The eagle has landed

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By Susan Claire Agbayani

HUNTING and deforestation are the two major causes of the decline in the number of Philippine eagles, said Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) Director for Research and Conservation Jayson Ibañez during the Q&A portion following a screening of the multi-awarded documentary Bird of Prey at Cine Adarna of the University of the Philippines recently.

The Philippine eagle cannot live outside the forest, declared Mr. Ibanez, who added that, “A hundred years ago, the Philippines had 90% forest cover (which is) now down to less than 20% of the country’s land area.” Deforestation leads to the loss of the eagles’ nesting sites.

“We found out that Philippine eagles are very loyal to the places where they breed. These are nesting sites that (have been) occupied by pairs of eagles from different generations,” Ibañez said.

To date, there are “no more than 400 eagle pairs across the Philippines.”

Through its work, PEF found out that indigenous communities live closely to these ancient nesting sites, and these eagles — sometimes, however rarely — end up on the dinner table.

Thus, a great part of the work the Foundation does is to organize communities to serve as local forest guards.

“We’re trying to push professionalizing forest guarding, so that it becomes decent work for our indigenous peoples. This is one way of (engaging indigenous communities and) incentivizing a conservation lifestyle among them (for instance, raising tree nurseries), generating conservation outcomes while also address their need for income,” Mr. Ibañez said.

Interestingly, the Philippine eagles are “safe” in areas of conflict. Or so PEF Executive Director Dennis Salvador noted.

Also in town for the screening was world-renowned cinematographer Neil Rettig and his wife, Expedition Coordinator Laura Johnson. According to, “In 1977… Rettig captured the first filmed images of the Philippine Eagle in the wild, transforming the bird into a national symbol.” This eagle is found only in the Philippines and is “the world’s largest and rarest eagle.”

In 2013 — nearly four decades after first filming the eagle — Mr. Rettig returned to the Philippines “to embark on a grueling expedition alongside the next generation of Filipinos determined to save the eagle.” The team followed a family of nesting eagles “from hatch to fledge in hopes of re-establishing the species not as a vanishing relic, but as a living symbol of the Philippines’ future,” according to the site. The result is a documentary directed by Eric Liner that runs for a little over an hour and a half.

“We filmed the eagle because it’s an icon, and a symbol and a magnificent creature. The habitat of the Philippine eagle encompasses the flora and fauna of the forest…” Mr. Johnson said during the Q&A in UP. (See the documentary’s trailer here:

Mr. Rettig recalled that in their “very first and very, very long project in the 1970s, we were in Mindanao for 18 months. We’d be in the field two to three weeks at a time and go back to Davao to our headquarters for a day or two, and back in the field. We would occasionally go to Davao to download footage and to resupply our camera.”

He also recalled that trucks carrying logs were going up and down the mountain all day back in the 1970s when they first “landed” in Davao, he told BusinessWorld following the film screening.

It was not an easy shoot. The search for a nest took some time. Once one was identified, they sought out trees that were pretty close to the nesting site. “We started exploring different trees that were closer to the nest. In the end — once the eagles were habituated to us enough — we were only 20 meters away; basically 62 feet from the nest.” That enabled their team to get breathtaking videos of the family of eagles, Mr. Rettig told the audience in UP.

Just watching the documentary on the Philippine eagle and seeing how close the filmmakers were to the animals, one might get the impression that it is easy to see the birds up close — but it is not. “If you watch a film (about wildlife), you’re probably watching one hour of what possibly took two years” worth of someone’s or a group’s work. Understandably, Mr. Rettig said, “sometimes, tourists are disappointed because they can’t get close enough, and they’re not able to see some of the animals (the way they did watching nature films).”

While he thinks that overall “ecotourism is good,” he cautions that “tourists would have to be very careful not to be too close to an eagles nest, or to the Philippine eagle. And that applies to many other animals around the world, especially once they are endangered. In many cases, the animals do not like the presence of humans, because humans are a natural enemy,” he said. (Watch the eagle fly here:

Mr. Rettig said that their next film project will be a profile on the work being done by the Foundation.

“When Neil and I were filming the eagle for this project — spending every day watching and monitoring this family of eagles — it became very, very personal to us. We really hope the images Neil captured so beautifully of your amazing, regal, incredible national symbol — these eagles in the wild — will also make you… do whatever you can to help…” said Mr. Johnson.

“I hope that 10, 20, 30 years from now, young children would walk into the beautiful rainforests of the Philippines and be able to see the Philippine eagle,” Mr. Rettig said.

Echoing the words of the late UP College of Science Dean Perry Ong, Mr. Rettig concluded, “The Philippine eagle may be found only in the Philippines, but it is property of the world. It is the magnificent creature that we can’t afford to lose.”

(Read more about the movie here: