COMMENTARY: Garbage In, Garbage Out: Misleading Speculations on Pamana’s Demise

By Jayson Ibanez, Ph.D.

This is in reaction to a recent article published by MindaNews on September 2, 2015 based on an interview made with Mt Hamiguitan Protected Area Superintendent(PASu) Ruel Colong, whereby he claimed that Philippine Eagle “Pamana” was released in the wrong place.

This is an outright misinformation. We are writing this statement to correct several erroneous data and assumptions from which PASu Colong based his speculations:

If Pamana had good flying ability, she would have flown to higher elevation instead of staying within the radius of the release site.

There is no doubt that Pamana had good flying abilities. Our observation showed she soared or flew to great heights several times. She was also found interacting on the wing with at least two wild eagles who visited the site, and the surrounding wildlife including large-billed crows. All of these indicate that she is fit and has adapted well to her new home.

Also, contrary to PASu Colong’s claim, we do not expect the bird to stay at higher elevations. This is simply because food is not there. The higher elevations of Mt Hamiguitan is covered by bonsai or “elfin” forests, which is naturally depauperate (poor) in terms of flora and fauna. Thus, the habitat has very little large mammals, including Philippine Eagle food items such as flying lemurs, palm civets, and monkeys.

Apart from the general literature, PEF, along with local and international scientists, conducted a series of expeditions in Mt Hamiguitan (between 2004 to 2006) that substantiates the above. Interestingly, this is the same dataset that the office of PASu Colong has used to justify the expansion of the Mt Hamiguitan Wildlife Sanctuary from its limited coverage of over 6,000 hectares (mainly the bonsai forests) to over 25,000 hectares which now include many of the formerly unprotected lowland, dipterocarp forests, through a UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription. We are surprised that PASu Colong failed to take this important habitat baseline information into account.

Staying therefore inside the high elevation “bonsai forest” would be like the eagle fasting to death. In contrast, scientific evidences point to the dipterocarp forests at lower elevations as the eagle’s preferred habitat. It is therefore not surprising that she chose to stay at the lower altitudes.

Like the rest of wildlife, or any organism for that matter, food is the primary motivation for movement and dispersal. If we had released Pamana inside the Bonsai forests as PASu Colong has suggested post hoc, our data would predict that she will fly to the same place where we released her on June 12, 2015, simply because that is where the food is. The fact that she settled within the area for two months also strongly suggests that she chose the habitat. If it was unsuitable, she could have easily flown away to track better places, just like what eagles do in the wild. PEF has tracked 16 Philippine eagles in total since 2008, including Pamana.

Apart from the Philippine Eagles, unique and endangered species like the Mindanao bleeding heart pigeon, the Rufous and Writhed Hornbills and the Philippine Tarsier prefer forests at lower altitudes, particularly the dipterocarp forests. The dipterocarp forests also have more species richness and diversity.

And this is where an opportunity for meaningful analyses can come in. As implied from PASu Colong’s pronouncements, much of the current protection efforts are concentrated on high elevation forests. This is good, but also very limited as this misses out many endangered species of fauna and flora found at lower altitudes. The demise of Philippine eagle Pamana is a clear proof that the “status quo” is not enough to safeguard endangered species at lower altitudes.

A specific, logical and more meaningful reform at how Mt Hamiguitan must be managed (and for all protected areas for that matter), therefore, is for the PASu Office to appropriate equal (if not more) attention, in terms of patrol, monitoring, and law enforcement efforts, at this apparently neglected low elevation habitats of the protected area.

We agree that cooperation among various stakeholders is important, but it is also equally important for the PASu office to inspire and lead the way, and foster collaboration in the genuine sense of the word.

Artificial environment in which Pamana underwent rehabilitation was insufficient to equip her with hunting and other survival skills. He observed that during her release, the eagle was not able to ascend; instead the bird glided down and was hit a temporary structure.

What PASu Colong apparently missed is the fact that hunting among eagles is largely a survival instinct. It is so important to their survival that it is encoded in their genes. Thus, we rehabilitate eagles not to train them to hunt, but to nurse them back to health and fitness so they can resume with their natural behavior once they are in the wild. All eagles we release undergo standard fitness test at the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao City before they are set free.

The eagle losing altitude during the release is more an effect of the overcast skies, rather than her over-all fitness. Eagles need thermals for lift. Unfortunately, cloud cover picked-up right before her release. Thus, hot air was very limited when the eagle took off. But by getting pre-occupied with the circumstances of her release, PASu Colong failed to consider as evidence of fitness nearly two months of data on the movement, behavior and dispersal of the bird post-release. Her daily behavioral repertoire strongly suggest that she was fit, hunting and had adjusted well to her release environment. In addition, for a species that is fully dependent on prey for water and dietary needs (eagles don’t drink water) she would not have lasted that long in the wild if she was not actively hunting.

Mt Hamiguitan Range was free of hunters and poachers.

This is plainly untrue! A recent biodiversity assessment conducted by PEF and Flora and Fauna International (FFI) with the Biodiversity Partnership Program (BPP) of DENR within the Hamiguitan mountain range shows that wildlife poaching still happens within many sites. Close to where Pamana’s carcass was found was a hunter’s butchering site where scattered bird feathers apparently plucked out from a bird quarry was noted. The network of hunting foot trails within the range is also extensive. We have documentary evidences to prove this. It is lamentable that rather than do something meaningful about the problem, the PASu Office is denying that the problem exist altogether.

Colong added they are looking at four factors leading to the bird’s death – the release site, preparations including information drive, Pamana’s physical condition, effective conservation plan, and collaboration system between concerned parties

Everyone has the right to speculate, but the proximate cause of death is crystal clear — the bird was killed by a gunshot. Given the many evidences of her fitness, Pamana’s physical condition is out of the question.

As a meaningful way forward, PEF wrote and presented a white paper during a Senate Inquiry by the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources chaired by Sen. Chiz Escudero last September 1, 2015. At the Senate, PEF argued for two urgent reforms: (i) law enforcement that is reasonably strict, certain and swift, and (ii) increasing the geographic coverage of locality-based conservation programs to as many eagle nesting and release sites as possible. As a proactive approach to species and habitat conservation, the program’s goal should be to help create physical and social environments where the commission of wildlife crimes (e.g. Philippine eagle shooting and hunting) are prevented altogether.

Currently, PEF is implementing community-based conservation programs in at least 10 Philippine eagle territories in Mindanao, including the Philippine eagle nesting site at Cabuaya, Mati City (also in Davao Oriental) – the lone nesting territory within Mt Hamiguitan Range. In Region XI, we do community-based conservation in six territories with host LGUs and communities. We also work with the DENR, mainly through its Wildlife Resources Division which provides technical support and the necessary government permits and clearances.

In closing, I totally agree with Regional Director Marcus Fragada when he said that no amount of finger pointing can help bring Pamana back from the dead. As a meaningful way forward, it pays to keep our eye on the ball, but also to get our facts right.

(Jayson Ibanez, Ph.D., is Director for Research and Conservation of the Philippine Eagle Foundation.)