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Archive for May 22nd, 2007

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from wildlife illustrator Oscar Figuracion Jr. saying that he had just finished an oil painting of a Philippine Eagle and was looking for buyers. I came to know Oscar a few years ago when his illustrations had graced a series of NGO-produced species-identification guides meant for DENR personnel. Someone somewhere, it seems, had noticed that aside from a few exceptions, DENR personnel could not confidently identify rare animal species in the field (and were too proud to say so). The idea of illustrated field-guides was a great project whose time had come.

However, as with most NGO projects with foreign funding, the field guide series petered out and when the interminable NGO-style project assessments came to an end, Oscar was told that his talents were great but no longer needed. Alas, such is the life of an environmental NGO hired hand.

When the projects dried out, Oscar left Quezon City and settled back to his native Mindanao, where, as a young student, he was hired by the leading wildlife biologist of the time, Dr. Dioscoro Rabor, to be an expedition artist. Oscar’s job, during Dr. Rabor’s fieldworks, was to accurately draw the fresh specimens collected by the hunters before they lost forever their colors. No one does that anymore. The advent of megapixel digital cameras has rendered the expedition-artist extinct.

Somehow I’ve always linked the Philippine Eagle with sad stories. Of mis-chances. Ruin and extinction. I am sure there are upbeat voices out there from people who are in touch with the latest schemes and programs to keep the Eagle alive. Once or twice I’ve come across the works of people like Dennis Salvador and Jayson Ibañez who seem to be doing tremendous work for the Eagle and its habitats. I just wished my experiences were as rosy or filled with hope.

The memory that Oscar’s painting stirred from the muddy depths of my brain was the sight of the birds languishing in the Raptor Center in Mt. Makiling. The center was set up in the ‘80s to attempt a well-intentioned captive-breeding program. It has failed. The Raptor Center in Makiling is rundown, moldy, and the large enclosures slowly succumbing to the vegetation, although cheery droves of school-children still regularly troop there to see the forlorn eagles and other captive birds too sick or too habituated with humans to ever be released in the wild. The kids don’t care because being kids they’ll have fun anyway and the teachers are content to give the little kids their exercise away from the confines of the classrooms. The Center earns from these excursions, but barely enough to cover maintenance, I imagine.

The last time I went to the Raptor Center, the unused cages were dilapidated and a caretaker grumbled how their meager allowances were slow in coming, and how they had to feed the Eagles by farming rabbits in the vicinity. Lack of funds, inadequate support and other, familiar, gloomy travails were aired out. I never visited again.

More on the subject of sad stories: Let’s go back to the man who discovered the Eagle in 1896 for science—the naturalist John Whitehead. “Disease and ‘slow starvation’” hounded Whitehead throughout his stay in the Philippines, in the words of ornithologist and author Nigel J. Collar, “[Whitehead] often fell victim to gross misfortune; yet his most celebrated moment resulted from one the cruellest pieces of luck he endured. In 1895 an entire consignment of skins, the result of several months’ concentrated collecting on Samar and containing many anticipated new species, was lost when its carrier, the German ship, Weiland, caught fire and had to be scuttled off Singapore. Whitehead was therefore forced to go back to the island in May 1896 and try again.”

What a blow that news must have been for the young man! But return he did and it was on his return trip that he collected the first specimens of the Philippine Eagle, a species that will forever be linked to his name. But within three years of that great discovery, Whitehead would succumb to fever at age 38.

The scarcity of the Eagle and its constantly shrinking habitat is not a new observation or problem, for Whitehead himself wrote: “The forests that are left in Samar are still very vast, especially on the Pacific Coast, but for miles inland those of the western coast have been destroyed, leaving ranges of low undulating clay hills chiefly covered with lalang grass. When this country has been passed, the traveler finds himself at an elevation of nearly 1,000 feet and meets with the true virgin forest of Samar. This forest is becoming annually smaller owing to the cultivation of hemp. . . .”

Fast-forward to 1977, when Robert S. Kennedy, the man who has done the most to save the Philippine Eagle, published in the March 1977 issue of The Wilson Bulletin the results of his studying a pair of Eagles at Tudaya Falls in Mt. Apo National Park on Mindanao.

Part of the article goes over now-familiar terrain, “As land has been cleared for agriculture and for lumber, the lower edges of the forests inhabited by the eagles have been retreating up the sides of mountains. The birds have partially adapted to this change by hunting over cleared land and living in second growth forest.” It seems that the Philippine Eagle has been teetering on the brink of extinction since its discovery!

Kennedy’s findings was enlivened by a quaint illustration by John P. O’Neill of a perched Eagle serene and safe while the silvery cataract of Tudaya Falls gracefully pours in the background. It is green everywhere.

When I last went to Tudaya Falls in the early 90s, the hills were bare and planted over with crops. I have no knowledge of any Eagle sighting in Tudaya Falls for the last two decades. Perhaps they are there for all I know. I have never been back since, afraid of what I might find out for sure.

At about the same time that I received Oscar’s e-mail, I got an e-mail from a new UP graduate. She had responded to a mass e-mail I had sent out to a writers’ group looking for contributing writers for a small magazine that I was editing. The new grad said she was in Bukidnon and so would I have a topic in mind for her to write while she was there. I responded excitedly, writing that Dalwangan, in Bukidnon, was perhaps the only place left in the entire world to have a reliable sighting of the Philippine Eagle in the wild. Can she write about the situation in Dalwangan? She never wrote back.

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Endemicity. Threatened species. Cacatua haematuropygia. Protected area management. Biodiversity. These are not exactly things that you would normally talk to your friends about while sitting in some coffee shop, but for a small community of conservation workers, this group of bloggers for instance, that is precisely the case. Except, perhaps, instead of a coffee shop, it’s a busy conference room, with manila papers and other workshop materials strewn about; a mountain trail in some remote area; or a barangay hall hosting a community meeting. It’s a diverse community, composed of biologists, communication specialists, project managers, fundraisers, management planners, community organizers. Our work in biodiversity conservation is a challenging, fulfilling, amazing endeavor, and yet we can’t help but feel that the community is quite small, especially considering the extent of the work that has to be addressed, the immensity of the information that has to be shared. We know that we don’t want to be just talking to ourselves. We want people to sit around in coffee shops talking about biodiversity, to think twice before buying a souvenir made from threatened wildlife, to appreciate the unbelievable biological richness that our country has to offer. With this blog we will try to do that.

They say that there are about two blogs born every second. Today, the International Day of Biodiversity, Samu’t Saring Buhay is proud to join this growing community, and we hope that you will stay and talk with us.

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