence toward doing something meaningful,” says Miranda, whose muscular, 200-pound build and impeccable posture make him appear much more imposing than his modest, five-foot-nine-inch frame. His thick glasses and dark, thoughtful eyes are more reminiscent of a philosopher than a fighter, though, and he casually peppers conversations with references to the literature of Jack London and Herman Melville and to the verses of Dylan Thomas and the Brazilian poets Vinicius de Moraes and Machado de Assis.

When he started his doctoral research in 2014, Miranda decided to focus on harpy eagles because in them he saw a perfect predatory killing machine. “They’re essentially flying velociraptors,” he says.

He launched a harpy eagle public relations campaign to educate people about the birds and reduce the numbers killed in shootings. He’d seen photos on social media of people holding up dead harpy eagles, so he interviewed 180 landowners to figure out what was going on. Based on his findings, he calculated that the landowners had shot more than 200 eagles in three years. More than 80 percent said they’d never seen such a giant bird and just wanted to get a closer look. “In Portuguese, we have this expression, ‘We need to see it with the hands,’” Miranda says. “Many people told me they wanted to see the bird with their hands.” That’s mainly why they were shooting them.

Miranda was heartened, though, when many landowners also told him they regretted shooting a harpy eagle, especially now that they knew more about the threatened birds.

“Nowadays, everyone realizes that harpy eagles are a positive thing for the region, so people don’t kill them anymore,” says Roberto Stofel, a former land clearer and hunter who works with Miranda as a professional tree climber. In two cases, workers even rescued harpy eagle chicks that otherwise would have been killed, which Miranda, Stofel, and their colleagues rehabilitated and released.

To Miranda’s relief, he has confirmed that harpy eagles in the region aren’t poached for their parts or trapped for the pet trade. Hunting is generally illegal in Brazil, and for the most part people aren’t so poor that they’re driven to poach. “You will find no one hungry here—absolutely no one,” Miranda says.

On indigenous lands, however, hunting harpies is legal. “The harpy eagle is a very important animal because every part of it is useful,” says Roseno Zokoba Rikbaktsa, leader of the 665-square-mile Escondido Indigenous Land. “Every time we kill one, we throw a party.” The bird’s carcass is made into a sweet soup, the claws turned into handcrafts, and the bones and large feathers fashioned into arrows. Feathers also serve as showpieces for ceremonial headdresses.

Roseno Rikbaktsa estimates that his community kills one to three harpy eagles a year. Inacio Rikbaktsa, a village elder and healer, adds that if the birds are threatened with extinction, it’s the fault of white people, not indigenous communities. “We have harpy eagles here because we take care of the forest,” he says. “You chop down the forest.”

Miranda says he doesn’t think such subsistence hunting poses a serious threat to the survival of harpy eagles in Brazil. “The Indians still have fully forested landscapes,” he says. “They’re taking better care of biodiversity than Brazil is.”

Conservation pays

Preventing eagles from being shot is helpful, but the real challenge, Miranda says, is to figure out ways to make money off the forest that don’t involve clearing enormous tracts for cattle ranching and agribusinesses. “We’re burning the world’s most biodiverse forest to raise a few skinny cows,” he says. “To stop deforestation, we need to find a smart way of integrating the Amazon with the global economy.”

View Images

Ecotourism is already having a positive effect, Miranda says, by showing landowners that “the forest is not an economically sterile place.” He believes that the Amazon region where he works eventually could attract 700 or so people coming to view harpy eagle nests each year.

The good news, he continues, is that Brazilians can make money without chopping down the forest. Collecting brazil nuts and farming fish, for example, are more profitable and sustainable than cattle ranching, according to numerous scientific studies. Miranda and others believe, and some studies have shown, that tourism offers another viable alternative.

In 2017, he got in touch with Charles Munn, co-founder and owner of SouthWild, an ecotourism company based in Cuiaba, Brazil, who jumped at the offer to collaborate. “A lot of scientists are purely interested in basic research, not in applying their findings toward searching for sustainable solutions,” Munn says. “Everton is unusual in that he also really cares about creating green jobs and protecting nature.”

Munn, who organizes high-end photo safaris across South America, has a track record of making conservation profitable. He was the first to bring tourists to see the now famous jaguars, which became habituated to people in Brazil’s Pantanal region, the world’s largest tropical wetland, after Brazilian sport fishermen started feeding them. Last year, jaguar tourism brought in $7 million in profits. Ranchers who benefit from tourism no longer shoot jaguars—even if the cats occasionally kill their cattle. To expand those benefits, the conservation organization Panthera is looking into the possibility of implementing a tourism fee that would pay for cattle losses caused by jaguars throughout the entire Pantanal region, not just in the areas frequented by tourists.

“This is like wildlife venture capitalism,” Munn says. “We try to figure out which things might work to actually leverage these animals to protect their habitat from us.”

As of March 2020, Miranda had recruited 29 landowners with harpy eagle nests on their properties to join the program. When the nests produce a chick, he hires local people to build 90-foot-high viewing towers for tourists to use. Landowners receive $20 a day for each visitor, and others in the community earn money as porters, drivers, and cooks. Munn issues a money-back guarantee that his guests will see a harpy eagle at eye-level.

Miranda believes Mato Grosso eventually could attract 700 or so people coming to view harpy eagle nests each year. That would be profitable for Munn’s company but also, Miranda, Munn, and others say, a windfall for eagles. “We’ve figured out the biology, the sociology, the economics, and the logistics,” Munn says. “Now we just need to get the word out.”

Even at this early stage, tourism is having an effect, Miranda says, by showing landowners that “the forest is not an economically sterile place.” Cenomar Picouto, who has hosted tourists on his 60-acre ranch, says he isn’t in it just for profit. “As important as the additional money is, I also like to be involved directly in preventing species extinction. I have studied very little in my life, but even I understand that people can help to preserve the eagles and the forest if they work together.”

According to the Brazil nut association’s Veridiana Vieira, harpy eagles are becoming a conduit for this way of thinking. “My dream is to talk to our president and show him that the forest can produce a lot of money,” she says, including from sustainable wildlife tourism and local activities such as collecting Brazil nuts. “Making money and conserving the forest can be on the same side.”

Miranda, for his part, is committed to securing a future for harpy eagles and the biodiversity they represent. He plans to launch a predator institute later this year in Alta Floresta dedicated to basic research and to extending that research into real-world solutions. “Conservation in the Amazon will only work if people who live here also own and drive it,” Miranda says. “I think, at some point, we’ll realize that the Amazon is Brazil’s greatest asset.”

Karine Aigner is a National Geographic contributing photographer. You can follow her on Instagram. Rachel Nuwer is a freelance journalist. She is the author of Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking.

This story was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society and the Wyss Campaign for Nature, which seek to inspire the protection of 30 percent of the planet by 2030. Learn more at campaignfornature.org.