Its numbers have steadily declined over the past fifty years due to human persecution, the exploitation of the country’s ancient 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 saved by the authorities. Between April 2020 and March 2021, however, the nonprofit Philippine Eagle Foundation, a Davao City rescue, rehabilitation and research foundation, saved 10, a historic record.

“Rather than the usual ‘nature heals’ story, we think it’s a different case for Philippine eagles,” said Jayson Ibañez, the foundation’s research and conservation director. “We believe that there is an increase in the frequency of intrusions in forests. “

An icon in the crosshairs

The Philippines has experienced one of the longest coronavirus lockdowns in the world. With the collapse of the economy, conservationists have seen an increase in the hunting of protected animals for food and illegal trade. When ecotourism stopped, guards 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 game traps. (Filipino eagles often have terrestrial prey such as palm civets and snakes, making them vulnerable to such traps.) Two had been captured by farmers after raptors killed their piglets, chickens, hounds. company and cats; two were wounded with improvised hunting rifles; three had been found in the forest, weakened by famine; and a two month old chick had been rescued from a farmer in the hope of selling it.

As the supreme predator, the Philippine eagle serves as a barometer of forest health: the existence of a breeding pair is a testament to a healthy ecosystem, as each pair needs some 17,300 acres of forest to survive. Weighing between 10 and 18 pounds, with an average wingspan of 6.5 feet, the Philippine eagle is one of the largest birds in the world. It is only found on four of the archipelago’s 7,641 islands, mainly in Mindanao.

Thanks to public awareness campaigns and a national wildlife conservation law that imposes jail terms and heavy fines for killing protected animals, the Philippine eagle is no longer actively hunted as a trophy. “But poverty and the lack of better opportunities in the highlands may still cause some to view these eagles as food or 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 of birds at the Natural History Museum, University of the Philippines, Los Baños, as they attempt to identify new territory with towering treetops for their nests and enough prey. Birds that settle in degraded areas for want of anything better often encounter livestock and people, meetings that usually end badly for birds.

A story of hope

The environment department quickly turned over the rescued eagle from Mahumoc to the Philippine Eagle Foundation. Staff named him Rajah Cabungsuan, after the village where he was trapped, and they estimated he was around five years old. For eight months, Rajah Cabungsuan stayed at the Philippine Eagle Center at the foot of Mount Apo. Vets ensured he was free from injury and illness, and guards kept him happy and healthy as he regained his strength.