Lessons Learned from Soon-to-Be Liberated Harpy Eagles in Panama

To the ornithologists at Panama’s Neotropical Center of Raptors, saving the endangered harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) also means protecting wildlands important to thousands of other wildlife species. But to Gustavo Lutrell, a nine-year old at the SEK International School in Panama City, saving this magnificent bird of prey means conserving a powerful national symbol. The center, located on a former US Army Base in Panama City, was completed a 18 months ago by the Peregrine Fund, which has a similar facility in its headquarters in Boise, Idaho, plus some 20 years’ experience researching and monitoring raptors in Latin America.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')Four harpy chicks — the first ever to be born in captivity in Central America — will soon be old enough to be set free in Panama’s rainforests. Their survival depends not only on the Peregrine Fund’s sophisticated captive-breeding techniques, but also on Panamanians’ understanding that their national bird needs large expanses of undeveloped forest to survive.

To foster this appreciation, the center has flung open its doors to visitors, including schoolchildren like Gustavo Lutrell, who have learned through the center’s education programs how important forests are to the future of Panama. For example, one lesson that the center stresses is that the forest that lines the Panama Canal protects a watershed that keeps the canal running, by gradually and continually releasing rainwater into the waterway. Deforestation in the watershed would result in canal-clogging erosion, a disaster for Panama’s economy.

Center education specialists visit classrooms throughout Panama City with environmental videos, games, and stories, plus a captive harpy, so students have a chance to see up close the world’s most majestic raptor, with a seven-foot wingspan, legs as big as a child’s wrist, nine-inch-long feet, and talons the size of grizzly bear claws. Harpy eagles were once common in forests from southeastern Mexico to northern Argentina and southern Brazil. Now they are extremely rare throughout most of their range, due mainly to deforestation.

“The harpy eagle is an indicator species,” explains Leonardo Salas, director of the Neotropical Raptor Center. “That means that what happens to this species is a faithful reflection of the situation in the forest where it lives. If an animal at the top of the food chain disappears, it is because there is not sufficient prey or territory for it to survive.”

Panama’s Ministry of Education is sponsoring a contest among schoolchildren, to see who can come up with the best names for the soon-to-be freed young harpy eagles. Winners will be anointed biologists-for-a-day and will learn to use radio telemetry equipment to monitor the raptors in the wild.

As part of its education efforts, educators from the center also give talks in community centers for Panamanians of all ages. Úrsula Valdez, director of education at the center, explains that the objective of the program is “encourage a change of the negative feelings many people have toward harpy eagles and other Neotropical birds, which will reduce human pressure on all these species and promote habitat conservation.”

Leonardo Salas points out that it’s impossible to be sure how many harpy eagles survive in the wild in Panama. What is certain is that deforestation, as well as indiscriminate shooting, are the principal reasons for the raptor’s plummeting population. While he thinks the four liberated harpies have a decent chance of survival, he warns, “It’s possible that there is no forested area in Panama that is large enough to protect a healthy population of harpy eagles over the longterm.”

To Norita Scott-Pezet, Central and South American representative in Panama for BirdLife International, a nonprofit group, the key to saving the harpy eagle is “social development and education, which would prevent people from destroying rainforest.” She adds, “The captive birth of harpy eagles in Panama is an extraordinary occurrence but what’s important is that science leads to conservation.”

According to information from the Neotropical Raptor Center, to date some 20 harpy eagle nests have been spotted in Panama. In the rest of Latin America, small populations of harpy eagles still survive in Venezuela, Colombia, Suriname, French Guiana, and Brazil.

Center biologists monitor other rare birds in the region, including the hook-billed kite (Chondrohierax uncinatus) of Grenada, Ridgway’s hawk (Buteo ridgwayi) in the Dominican Republic, and another gravely endangered raptor in Panama, the orange-breasted falcon (Falco deiroleucus).

— K. Murillo

Contactos in Panamá:

Leonardo Salas
Programa de Conservación de Rapaces Neotropicales
Ursula Valdez
Directora de Educación
Fondo Peregrino
Apdo. 473
Paraíso Ancón
Tel: 507/317-0350
Fax: 507/317-0064

Norita Scott-Pezet
BirdLife International
Apdo. 814
Balboa Ancón
Tel: 507/226-3151
Fax: 507/ 270-3110

Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:


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