The heroic effort in the Amazon to save one of the world’s largest eagles

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

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A harpy eagle guards her chick in a nest in Amazonian Brazil. Females are bigger than males and can weigh about 24 pounds, with claws often larger than a grizzly bear’s. Since the 1800s, their range across Central and South America has declined by more than 40 percent.

A version of this story appears in the October 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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 find an elusive harpy eagle nest, rumored to be about a mile inside this patch of Amazon rainforest in Mato Grosso, a state more than three times the size of Arizona.

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Harpy eagles are now mainly found in the Amazon rainforest, where tree cutting for ranching is eating away at their habitat. Conservationists hope ranchers will limit clearing if they make enough money from tourists who pay to see eagles in their nests from towers such as this one.

With their sleek, monochrome bodies, ferocious eyes, and exuberant facial feathers resembling avian pigtails, harpy eagles—one of the world’s largest eagle species—often are ranked among the planet’s most spectacular birds and at the top of many birders’ lists. Their talons, capable of snatching a grown sloth from a tree, can be larger than a grizzly bear’s claw, and females can weigh about 24 pounds. “They look like an animal from a fantasy book,” Miranda says.

As top predators, harpy eagles play a crucial ecological role, helping to keep populations of prey species in check. “If you achieve conservation for harpy eagles, then you achieve conservation for pretty much all biodiversity in the ecosystem they inhabit as well,” says Richard Watson, president and CEO of the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit conservation organization that leads a harpy eagle program in Panama.

Range of the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja)

Source: IUCN

Fierce Hunters

With females weighing up to about 24 pounds, harpy eagles are the heaviest of all eagles. These apex predators of the rainforest’s canopy layer can swoop through thick foliage and snatch prey as big as sloths and monkeys with their enormous talons.

Top view

Disk

Sound

Facial disk feathers

(similar to those of owls) flare around the ears to sharpen hearing.

Sloth

(14 lb max)

Tendon

Knee

Ankle

Powerful legs act like batter-

ing rams during attacks. Foot

tendons tighten, contracting

talons around heavy prey

before the bird takes wing.

Tendon

Tendon

A female harpy eagle’s talon can be larger than a grizzly bear’s claw.

5 in

7 ft

Female, 24 lb max, twice as large as a male harpy eagle

Grizzly bear

Male, 790 lb

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA, NGM STAFF; MESA SCHUMACHER

SOURCES: EVERTON MIRANDA; IUCN

Top view

Fierce Hunters

With females weighing up to about 24 pounds, harpy eagles are the heaviest of all eagles. These apex predators of the rainforest’s canopy layer can swoop through thick foliage and snatch prey as big as sloths and monkeys with their enormous talons.

Sound

Disk

Facial disk feathers

(similar to those of owls) flare around the ears to sharpen hearing.

Sloth

(14 lb max)

Knee

Short, broad wings help them navigate narrow spaces.

Ankle

Tendon

Hunting large prey

can be risky. Sloths

and monkeys

occasionally fight

off—and even

kill—harpy eagles

attacking them.

Tendon

A long tail acts as a rudder for maneuverability.

Powerful legs act like battering rams during attacks. Foot tendons tighten, contracting talons around heavy prey before the bird takes wing.

Grizzly bear

Male, 790 lb

Claw

5 in

7 ft

A female harpy eagle’s talon can be larger than a grizzly bear’s claw.

Female, 24 lb max, twice as large as a male harpy eagle

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA, NGM STAFF; MESA SCHUMACHER

SOURCES: EVERTON MIRANDA; IUCN

Top view

Fierce Hunters

With females weighing up to about 24 pounds, harpy eagles are the heaviest of all eagles. These apex predators of the rainforest’s canopy layer can swoop through thick foliage and snatch prey as big as sloths and monkeys with their enormous talons.

Disk

Sound

Facial disk feathers

(similar to those of owls) flare around the ears to sharpen hearing.

Sloth

(14 lb max)

Knee

Short, broad wings help them navigate narrow spaces.

Ankle

Tendon

Hunting large prey

can be risky. Sloths

and monkeys occa-

sionally fight off—

and even kill—harpy

eagles attacking

them.

Tendon

A long tail acts as a rudder for maneuverability.

Powerful legs act like battering rams during attacks. Foot tendons tighten, contracting talons around heavy prey before the bird takes wing.

Grizzly bear

Male, 790 lb

Claw

5 in

A female harpy eagle’s talon can be larger than a grizzly bear’s claw.

7 ft

Female, 24 lb max, twice as large as a male harpy eagle

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA, NGM STAFF; MESA SCHUMACHER

SOURCES: EVERTON MIRANDA; IUCN

No one knows how many remain in the wild, but scientists do know that they’re disappearing. The powerful raptors once lived from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, but since the 1800s their range has shrunk by more than 40 percent and is now limited mostly to the Amazon, according to Miranda. Deforestation from farming, mining, and development—the primary threat to harpy eagles’ survival—shows no signs of slowing. Miranda calculated that 136 acres of jungle were razed every hour in the Brazilian Amazon in early 2020.

Miranda, a mixed martial arts fighter turned scientist, is at the forefront of efforts to save Brazil’s harpy eagles. He says he’s certain that without effective conservation, the raptors soon will disappear from a significant slice of their Brazilian stronghold—the so-called arc of deforestation, a fragmented landscape about the size of Spain 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 with that in mind, he recently helped launch an innovative ecotourism program to give landowners incentive to protect harpy eagles and their habitats. (Fortunately, the first two months of 2020 brought back-to-back bookings, the proceeds of which will keep the project going until the end of the year, when it’s hoped that the pandemic’s worst effects will have subsided and travel will have resumed.)

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These raptors have a relatively short wingspan, allowing them to navigate through the dense jungle. They can snatch a grown sloth from a tree and carry off a small deer. This harpy eagle is returning to its nest with the remains of a porcupine.

If we find the nest, it will add another crucial data point for identifying the kinds of places where harpy eagles still live and then protecting those places. Miranda glances at a GPS pin marking the spot where he believes the nest to be. A racing stream 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 in Miranda’s study area. We peer into the thick foliage above. About a hundred feet up, a peephole reveals a giant mass of twigs. The nest!

But other than one slender, white feather spotted by Miranda, we find no other evidence the nest is occupied. Playback of recorded harpy eagle calls—a piercing series of screeches—also fails to elicit any replies. Miranda guesses that the chick that formerly occupied this nest full-time must be an adolescent, in the process of leaving after her three-year time in her parents’ home range.

Harpy eagles, if left undisturbed, may 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.

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. From 2004 to 2012, Brazil reduced its deforestation rate by 83 percent, to 1,700 square miles a year. But forest clearing picked 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, contributing to a 30 percent increase in deforestation. By some estimates, 95 percent of today’s expanding deforestation is illegal.

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

When Miranda arrived in the region, people told him that harpy eagles already had disappeared. He based himself in a French research station about 160 miles west of Alta Floresta, a town with nearly 52,000 people and more than 790,000 cattle.

To begin his research, Miranda needed to find nests. After slogging through 30 miles of jungle, he finally found one. He congratulated himself and figured that at that rate, he could find a few nests each month. Three months and 250 miles later, Miranda had failed to locate any more nests. He needed help. He began putting up posters offering a $100 reward for anyone who found one. 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 were people doing transects in the bush for free all the time,” he says. He started reaching out to Brazil nut associations.

“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 had 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 up her association to take part in the project. Miranda taught the 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.

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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,” a fragmented landscape about the size of Spain encircling the southeastern Amazon. Nearly 136 acres of jungle were cleared every hour in early 2020, but Miranda believes that harpy eagle tourism and other sustainable solutions can help counteract that destruction.

So far, her association and other groups of nut collectors have helped Miranda find 34 nests across the state—a “remarkable and incredibly valuable and unusual” data set, says Watson, whose organization has compiled the only other comparable nest record, in Panama.

Miranda also launched a public relations campaign to educate people about harpy eagles and try to reduce the numbers killed purposefully. He saw photos of people holding up dead harpy eagles or their body parts during his interviews with 180 landowners and calculated that they’d shot at least 180 eagles in two 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 with the hands,’ ” Miranda says. “Many people told me they wanted to see the bird with their hands.” Miranda was heartened, though, when many landowners also told him they regretted shooting a harpy eagle, especially after learning 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 logger and hunter who works with Miranda as a professional tree climber. In two cases, a logger and a rancher even rescued harpy eagle chicks that otherwise would have been killed. Miranda, Stofel, and their colleagues rehabilitated and released them.

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

Preventing eagles from being shot is helpful, but the real challenge, Miranda says, is finding ways to make money off the forest that don’t involve clearing enormous tracts. “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.”

The good news, he adds, is that Brazilians can make money without felling trees. Collecting Brazil nuts and farming fish, for example, are more profitable and sustainable than cattle ranching, according to several scientific studies. Tourism could offer another viable alternative.

In December 2016 Miranda got in touch with Charles Munn, co-founder and owner of SouthWild, an ecotourism company based in Cuiabá, Brazil, and within a month, they had a contract in place. “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 in Brazil’s Pantanal region, the world’s largest tropical wetlands. One study showed that jaguar tourism generated nearly seven million dollars in annual revenue for seven lodges throughout the Brazilian Pantanal. The ranchers who benefit from tourism no longer shoot jaguars—even if the cats occasionally kill their cattle.

“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 July 2020, Miranda had recruited 35 landowners with harpy eagle nests on their properties to join the program. When the nests produce a chick, Munn’s company 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 about 700 people to view harpy eagle nests each year. That would be profitable for Munn’s company—and a windfall for eagles.

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Ecotourism is already having a positive effect on harpy eagles, 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 hundreds of visitors coming to view harpy nests each year. This would be a boon for the raptors and countless other species in the forest and for the people who live there.

Even at this early stage, tourism is having an effect, Miranda says, by convincing the landowners that “the forest is not an economically sterile place.” Some are in it for more than just profit. “As important as the additional money is, I also like to be involved directly in preventing species extinction,” says Cenomar Picouto, who has hosted tourists on his 60-acre ranch.

Miranda says he’s committed to securing a future for harpy eagles and the biodiversity they represent. He plans to launch a predator institute next year in Alta Floresta dedicated to extending basic research and practical solutions.

“Conservation in the Amazon will only work if people who live here also own and drive conservation,” Miranda says. “At some point, we’ll realize that the Amazon is Brazil’s greatest asset.”

Rachel Nuwer is the author of the book Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking. Photographer Karine Aigner focuses on the relationship between animals and humans. This is her first story for the magazine.

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.

This story was updated on September 8, 2020.