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A pioneer case of releasing a young Philippine Eagle succeeds
Jayson C. Ibanez — in Philippine Eagle Conservation    Share

After nearly two months of not exactly knowing how well the released young Philippine Eagle “Hagpa” is doing back at its forest home in Impasug-ong, Bukidnon, the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) finally confirmed that the parent eagles have accepted the eaglet back and are feeding the young bird.

The release of Hagpa is the first successful case of “hard-releasing” a young Philippine Eagle. It is also the first case of a rehabilitated eaglet being re-introduced to and accepted back by its parents in the wild.

Additionally, it is also the shortest rescue-rehabilitation-release (i.e. 21 days) case ever in the history of Philippine Eagle conservation. 

Hagpa is a young, female eaglet rescued and turned over to PEF on May 4, 2010 by DENR and LGU Impasug-ong for treatment and rehabilitation at the Philippine Eagle Center (PEC) in Davao City. 

She was trapped by a local farmer from a small sub-community in Hagpa village.

After treatment and rehabilitation, she was transported back to Hagpa forests on May 24, 2010, first through a 6-hour drive to Hagpa, and then followed by a three-hour hike to the forest camp.

With DENR and village leaders as witnesses, she was   “hard-released” the following day.     

In contrast to a “soft-release” (or hacking) in which an eagle is caged first a few weeks inside the forest for it to acclimatize, a “hard release” frees the bird back right away. PEF released five eagles so far since 2004; all of them though a hacking method.   

The next day, Hagpa was calling very loud seemingly to catch the attention of her parents. But for two days, no adult eagles responded to her calls.

From June 22-26, 2010, a PEF team went back to check on Hagpa.

They used the latest Argos satellite data from a Doppler Satellite PTT (transmitter) harnessed on the back of the eaglet to know Hagpa’s general location. In the field, they have to rely on a hand-held receiver that track radio signals from a smaller transmitter to home-in on her exact position.

Signals showed that she was moving around the forests, but the team failed to find her because of harsh weather. An adult eagle was seen, but only very briefly. Unfortunately, no solid hints of any parent-eaglet interaction were gathered.

But during fieldwork in July, the resumption of filial bonds between the parent eagles and Hagpa was finally verified.

Aided by a TR4 transceiver, head set and a 3-element Yagi antenna, and assisted by indigenous Lumad trail masters, PEF Biologist Ron Taraya started searching for Hagpa on July 17, 2010.

Taraya and his team of local guides patiently and carefully navigated the steep slopes and thick forests of “Bolisong” river using the latest Argos readings and radio signals and as leads.

On July 20, Taraya and his team saw Hagpa for the first time since they left after the release.  

Under a crisp blue morning sky, Hagpa was very alert and actively flying from tree to tree. This and the fact that she has survived the wild for almost two months now strongly suggest that she is healthy and fed by her parents.  

Judging from her tender age (about 8-10 months old) and what is known about eagle growth and development, Hagpa might be hunting small animals already but she will still rely on her parents for most of her food needs. An adult eagle, presumed to be the female parent because of its large size (female eagles are larger than males), was also spotted on July 27.

Hagpa the Philippine Eagle

Hagpa during a brief rest from play

The adult eagle reportedly flew over the forests then landed on a tall tree above Hagpa’s location. She stood there for over an hour and occasionally looked at the direction of her eaglet before flying out of the team’s sight.

Taraya also documented over two hours of intensive juvenile “play” behavior during this two-week field expedition. 

“She was actively jumping from one branch to the other. At one point, on a thick bed of mosses and orchids up a tree, she repeatedly grabbed a decaying branch which at first I thought was a limb of a Philippine Macaque.” goes an entry in a field report that Taraya has filed at PEF recently.

Taraya found Hagpa in three more occasions. In one instance, she was being bullied by an adult Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides affinis). Young and inexperienced Hagpa reportedly fled and hid from her attacker. 

Rescue and rehabilitation

The farmer who trapped Hagpa confessed he did it to get back at the adult eagle that killed and ate his pet dog.

The farmer allegedly shooed the adult bird away while it was feeding. Using the remaining carcass as bait, he installed a native trap but caught the young eagle instead.

After learning from peers that what he did was against the law, he surrendered the bird to village leaders. In the village the eaglet was tied and miserably crammed inside a small, wooden crate and then transported on a motor bike for over 5 hours to Malaybalay City.  

On May 4, 2010, the poor bird was retrieved from DENR Malaybalay by a PEF field crew stationed at Mt Kitanglad.

The crew then was in the mountain tracking a young eagle named “Kalabugao” whose battery-dead GPS satellite PTT has just been replaced. Interestingly, Kalabugao was also retrieved in the same forests where Hagpa was from; probably they are siblings. Kalabugao was rescued in 2008 and was released at Mt Kitanglad the following year.

Fresh from a three-hour trek from where Kalabugao was released, Veterinarian Ana Lascano and PEF Technician Adriano Oxales drove to Malaybalay City and untied and relieved the bird from its depressing condition. After driving for almost four hours with the eaglet, the tandem arrived at the PEC an hour before midnight.         

At the PEC, she was treated for a few bruises, a minor wing sprain, mild dehydration, and shock which were apparently from mishandling by her captor and sadly by her rescuers too. She was successfully nursed back to health by PEC care takers.

Thereafter, the goal was to bring her back to her forest home near Hagpa village, her namesake.

Decision to release

We were a bit hesitant though about returning her to Hagpa for several reasons.

First, we were not sure if the parents will still accept and feed her. She was gone for a couple of days already and we didn’t know if the parent eagles have not lost their urge yet to care and feed a young. A release like this has never been attempted by PEF before.

Second, government permits often takes a while; we had doubts the release permit will be issued on time.  Any delays can diminish the chances of the parents accepting the eaglet back.

Third, we were short of funds for continuous post-release monitoring. Unless the locals themselves monitor and protect the bird, it will be risky releasing it and not check its status daily. We needed assurance that the local community wants their eaglet back and will help monitor and protect it.

Cooperation

After deciding that its forest home remains to be the best place for Hagpa, PEF and DENR Cagayan de Oro worked with the limited resources they had and complied with release prerequisites as quickly as possible.    

A community-wide education campaign involving teacher volunteers was held. Leaders of both Impasug-ong town and Hagpa village wanted their eaglet back and pledged support. Also, the national DENR office swiftly issued the eagle release order.

The night before release, village elders performed a ritual asking the forest spirits to welcome Hagpa Kalumbata back into their fold. “Kalumbata” is indigenous Bukidnon word for “Philippine Eagle”; it literally means “resembling a child”. At dawn of the release day, another indigenous ritual was held for Hagpa’s safety.   

Hagpa village elders and PEF staff

Village elders and PEF staff with eagle Hagpa prior to the 3-hour trek to the release site

Twenty one days after her retrieval, Hagpa was back flying in her natal site.

PEF Executive Director Dennis Salvador expressed delight over such milestone. “The pioneering success of Hagpa’s release was possible only because of the quick responses by and cooperation among volunteers, DENR, Impasug-ong and Hagpa LGUs, village residents and PEF staff” he said.

However, he also warned about the implications of the incident. “It is clear that some Filipinos still harm the eagles, indicating that more public education and wildlife law enforcement is needed” Salvador said.

“The manner by which the eaglet was transported by its local rescuers was also disturbing. More local education on proper handling, restraint and transport of accidentally captured eagles particularly in villages close to known eagle nest sites and where there are no phone or mobile access must be done as well”  he further added.

The release of eaglet Hagpa is funded largely by the Peregrine Fund. The Doppler satellite PTT and the radio transmitter on Hagpa were from grants by the North Star Science and Technology, Inc. and the Flamingo Flocking Charity of the Houston Zoo, respectively. 

August 9, 2010 - Jayson C. Ibaňez/Philippine Eagle Foundation

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