CECEL MORELLA – AFP. MOUNT APO. PHILIPPINES
Chick Number 22 chirps in delight as a feeder thrusts a talon-shaped puppet through a hole in a blind and offers it a full-grown mashed quail complete with bones and feathers.
Still in its birthday suit of fluffy white down the 44-day-old Philippine eagle is already bigger than a rooster, weighing 3.55 kilograms (7.8 pounds).
The Philippine eagle which once ruled the skies over most of the Philippine islands is today close to extinction.
Chief breeder Domingo Tadena, 60, is hoping his 30 years of captive breeding here on the lower slopes of the country’s tallest mountain will soon be crowned with the first successful release of the king predator into the wild. “We now have enough breeding stock,” he tells AFP.
“The goal is to eventually release all birds that are hatched here,” the breeder said as he hand-fed the chick, the 22nd hatched at the Philippine Eagle Foundation.
Drawing on lessons learned from the condor and harpy eagle conservation programmes in the United States, the foundation’s goal is to set free one captive-bred bird each year.
“In the next five years I am confident that we can do this,” said Dennis Salvador, the foundation’s director.
A test release ended in tragedy in 2005 when a two-year-old male named Kabayan was electrocuted on a power transmission wire on Mount Apo’s foothills, just nine months after being freed with radio and satellite tracking equipment.
Standing one metre (3.28 feet) tall with a two-metre (6.56-feet) wingspan and weighing 7.5 kilograms (16.5 pounds), the eagle with the massive hooked beak and hackles spreading out like a crown behind its head is found only here on Mindanao island.
It pairs for life and the female lays one egg every two years. Each eagle needs 17 square kilometres (6.56 square miles) of tropical rainforest to survive.
With old growth tropical rainforest being cut down at the rate of 100 hectares (247 acres) a day, only about 500 breeding pairs remain as prey and nesting sites vanish and the bird itself is pursued by trophy hunters.
Similar eagles are also found in far smaller numbers in forests on Luzon, Samar and Leyte islands, though lack of funds has meant little research has been done on their genetic make-up.
— Aim is to release one bird each year to the wild —
Salvador says that because their prey is different and the islands have been separated for eons, it is possible that the Mindanao eagle is genetically distinct from the eagles found on the three other major Philippine islands. Launched in 1978, the centre made a breakthrough in 1992 with its first hatchling, a male called Pag-asa, which means hope.
Having been raised for a life in captivity, Pag-asa would not survive in the wild. Instead, he remains at the foundation and is the main draw for the quarter of a million visitors who come each year.
The process of getting captive-bred eagles to pair, mate and lay an egg to supply the release programme could take up to four years, said Tadena, adding that sometimes the bigger female ends up killing the smaller male.
Trained at the Peregrine Fund, a Boise, Idaho-based centre for birds of prey that is also a key benefactor of the eagle foundation here, Tadena said the newer hatchlings are now raised without human contact so they do not come to rely on people for food.
They are put in large enclosures strategically placed on mountain slopes, where trainers release rabbits to hone the birds’ hunting skills and roll meat down chutes to supplement their diet.
“Kabayan was already honing its hunting skills and relying less on supplemental feeding,” Tadena said of the bird that was electrocuted. “The bird would steal chicks from nests on the hollows of trees and track ground mice and snakes.”
Salvador said the centre is refining its eagle release protocol, training the birds to avoid high-tension power lines.
Preparing a captive-bred eagle for release costs around 37,000 dollars — excluding the monitoring costs that require satellite tracking equipment. Each bird must be monitored for at least three years in the wild.
In its early years the programme was caught in the crossfire of communist guerrillas and government forces, forcing the breeding centre to relocate.
“The rebels were angry because we fed the eagles chickens. They told us, ‘Why do the animals get chicken when Filipinos are dying of hunger?'” Tadena said.
The centre also rescues stricken eagles in the wild and since 1998, has saved 15 wounded birds. Thirteen survived and three were eventually released back to the wild. One other bird is due for release within two months after being nursed back to health.
“A lot of our retrievals over the past 10 years involved birds with lead pellets in them,” said Salvador.