As an ordinary bloke with no formal training in biology, I’ve always wanted—perhaps unreasonably—a clear answer to this question.
But it seems that no one knows—or at least, no one is reckless enough to hazard an answer. Why is this? I figured the history of the struggle to conserve the Philippine Eagle has its fair share of acrimonious debates. There is just too much at stake in this matter which has led people to be very circumspect.
On the few occasions that I’ve managed to buttonhole a conservationist to ask him about the number of eagles in the wild, the reception I invariably got was a look of patient concern, like that of a long-suffering parent to a rash, impertinent child.
Am I being unreasonable?
On more than one occasion, I was lectured on how the exact number doesn’t matter. The important think is that everyone agrees on the Eagle falling under the category of Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List. This List is a criteria used to determine extinction risk and set numerical thresholds for qualification for the three globally threatened categories. These are based on factors including rate of decline, population size, area of geographic distribution, and degree of population and distribution fragmentation. But at this point my eyes had glazed over.
Turning to books, I encounter the usual hesitation to pin a number. In “Threatened Birds of the Philippines” (1999, Bookmark) by Nigel G. Collar etal, the section on Population begins with these grave words:
“Attempts at articulating a fully reasoned estimate of population size in the Philippine Eagle have persistently been compromised by the absence of solid data on its density and the extent of its habitat, and by an understandable but perhaps over-cautious reluctance to accept or even attempt extrapolations using data that appear to overturn the traditional view of its great rarity based on field encounter rates.”
After this caveat, the authors (God bless them!) proceed—in herculean proportions—to detail the history of population studies and assessments done on the Philippine Eagle. From early estimates of Mindanao populations which varied between 600-1,900 pairs in 1910, to 225-450 pairs in 1992, these make for fascinating reading, especially for the Philippine Eagle enthusiast.
No doubt about it, this book is a very important document in Philippine bidoversity! But I must admit that the onslaught of numbers and figures leave me bewildered and feeling hopeless.
Among the 65 species in the book, the discussion on the Philippine Eagle is the most exhaustive, and I remember, while he was with Haribon Foundation, Neil Aldrin D. Mallari, one of the co-authors, say that for editorial purposes, they had to trim the Eagle discussion. This attests to the fact that so much documentation is available about Philippine Eagle studies, and yet, so much vital information remains to be uncovered.
Looking for more answers, I turned to the website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines to get a look at their country bird records—since its inception the club has collated first-hand reports of local and visiting birdwatchers. The online records of the WBCP go back only to 2003 and accepted Philippine Eagle observations total only ten (2006 and 2007 records have not yet been uploaded).
Of the ten reports, nine are from Mindanao and four are from the same locality, Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park. The only one recorded outside of Mindanao was of a rescued Eagle in General Nakar, Quezon, that suffered from a gunshot wound.
Ten records in three years! Encountering such low numbers made me yearn for the rigorously derived estimates listed in Collar etal. I’m starting to understand this Critically Endangered tag.
Finally, after trawling cyberspace for information and considering the various answers, I hit upon BirdLife International’s (2007) Species factsheet: Pithecophaga jefferyi which indicates population estimate as 226, with population trend as decreasing.
I have to write that again to keep it in mind: 226. Decreasing.
As an antidote perhaps to all the mention of extrapolations and variances, I visit the website of birder Don Roberson where he listed the Philippine Eagle as the Best Bird of The World (outpointing such outlandish beauties as the Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise and the Horned Guan). In his site, Roberson recounts his journey to Dalwangan, Bukidnon, in 1990 along with guide Tim Fisher. It’s a fascinating account that brings to focus all the facts and figures that scientists and conservationists have so painstakingly collected so that we can get a better understanding of the Eagle’s condition in the wild.
Only to have impertinent laymen like me childishly demand a number.