MANILA, THE PHILIPPINESGathering rattan in their ancestral forest on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao in late March, a group of Indigenous Manobo Simuwawnon heard a commotion.
They rushed toward the racket and discovered a group of Manobo hunters huddled over an agitated animal in a trap. Intended for wild pigs and chickens, the trap had captured something unexpected: a large raptor with a cottony white underbelly and a shaggy crown of brown feathers.
Some of the hunters wanted to eat the bird for dinner. But Jerry Cotic, a village official with the rattan-gatherers, thought the unusual-looking creature deserved to live. He, along with fellow tribal member Richard Mahumoc, hatched a plan to buy the raptor from the trappers and hand it over to wildlife authorities.
Over the next three days, while Cotic stayed with the hunters and the bird, Mahumoc and other Indigenous leaders raised 5,000 Philippine pesos (roughly $100) from the people in their village. He returned to the forest and bought the bird. With the restless raptor restrained in a rice sack, he rode two hours on his motorbike to Bislig City, where his partner, Reynalyn Gay-od, had already alerted the local environment and natural resources office of the rescue.
It was only when he handed the bird over that Mahumoc learned what they’d saved: a Philippine eagle, the country’s national bird. With fewer than 700 breeding pairs alive today, it’s also one of the world’s rarest birds of prey. (Learn more about the Philippine eagle.)
Its numbers have been steadily falling for the past fifty years due to human persecution, logging of the nation’s old-growth forests, and the conversion of lowland forests to farms and human settlements. But COVID-19 has added even more pressure. Before the pandemic, only one or two eagles a year were rescued by authorities. Between April 2020 and March 2021, however, the nonprofit Philippine Eagle Foundation, a rescue, rehabilitation, and research foundation in Davao City, rescued 10—a historic high.
“Rather than the usual narrative of ‘nature is healing,’ we think it’s a different case for the Philippine eagles,” said Jayson Ibañez, research and conservation director of the foundation. “We believe there is an increase in the frequency of intrusion in the forests.”
An icon in the crosshairs
The Philippines has had one of the world’s longest coronavirus lockdowns. With the economy slumping, conservationists have seen an uptick in the hunting of protected animals for food and illegal trade. When ecotourism halted, rangers lost their jobs and conservation areas were left unprotected from poachers and other incursions.
Of the 10 eagles rescued by the Philippine Eagle Foundation, two had been caught in traps intended for game. (Philippine eagles often ground stalk prey such as palm civets and snakes, making them vulnerable to such traps.) Two had been captured by farmers after the raptors had killed their piglets, chickens, pet dogs, and cats; two had been wounded with improvised hunting rifles; three had been found in the forest, weakened by starvation; and a two-month-old chick had been rescued from a farmer hoping to sell it.
As an apex predator, the Philippine eagle serves as a barometer of forest health: The existence of a breeding pair is testament to a healthy ecosystem, as each couple needs some 17,300 acres of forest to survive. Weighing between 10 and 18 pounds, with a wingspan that averages 6.5 feet, the Philippine eagle is among the world’s largest birds. It’s found on only four of the archipelago’s 7,641 islands, mostly in Mindanao.
Thanks to public awareness campaigns and a national wildlife conservation law that imposes jail time and steep fines for killing protected animals, the Philippine eagle is no longer actively hunted as a trophy. “But poverty and lack of better opportunities in the uplands can still drive some to see these eagles as food or as a novelty and, therefore, an opportunity to earn money,” Ibañez said. (Here’s how the Philippines is saving some of the world’s rarest animals.)
Young eagles are particularly at risk, according to Juan Carlos Gonzalez, curator for birds at the Museum of Natural History at the University of the Philippines, Los Baños, as they try to identify new territory with towering treetops for their nests and sufficient prey. Birds that settle in degraded areas, for lack of anything better, often encounter livestock and people—meetings that usually end badly for the birds.
A story that brings hope
The environment department quickly turned over Mahumoc’s rescued eagle to the Philippine Eagle Foundation. Staff named him Rajah Cabungsuan, after the village where he’d been trapped, and they estimated he was about five years old. Over eight months, Rajah Cabungsuan stayed at the Philippine Eagle Center at the foothills of Mount Apo. Veterinarians ensured that he was free from injuries and diseases, and keepers kept him happy and healthy as he regained his strength.
He was “bright, alert and responsive,” according to a veterinary assessment, and he gained “substantial weight” during his stay at the center.
In November, Rajah Cabungsuan was outfitted with a GPS tracker and returned to his forest in Surigao del Sur province. He was the fifth of the 10 rescued raptors to be released. (One of the malnourished birds died; the four others remain at the foundation’s 20-acre eagle center, awaiting their eventual release or enrollment in the captive breeding program.)
Reflecting on the uptick in bird rescues, Gonzalez, of the Museum of Natural History, said, “It’s bittersweet. You have several injured birds, but at least you got to rehabilitate them—it means people have awareness. It’s better to have the news of ten rescues in the past few months rather than ten dead Philippine eagles.”
Prior to the release of each rehabilitated raptor, the Philippine Eagle Foundation works with local officials to run wildlife education campaigns in communities living in and near the eagle’s territory.
The foundation also trains members of Indigenous communities to become forest guards. It provides tools, like binoculars for monitoring eagles and their nests, and teaches guards to observe raptor behavior, remove traps that could harm eagles, and deal with illegal hunters in a non-confrontational manner.
Inspired by their experience with Rajah Cabungsuan, Mahumoc and Gay-od are now both trained rangers. The couple says they hope to monitor the eagle closely as he soars over their tribe’s ancestral land. And they hope one day to witness him raising his own family.
“For us, he is also Simuwawnon,” said Gay-od. “His return to our land is a big influence on our young people, [showing them] that we need to protect our forests.”