Philippine Eagle “Matatag” pushes on to unfamiliar habitats

by Jayson C. Ibanez / Philippine Eagle Foundation

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/29 January) — Philippine Eagle “Matatag”, a rehabilitated bird released over a year ago in Mt Apo (see http://www.philippineeaglefoundation.org/article/70/matatag-doing-well-in-the-wild) has moved away from its birth place into forests he has never flown to before.

Currently 13 km north of his release area, Matatag is within unfamiliar grounds. He is also way beyond the territorial borders of the Obu Manuvu community in Barangay Carmen, Davao City who for over a year has watched over and kept the eagle safe.

Philippine Eagle Matatag along Talomo River on February 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of Philippine Eagle Foundation
Philippine Eagle Matatag along Talomo River on February 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of Philippine Eagle Foundation

Forty Indigenous forest guards, 26 males and 14 females, took turns tracking the bird as he explored the group’s ancient forests.

Through the elders’ consensus and a traditional ritual, Matatag was sanctified as the group’s Pusaka prior to his release. Pusaka is the Obu Manuvus practice of declaring inviolable those possessions, living or non-living, that are very valuable to the family. The word loosely translates to an “heirloom” or “heritage”.

As a Pusaka, protecting Matatag therefore became a village duty.

Thereafter, the Powasan (Forest Guards) roamed the forests daily to look after Matatag with the aid of radio-telemetry. The eagle has a radio transmitter on his back, which can be detected by a receiving device (transceiver) even from a few kilometers away.

The guards also campaigned in villages and homes close to Matatag’s location so the eagle won’t get shot or killed. Along forest trails, they also remove native traps that might accidentally catch eagles on the ground hunting.

The eagle was also tagged with a miniature GPS satellite transmitter. This gave PEF Biologists means to follow its movements from the Philippine Eagle Center via the internet. Satellite-generated locations are then relayed to PEF field staff and forest guards to aid in pinpointing the bird’s exact location.

This two-way eagle monitoring system (radio and satellite-based tracking) coupled with personalized information campaigns by Indigenous foot patrollers, kept Matatag out of danger.

As of the latest batch of satellite GPS fixes, Matatag is slowly moving away from the forest core towards the riverine forests of Marilog. Farms and coconut plantations will meet him further downstream. But if he diverts and pushes northwest, he would reach the forests of North Cotabato.

Called the “dispersal” stage, this point is when eagles independent of parental care fly away from their natal sites and wander. It begins at two years old, and ends when the already sexually mature bird pairs up and defends its own territory.

Researchers know very little about this particular episode in the eagle’s development. By monitoring and studying eagle Matatag, the PEF is learning more about how a dispersing eagle behaves and moves across the landscape.

Although studying this part of Matatag’s development is very exciting, it is also giving his guardians anxiety bouts. With the bird far from its host community, it now becomes vulnerable.

Fortunately, the Unified Obu Manuvu Council of Davao City has a parallel conservation initiative that can also protect Matatag. Consisting of leaders and elders that represent the various villages of the tribe, the council is fast tracking ancestral domain-wide awareness so that many more Obu Manuvus north of Barangay Carmen embrace Matatag and all the resident Philippine Eagles as a protected kin.

At least 60 forest guards from various villages will be also trained, equipped and engaged, similar to how the Carmen guards were formed and deployed.   Doing so does not only protect Matatag, but also the rest of territorial eagles and other wildlife in habitats where Matatag would temporarily settle.

Matatag is currently playing an important role being a local ambassador for his wild kind. As he pushes on to new terrains, it seems he would leave a trail (corridor) of eagle and biodiversity-friendly villagers who have embraced conservation as a viable way to save biodiversity while also improving community well being.

The monitoring of Philippine Eagle Matatag is possible through the generous support of Boysen Philippines while EGIP Foundation provides livelihood support to the Carmen Obu Manvu Forest Guards. The Peregrine Fund and the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund support the eagle satellite tracking project. The USAID through the Phil-Am Fund supports biodiversity conservation by the Unified Obu Manuvu Council of Davao City. The Research and Conservation of Philippine Eagles on Mindanao is through a Memorandum of Agreement with the DENR.   (Jayson C. Ibanez is Director of Research and Conservation at the Philippine Eagle Foundation in Davao City)