Doing field research and conservation amid a pandemic: the Philippine Eagle Foundation experience

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/ 02 May) — On March 9, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte placed the whole country under a State of Public Health Emergency because of COVID-19. Three days later, Metro Manila was on partial lockdown. All sea, land and air travel to and from the national capital were suspended.

One team was headed for Apayao from Manila to teach Indigenous Isnag women how to sew plushies as an extra livelihood for forest guard families. Their trip got cancelled. Meanwhile, another team who just finished an eagle survey in Zamboanga City struggled to get a return flight. We managed to bring both teams back to Davao City safely.

Then lockdowns and community quarantines became the norm. As health experts begged people to remain within the safety of their homes, we asked ourselves this hard question: How do we proceed with fieldwork under the constraints of the pandemic?

Here we report what our teams accomplished in the field under 2020’s “new normal.”

Eagle Rescues and Releases

We had the largest number of wild eagles retrieved in the entire history of the eagle conservation program during the 2020 pandemic. In just 10 months, seven birds were rescued; all on Mindanao island (see One is an eaglet (< 1 year old), and the rest are immature birds (3-5 years old).

Of the seven birds, one died (eagle Palimbang), three were released back to the wild (eagles Siocon, Makilala Hiraya, and Malambugok), while three were kept at the Philippine Eagle Center for further rehabilitation (eagles EYW Maharlika, Balikatan, and Tagoyaman).

Despite very strict travel restrictions, we rescued six of the seven eagles and treated them at the Philippine Eagle Center (PEC). Our links with local governments and the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) were invaluable. These partners, with extra help from local community hosts, also facilitated and co-financed three eagle releases and monitoring.

Digital technology also provided important reporting, communication, and eagle monitoring tools. And people’s generous online donations helped fund some costs of these rescues and releases.

Philippine Eagle Balikatan and two more eagles were reported to Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) via FB messenger by concerned citizens who also sent photos as evidence. Photo courtesy of PEF

But the unprecedented number of rescues also say that our wild eagles remain vulnerable to trapping and shooting.

Four of the rescued eagles were captured by locals using native traps. Three of these birds were trapped intentionally. One of which was sold for Php 8,000.00 (US $ 163.00). While the other two were trapped in retaliation by farmers because the eagles killed and ate their domestic piglets. X-rays also showed that two eagles had air gun pellets in their bodies. One had a broken leg bone

X-rays of Philippine Eagles EYW Maharlika (A) and Tagoyaman Fernando (B) showing shotgun pellets (encircled in red) and broken right leg (encircled in blue). Photo courtesy of PEF

Many Filipinos value the eagle as a national treasure.  But some still harm them. To these people, the eagle is either food, a fancy commodity that can be sold, or a livestock pest needing drastic control. The gap in conservation values and attitudes remains huge.  Wildlife laws are not acting as a deterrent either.

Wild Population Surveys

Finding eagle pairs, and protecting their families is integral to eagle conservation. Four eagle pairs were documented in 2020, and two of these are new nesting records. The new records bring the number of eagle pairs known on Mindanao island to 39 pairs.

A survey in March at the Pasonanca Natural Park, Zamboanga City recorded an eagle pair doing courtship displays. We anticipate nesting by this pair come 2020-21 nesting season. In July, two adult birds were documented at Dakeol Forests in Maitum, Sarangani Province. In December, DENR staff photographed a one-year-old eaglet at the same forest (see

One of the two new eagle territories is near the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) geothermal complex at Mt Apo in North Cotabato. We planned the nest search early in the year, but it was postponed many times because of the pandemic. Until finally, EDC management gave our biologists the green light in November.

The team’s patience and grit paid off. After a 14-day mandatory quarantine in a hotel in Kidapawan City, and 190 hours of careful search and observation, our biologists finally found the eagle couple, and their almost two-year old offspring photographed while hunting a long-tailed macaque. This is the 7th Philippine Eagle pair documented at the 90,000 ha Mt Apo Key Biodiversity Area.

Two-year old juvenile Philippine Eagle flying over the forests of the EDC Geothermal Reservation in North Cotabato. Photo courtesy of PEF

The other new nest site was discovered by the Provincial Information Office (PIO) of Davao Oriental. PIO’s Eden Licayan forwarded to us photos and videos of an eagle couple and their one-year-old offspring taken at Mt Tagub-Kampalili in Lupon, Davao Oriental (see Eagles were also recorded from the same locality in the past. This is the 8thnesting site recorded within the province.

Remote Telemetry Monitoring

Six wild eagles have miniature, solar-powered GPS/GSM trackers on their backs.  Three are wild birds that were trapped and tagged.

Philippine Eagle Kalabugao with her solar powered GPS-GSM transmitter. Photo courtesy of PEF

These “free-living” birds are eagles Kalabugao, Sinaka, and Arakan. The rest are rehabilitated eagles released back in the wild (Eagles Siocon, Makilala Hiraya, and Malambugok).

Using the mobile cellular network, we monitored these birds from the safety and comforts of our work station (either office or home). We received periodic streams of GPS coordinates from the trackers via the internet.

Movement route of Phil eagle Mallambugok from September 2020 to March 2021 mapped via Google Earth using readings from its GPS-GSM transmitter. Photo courtesy of PEF

Mapping and analyzing GPS data allow us to study and learn new and exciting aspects of the eagles’ life during the pandemic. And how they survive and use and move across the landscape. Remote telemetry monitoring also allows us to know the exact location of these birds and check on them in the field when needed.

Culture-based Conservation

Indigenous and local communities in remote uplands is a sector most vulnerable to COVID-19 impacts. We pivoted to more emergency support to ten remote communities who performed clear environmental services during the pandemic. For example, we facilitated food/cash-for-work arrangements with families living close to two eagle nest sites as COVID-19 emergency aids.

At Mt Mahuson in Arakan, North Cotabato, 28 families received food packs worth Php 50,000.00 in May. In exchange, the families donated 14,000 wildlings of endemic trees. These seedlings were then planted in a barren land close to an eagle nest site.

At Mt Tago in Manolo Fortich, 145 food packs worth Php 50,000.00 were distributed to 29 Higaonon/Bukidnon families whose household heads are volunteer forest guards. In exchange, they collected and planted 2,900 wildlings in a one-hectare grassland in front of a Philippine Eagle nest site.

Datu Honorio Somuhoy of the Guilang guilang Apo Datu Nanikuran Association prepares the food ration for their forest guard families. Photo courtesy of PEF
Guilang-guilang forest guard collects seedlings of native trees from the forest in exchange for the food rations. Photo courtesy of PEF

We also assisted five Indigenous communities develop a COVID-19 resilient ancestral domain management plan: Bagobo Klata (2), Obu Manuvu (1), Mandaya (1), and Manobo Tinananen (1). We helped three sectors – Indigenous leaders, women group, and the youth- carry out each plan

Registration and sanitation prior to a conservation planning worshop with Bagobo Klata leaders and elders at Mt Apo. Photo courtesy of PEF

Each of four women groups also received a small grant (Php 25,000.00) for an emergency livelihood project of their choice: (i) Bagobo Klata of Sirib, Davao City – coffee production, (ii) Bagobo Klata of Manuel Guinga – rice retail enterprise, (iii) Mandaya of PM Sobrecarey – banana (Lacatan & Cardava) farming, and (iv) Manobo Tinananen of Tumanding, Arakan – sewing machines for a face mask enterprise.

PEF Director for Research and Conservation Jayson Ibanez turns over two electric sewing machines to indigenous women of Mt Sinaka in Arakan North Cotabato. Photo courtesy of PEF

We also helped organize an association for 29 families who live near the smallest Philippine Eagle nesting territory on record (< 2000 ha of forest cover). The Kaguko-Pag-asa-Pormon Environmental Conservation Association (KPP-ECA) in Mt Sinaka, Arakan created and implemented a conservation plan, which helped protect a Philippine Eagle couple and its new offspring.

KPP-ECA organized their forest guards whose monthly patrols kept trespassers away from the nest site and the eagle family. We helped them set up their own tree nursery, which contained 10,000 seedlings of native trees. In October, they planted 6,000 seedlings of these seedlings in a four-hectare reforestation area.

Bantay Sinaka members of KPP ECA plant native trees along the boundaries of the restoration plot at Mt Sinaka in North Cotabato. Photo courtesy of PEF

We are committed to build local skills and capacities. The pandemic is not an excuse. We piloted on-site webinar sessions as our “new normal” for capacity development. Under strict social distancing and health protocols, we provided multi-media equipment, internet access, remote speakers, and travel and meal arrangements. We covered timely topics such as (i) COVID-19 and personal health (ii) gender and development, (iii) managing personal finances, and (iv) leadership, among others.

In Leyte island, two communities were assisted – (i) 20 families in Catmon, Silago in Southern Leyte, and (ii) 30 families in Kagbana, Burauen in Leyte. Forest guards were organized and supported. In Kagbana, forest guard families raised 4,000 abaca (Musa textilis) suckers to reintroduce abaca growths in the forests after the fiber crop was wiped out by mosaic and bunchy top diseases over a decade ago.

Forest Guards

Patrols by community volunteers to protect eagles and forests became even more important during the pandemic. Protected forests are like containment units of zoonotic diseases. They help prevent the spill-over of viral and bacterial diseases from animals to people. Forests are also carbon sinks that mitigate global climate changes.

But the pandemic triggered economic hardships that also fueled more timber poaching, wildlife hunting poaching, and slash-and-burn farming. Our forest guards kept these unsustainable forest uses at bay.

We maintained support to 173 forest guards (FGs) from three Indigenous groups who are neighbors to three eagle pairs at Mt Apo in Davao City. These Indigenous communities are the Bagobo Tagabawa of Sibulan (27 FGs), Bagobo Klata of Manuel Guianga, Sirib and Tamayong (36 FGs), and the Obu Manuvu of Carmen, Tawantawan, Tambobong and Salaysay (100 FGs), Bagobo Tagabawa of Eden, Catigan, Dalioan Plantation, Tagurano and Tungkalan (10 FGs).

The Davao City LGU provided uniforms, and monthly patrol allowances to these Bantay Bukid volunteers. The PEF, in turn, assisted during patrols, gave skills training, and collated patrol attendances and reports. The Bantay Bukid FGs patrolled at least ten days each month in four watersheds (Sibulan, Talomo-Lipadas, Panigan-Tamugan and Davao watersheds).   We also introduced an android phone-based wildlife and threat monitoring system that automated the patrol results.

Indigenous Bagobo Tagabawa Bantay Bukid volunteers of Mt. Apo view on the mobile phone screen the BANOG monitoring app. Photo courtesy of PEF

Four more FG groups were supported. At Brgy Guilang-guilang, Manolo Fortich, 20 FGs did work shifts monitoring a nesting eagle pair. Unfortunately, the egg failed to hatch. They also did monthly patrols, pacified locals who reported eagles that killed and ate domestic animals, and field-tested the KALUMBATA App – a customized wildlife and threat monitoring system for FGs in Bukidnon.

At Brgy Tumanding, Arakan, the old SEBNAKA FGs renamed their group to Tamong ta Sinaka, and its 23 members re-trained. New uniforms and gears were provided and monthly patrols were also undertaken.

Forty-three new FGs were also trained and assisted from three local communities. The two new FG groups are the (i) Ako Bantay Malambugok (ABM) Mandaya FGs of Pantuyan, Caraga in Davao Oriental, and the (ii) Bantay Sinaka of Salasang, Arakan, North Cotabato. The ABM FGs were trained and deputized as Wildlife Enforcement Officers (WEO) by the DENR, while LGUs Caraga and Davao Oriental provided uniforms and patrol subsidies. Salasang’s Bantay Sinaka, on the other hand, is supported by LGU Arakan.

Forest Restoration

Our carbon forest restoration team wrapped up 2020 with over 20,000 seedlings at its nursery and over 6,000 wildlings planted at the Ayala Land, Inc (ALI) Davao Carbon Forest (DCF). This restoration project aims to transform 6 hectares of grasslands into an urban green space that sequesters carbon, stores water, and provides habitat for wildlife.

Three volunteer groups helped us plant and nurture the wildlings. Our first group consisted of officers from the 11th Forward Service Support Unit (FSSU) of the Philippine Army who nurtured 2,500 native trees in a one-hectare plot.

Philippine Eagle sighted in Lupon, Davao Oriental. Photo by EDEN JHAN LICAYAN, Provincial Information Office, Davao Oriental

Our second group is the Bantay Bukid volunteers in Davao City. Since June 2020, nearly 100 Bantay Bukid volunteers made weekly shifts doing reforestation chores. Our third volunteer group are mountaineers from various clubs in Davao City. Since September 2020, a batch of 10 to 15 volunteers spent each weekend removing the highly invasive Paragrass and other weeds.

To help raise funds for the ALI-Davao Carbon Forest, we did online crowdfunding through “Nurture-a-Carbon Forest” webinars.  A total of 980 “carbon warriors” from four organizations joined and donated funds: (i) Stella Maris Academy of Davao – Class of 1995, (ii) Ayala Land Inc (Inc) personnel and partners, (iii) Ateneo de Davao University Environmental Science students, and the (iv) Philippine Science High School – Southern Mindanao Campus Class of 1995.

The Student Environmental Alliance of Davao (SEAD) also hosted an online benefit concert in December 2020. Joey Ayala and other national and local artists performed at this virtual gig. SEAD donated an electric grass cutter and garden tools from the funds raised from the concert (See

At our forest restoration site in Mt. Sinaka, Arakan, KPP-ECA members planted and nurtured 6,000 wildlings in a four-hectare restoration plot. They planted seedlings of native trees from their nurseries such as Duguan (Myristica philippensis), White Lauan (Shorea contorta), Red Lauan (S. negrosensis), and Narra (Pterocarpus indicus).  LGU Arakan provided additional support through a cash-for-work scheme.

Tough years ahead

The year 2020 has been hard for everyone. And the challenges ahead will continue to be tough. But many of our peers in conservation have stepped up and squared off with these challenges.

Adversity was an opportunity, and the PEF is a proud part of the country’s network of environmental front liners and supporters who continue to push hard and kept conservation work moving no matter what.

(Jayson C. Ibanez is the Director of Research and Conservation at the Philippine Eagle Foundation. He is also a Senior Lecturer at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao.)