Saving Endangered Philippine Eagle from Extinction

by Ellon Labana

“When the last eagle dies, it shall be the sign of the worst yet to come: The death of our environment.” – Dennis Salvador, executive director of the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF), Inc.

The Philippines, described as “jam-packed with diverse species,” can be likened to that of Noah’s Ark during the Old Testament of the Bible. But with its unique species now fast dwindling, some of them may join the dodo into extinction.

“We will lose our biodiversity.  It will lead to extinction. When it becomes extinct, that resource will never come back,” said Dr. Angel C. Alcala, the former head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources from 1992 to 1995.

It may happen to the Philippine eagle, known in the science world as Pithecophaga jefferyi.  This bird, found only in the country, has been included by Current Biology in its list of 100 most endangered birds in the world.

“We… found that if we prioritize threatened birds by their distinctness, we actually preserve very close to the maximum possible amount of evolution,” said Arne Mooers, a member of the team and a biologist from Simon Fraser University in Canada.

The Philippine eagle was ranked No. 8 in the list. “This is truly a dubious distinction for our national bird,” commented Dennis Joseph Ilustre Salvador, the executive director of Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF).

On why the Philippine eagle is nearing extinction, Scientific American surmised: “One of the big hurdles in conserving the Philippine eagle is that each breeding pair requires a range up to 40 square kilometers to adequately feed and rear their offspring, which makes it particularly vulnerable to deforestation.”


Salvador seemed to agree. “The Philippine eagle has become a critically endangered species because the loss of the forest has made it lose its natural habitat,” he stressed, adding that a pair of Philippine eagles needs at least 7,000 to 13,000 hectares of forest as a nesting territory.

In the past, the Philippine eagles can be found in the forests and mountains of the country’s three main islands: Luzon (mostly over in the forests of Sierra Madre), Visayas (particularly in Samar and Leyte), and in Mindanao.

In Mindanao, most of the remaining forests can be found in Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Sur, and Bukidnon, according to the Forest Management Bureau (FMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The provinces with the least forest cover include Camiguin and Guimaras.

In recent years, the country’s remaining forests can only support an average of 392 pairs of Philippine eagles. “That’s the average,” Dr. Jayson C. Ibanez, director of PEF’s research and conservation division, said in a text message. “The maximum number of pairs that the sustainable predicted suitable forest habitat can possibly contain is 447 pairs.”

Ibanez, however, explained that this number is the upper limit based on the modeling study they did. In reality, there could be substantially fewer pairs, which doesn’t mean the forests already have this number of eagle pairs “because some of these suitable habitats might have already lost their eagles.”

He cited the forests in Leyte, Zambales, and Mount Banahaw as examples. “We think (these places) might have already lost their eagles although the forests seem to be still in good quality shape still,” he pointed out.

Hunting and diseases

Before deforestation, the Philippine eagles were threatened by hunting. “At least one Philippine eagle is killed every year because of shooting,” the PEF said.

Another one is diseases. A retrospective study was conducted from 1970 to 2006 to identify the causes of mortality of the birds admitted from the wild and those hatched in captivity at the Philippine Eagle Center.

According to the study, the cause of death for the majority of wild-caught birds was unknown (44.4%), followed by infectious disease (25%), metabolic and nutritional disease (16.7%), trauma (11.1%) and neoplasia (2.8%).

Causes of mortality for captive-bred eagles were identified as congenital anomaly, metabolic disease, pneumonia, and electrocution.

Recently, the threat of the Asian Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), Type A (H5N1) – or bird flu – alarms PEF. “All it takes is a single case of infection and the only captive breeding population in the world of this already critically endangered species would be completely eradicated,” it said in a statement.

That’s one of the reasons why they moved the breeding program of the endangered bird to a new location – specifically in the government-owned Eden Tourism Reservation Area at barangay Eden in Toril.  It is called the National Bird Breeding Sanctuary.

Currently, more than 30 Philippine eagles and several other wild bird species are housed at the 8.4-hectare Philippine Eagle Center (PEC) in Malagos, Calinan. “(The place) is no longer conducive for breeding wildlife and keeping the birds safe from avian flu,” said Andi Baldonado, PEF development manager. “We had an avian flu threat in 2017 so it’s becoming more frequent. To prevent contamination, we have to isolate them.”

World’s noblest flier

The Philippine eagle – described by famed American aviator Charles Lindbergh as “the world’s noblest flier” – was declared by then President Fidel V. Ramos as national bird (thereby dislodging maya as such).

The Philippine eagle is second only to the Madagascar sea eagle in rarity.  In size, it beats the American bald eagle; it is the world’s second biggest after the Harpy eagle of Central and South America.

This bird of prey was first discovered in 1896 by English naturalist John Whitehead in Samar. He first called it the monkey-eating eagle because he thought it fed primarily on monkeys and gave it the scientific name, Pithecophaga jefferyi.

The scientific name came from two Greek words: pitekos (monkey) and phagien” (to eat).  The name was given because it was thought the eagle eats monkeys, which was why it was called Philippine-eating eagle. Jefferyi, on the other hand, was the discoverer’s tribute to his father, Jeffrey, who funded his expedition.

In 1978, the old name was dropped and given its present name through Presidential Decree No. 1732 after it was learned that monkeys comprise an insignificant portion of the bird’s diet, which consists mostly of flying lemurs, civet cats, bats, rodents, and snakes.

A majestic bird, Philippine eagle stands a meter high, weighs anywhere from four to seven kilograms and has a grip three times the strength of the strongest man on earth, according to PEF.

With a wing span of nearly seven feet and a top speed of 80 kilometers per hour, the Philippine eagle can gracefully swoop down on an unsuspecting prey and carry it off without breaking flight.


Unlike men, Philippine eagles are monogamous. Once it has selected a partner, it is for keeps forever. “Once an eagle reaches sexual maturity – at around five years for males – it is bound for life with its mate. They can be seen soaring in pairs in the skies,” PEF states.

According to PEF, the breeding season ranges from as early as July to as late as February. During the breeding season, the eagles do aerial courtship and mate in the nest or near it. 

The female eagle lays only one egg every two years, PEF informs.  Both parents alternately incubate the egg for about 60 days, although the female spends more time incubating while the male hunts.

Upon hatching, the eaglet remains in the nest for about 5.5 months. Once it fledges, the parents will continue to look after the young eagle for as long as 17-18 months teaching it how to fly, hunt, and to survive on its own. The young eagle matures in about six years.

“Our data suggests more than 90% of juvenile eagles die before they reach maturity,” discloses Salvador.  “A large part of this is caused by humans.  Eagles were shot, trapped, and hunted.”

Saving eagle

Efforts to save the Philippine eagle were started in 1965 by Jesus A. Alvarez, then director of the autonomous Parks and Wildlife Office, and Dioscoro S. Rabor, another founding father of Philippine conservation effort.

American aviator Charles Lindberg, who described the Philippine eagle as “the world’s noblest flier,” spearheaded a drive to save the bird from 1969 to 1972. Within this time frame, several helpful laws were passed.

In July 1995, then President Fidel V. Ramos signed Proclamation No. 615 naming the Philippine eagle as the country’s national bird. He said that the eagle is found only in the Philippines and as such should be a source of national pride.

“If the national bird dies,” Ramos said, “so will all the country’s efforts at conserving its natural resources and treasures.”

The Philippine eagle is truly a Filipino pride. This is the reason why they have to be protected and saved from disappearance in our land. If only Philippine eagle could speak, these would be his pleading: 

I have watched forests disappear, rivers dry up, floods ravage the soil, droughts spawn uncontrolled fires, hundreds of my forest friends vanish forever and men leave the land because it was no longer productive.  I am witness to the earth becoming arid.  I know all life will eventually suffer and die if this onslaught continues.  I am a storyteller, and I want you to listen before it’s too late.”

Written By: Henrylito D. Tacio

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