Flight of the Banog, Plight of the Bagobo

Photographing the Philippine Eagles at Mt. Apo Natural Park

It was discovered in 1895 and was named Monkey-eating Eagle. In 1965, wildlife biologist Dioscoro Rabor called the attention of the world of the eagle’s dwindling population. In 1966, President Ferdinand Marcos declared it a protected species, established a conservation program in 1969, and in 1978, renamed it the Philippine Eagle. In 1995, President Fidel Ramos proclaimed it the National Bird of the Philippines.

“Regal,” “Majestic” and “Kingly” are the words used to described it. Its titles include “King of Birds,” “Lord of the Forest,” “Air’s Noblest Flyer,” “World’s Largest Eagle,” “Philippines’ Biggest Winged Animal,” “Crown Jewel of Philippine Biodiversity,” but none more fitting than “Haring Ibon” or “Haribon” as the Filipino people christened it to be.

The Great Philippine Eagle is the fitting symbol of the Filipino nation’s aspiration to soar to greatness!

Two hours after we have climbed the approach of the eastern side of Mt. Apo Natural Park, we saw with awe the Great Philippine Eagle soaring above us. It circled twice before it flew away towards the south. It was a dream come true for wildlife and bird photographers like us – to pay homage and to photograph in the wild Haring Ibon, the King of Birds, the Lord of the Forest, the largest and most majestic eagle of the world.

Earlier, we saw an adult eagle brooding at the middle of a huge nest that lay at the bosom of a red lauan tree in a steep ravine in an old growth forest. After more than an hour, the eagle suddenly rose up and spread its wings as another adult eagle suddenly landed on the nest with its head bowed down, yet its wings still spread wide atop. It was like a duel with each of the eagle standing at opposite corners of the nest, their wings spread upward. They slowly moved counter clock-wise, as if in cadence, until the newly arrived flew out and soared high. And then the remaining adult picked something up and started eating, it was a prey delivered by the other. The folks told us that eagle that brought the food was the male, while the other much bigger one is the female. Then we noticed a single egg at the middle of the nest. It would hatch later after eleven days, just three days before Christmas.

Day -11

Three days earlier, the Wild Bird photographers of the Philippines, Inc. (WBPP) entered into an agreement with the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. While our President Rey Sta Ana was signing with BMB Director Mundita Lim-Sison the partnership for the conservation of the Philippine Eagle, primary through photo and video documentation, I and a group of fellow bird photographers were birding in Barangay Eden in Davao City when news about the sighting of nesting Philippine Eagles at the Mt. Apo Natural Park reached us.

I immediately called up BMB for a possible first engagement under the just-signed agreement. The agency responded with quick dispatch and after some back-and-forth texts and calls with the main office and DENR Region X, the first undertaking under the partnership was underway. On December 12, after birding in Picop Timberland Forest in Bislig City, Surigao del Sur, we met with DENR Region X and Regional Eagle Watch Team Region 10 Team Leader Jose Lechoncito, Jr. and together we proceeded to the eagle site.

Day -11

The egg was already hatched and the baby was 25 days old when we returned. As the end of the day neared, the mother eagle started picking up some leaves at the edge of the nest, cutting off some small branches and laying down these twigs around the chick. At first we could not fathom what she must be doing, but the tribal chief said the mother is blanketing her baby with leaves and twigs to protect it from the creeping cold. Yet the baby was not easy to sleep. It got up and crawled to its mother’s breast who dearly cuddled it up until it began to sleep.

The next day, what we saw was a praetorian guard. The mother eagle didn’t move its feet even a bit nor changed position for the entire day. It was amazing to see it stood still with only the head turning to watch over the horizon before it or to see moving creatures on the mountain slopes and the air above. When another raptor passed by above, this mother eagle suddenly became alert with its crest slowly rising to attention. The eyes were fierce-looking and its head slowly following the flight of the raptor above. It was prepared to fly and attack, just to protect its baby and the food behind. It was amazing to see this eagle’s head turn even 360 degrees as it watched over the flying hawk.

Day 25

Day 26

In the online discussions that ensued after the posting of the first photos of the eagles at the WBPP Group Page, an observation was made that the tree where the nest and the eagles were photographed was the same tree that was photographed by National Geographic in 2007 when they featured the Lord of the Forest. The site is the same. Questions were raised how come it took Filipino photographers almost six years to discover the site of NatGeo’s documentary. Was the site purposely hidden from Filipino photographers and birders?

An online search for images of the Philippine Eagle in the wild resulted on many photos made by foreign photographers, and just a handful made by Filipinos, mostly by bird tour operators or guides. The national bird was seen in the wild and photographed more by foreigners, than by Filipinos. This was one of the reasons that prompted WBPP to really seek out partnership with DENR-BMB – to enable Filipino bird photographers document their own national bird and other endemic birds and contribute to raising awareness towards their eventual conservation.

Day 60

As if to celebrate the eaglet’s 60th day of existence on that day, the father Philippine Eagle brought a civet cat prey before the mother and their child in a rarely photographed family gathering. The Philippine Eagle was formerly called the Monkey-eating Eagle. The folks told us that monkeys are the favorite preys of the eagles there, and so are other big birds and even boars, wild pigs. They also prey on cats and chickens that loitered around a few of the houses on the mountain tops. The folks have many stories about the eagle’s hunting and preying habits, but even if a few of their domestic animals have been preyed upon in the past, they have loved and protected the eagle. The “Banog,” as they called it, is part of their life and culture and has been with them since time immemorial. Like the old growth forest in their ancestral lands, the Philippine Eagles have been part of their lives and the lives of their ancestors.

Day 62

When we met the chieftains of the Sinabaddan Tribal Council as a way of giving respect to the Bagobo Tagabawa tribe that has jurisdiction over the ancestral domain that hosts the Philippine Eagle. The Council seeked some ideas and proposals from WBPP on how to promote and develop the site for ecotourism and conservation. WBPP, on the other hand, gave its insights, experiences and knowledge from ecotourism and conservation programs implemented in other areas. At the end, after more than three hours of interaction, both groups pledged to have a continuing dialogue, to help in the protection and conservation of the Philippine Eagle and their environment, and to be long-term partners. Hence, the WBPP was allowed to enter the ancestral domain and photographed the Banog.

We were told that the red lauan tree where upon its belly the Philippine Eagle has made its nest would have been cut down, and so is the forest upon which it stood would have been cleared out to pave the way for a road for use of a mining company. There could have been no Philippine eagle in the area had the miners able to gain foothold in the ancestral domain. The Bagobo Tagabawa tribe, led by their chieftains, their datus and their Sinabaddan, which means unity, made a stand and said NO TO MINING in their area which is an old growth forest, and embraced the glory of their forest, nature and the mountains, against the lure of royalties from the miners.

Day 75

It was already 75 days old and the little eaglet was seen flapping its wings whenever strong winds blow. Sometimes it walked upright and raised its crest whenever a raptor approaches the nest. Small as it was, it was ready to fight and it showed a brave front of itself as a formidable raptor.

Day 75

The Sinabbadan Tribal Council adopted several rules that governed the influx of tourists into their domain. Since the first photos of the eagles came out twice in a national daily and news of the eagle site reached the various circles of birders, local and foreign birdwatchers and bird photographers have trooped to the eagle site. The council has ruled that visitors must show courtesy to the Sinabbadan and to the community. As such, they must register their names in the Visitors’ Logbook. They should hire “Bantek Puwalasan” or Forest Guards organized by the Sinabbadan as guides. Visitors are also required to attend to the orientation of the Sinabbadan before proceeding to the Philippine Eagle site, and must pay the required Conservation and Environment Fee.

Tribal chief Datu Hernan explained that the fees collected have been appropriated by the Sinabbadan for special purposes. He said that 50% of the fees collected will go to patrolling of the entire ancestral land, to seminars and trainings, to the establishment of a nursery of endemic trees, to the maintenance of peace and order, and to youth scholarship. The remaining 50% is allotted to operations and infrastructure development.

Day 130

The 130-day old young eagle was photographed flying from the nest to a nearby branch, and then back again to the nest. It tried to do the same to another branch, as if testing the strength of its wings in lifting its growing body. As observed by Robert Kennedy, author of the book “A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines,” the pattern of juvenile development of the Philippine Eagle is as follows: first time off nest, 118 to 151 days; fledged (departed nest tree), 130 to 164 days; started to wander from nest area, 246-288 days; first observed kill, 304 days; and last seen in parent’s home range, 640 days.

On May 8, the young eagle has fledged. For the first time, it flew from the nest tree, heralding the realization of a new hope and a continuing life for the Philippine Eagle.

Day 130

In every visit the group undertakes at the eagle site, the visiting team mobilizes porters from the community. One photographer usually gets one porter and pays him/her a fair daily wage for the service. The team also requests some folks in the community to cook for their lunch, instead of bring food in the area. They partake of the traditional native coffee, including the boiled bananas and fresh fruits like marangs which grew abundantly in the area. When the team leaves, they even buy ground coffee or coffee beans that the people grow in the fields.

Always, the team interacts with Aning and Aljo, the land owners of the vantage points where one usually positions to observe and take photos, and their families and all those who provided services as porters, cooks or serves. We tried to learn customs, culture and everything about the Philippine Eagles, the forest and their tribe. The team also shares their knowledge about birds and the environment. They show photos and images of birds and teach the folks their English names, while they learn from them the local names.

With the help of Jocer Ado, our visits to the community became more organized and meaningful. Ado helped organized the porters, the cooks, and other helpers. He made sure that every family in the sitio participates in helping out and in supporting each expedition. At the end of the day, Ado distributes the funds provided for the services and food. And usually at night time, the folks gather together to feast and drink to their merriment.

The Philippine Eagle is the rarest and the most endangered of all raptors in the world. Only about 300 pairs are believed to be surviving in the wild. The vanishing breed of the King of Birds is a natural consequence of the vanishing forest of the Philippines. Even if the present hectarage of forest cover is maintained, the National Bird will remain critically endangered as its heirs will not have the necessary kingdom that they can reign. It is of utmost necessity that the forest cover be increased, that the remaining virgin and old growth forest not only be protected from any incursion, but its buffer zones and erstwhile coverage be reclaimed and regrowth. Only then can the reign of Haribon soar high above their critical condition.

The sitio was still without electricity. The electric post stopped at the center of the barangay, some few kilometers away. They had solar panels before but the batteries were no longer functioning. They get their water down the river, about 30 minutes hike down the mountain. The farm produce from the other side of the mountain were transported before via a cable line, but it is no longer in use as some strings have already snapped. The road towards the sitio is almost impossible to navigate even by 4×4 vehicles during the rainy season, and daily the children walked for two hours to reach their school.

For a nation and people who have not seen the national birds in the wild, photos of the nesting Philippine Eagles, whether posted in Facebook pages, internet websites and front page banner of a national daily, are both educational and inspirational. They bring national awareness and pride. They become tools for their protection and conservation as the photos remind them of their vanishing natural treasures.

The eagles also bring into fore the situation of the Bagobo Tagabawa folks in that part of Mt. Apo Natural Park. Their Banog has called attention to their very own plight. Photographing the Philippine Eagle in the wild, while a hobby and dream to some and an advocacy and mission to others, has become a tool both for raising awareness about a dying breed of birds with the hope that the photos can move the people towards their eventual protection and conservation, and raising awareness about a community struggling hard to survive and develop, and to continuously stand on guard protecting the eagles of their lives.

The coffee beans and powder are starting to sell. The ram pump will soon be erected. Hopefully, the outside world will take notice and act.