Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance
“Working by ourselves, we biologists can not guarantee that we will save the harpy eagle; we’ve reached the point where we need help from local residents, who are the ones who live near the resources we want to protect.”
Big and beautiful, the harpy eagle (Harpia harpia) is one of the world’s most fascinating raptors. But like most of the large predators found in tropical forests, it is threatened by hunting and deforestation. Since Panama has the greatest number of harpy eagles in Mesoamerica, most of the region’s research and education on the species has been done there.
Panamanian biologist Karla Aparicio has been working with harpy eagles since 1994, when she traveled to the eastern province of the Darién to study two juvenile harpies under the auspices of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In 1997, she discovered two active nests in Chagres National Park, just to the east of the Panama Canal, and began doing environmental education work in nearby communities. Since 2001, she has directed the project “Working with Rural Communities for the Knowledge and Conservation of Panama’s Birds,” for which she has run environmental education and training activities all over the country. She received an award of honor for her notable participation in the creation of a law declaring the harpy eagle Panama’s national bird in 2002.
Aparicio tells us about the harpy eagle work she did for her masters thesis for the Regional Wildlife Management Program for Mesoamerica and the Caribbean at Costa Rica’s Universidad Nacional (UNA), for which she graduated Summa Cum Laude.
Question: What was the focus of your thesis on the harpy eagle and community participation?
Aparicio: The first part examines the eagle’s distribution in Panama throughout the 20th century. I analyzed what happened at the beginning of the 20th century, when and where the eagle was recorded back then, and the socioeconomic events that impacted the forests where the eagles are found. I then moved forward until the 1990s.
The second part of my thesis was a community participation project. I led workshops with people from communities around Chagres National Park that included environmental education activities where local people gained knowledge which they in turn transmitted to their communities.
Q: What happened to the eagles in the period you studied?
Aparicio: Despite the fact that since the ’60s there have been laws that protected endangered species, the eagles continued to die, according to studies. Even in the ’90s eagles continued to be killed. In Chagres National Park, I found records of eight dead eagles. Of those eight, five were from the same nesting site. Things have been really bad for eagles in the past, but in the ’90s, the harpy eagle conservation program was launched in Darién National Park. In recent years some awareness has been raised, especially now, since it was recently declared the national bird (Law 18 of April 10, 2002). I had to lobby for that law; I went to the Legislative Assembly and explained to the legislators about the need for it. My most recent project is in conjunction with the Panama Audubon Society. It is part of the Patronato Amigos del Águila Harpía (Friends of the Harpy Eagle Foundation), which involves many organizations in the country interested in protecting the eagle. It was through the foundation that we managed to get the law passed.
Q: So is there more awareness now among Panamanians about the need to protect the eagle?
Aparicio: I believe that in recent years there has been a bit more awareness. For example, there is an interactive center at Summit Botanical Gardens, near Panama City, that has an enormous cage with two eagles in it. At the same time, the Audubon Society has undertaken environmental education on a national scale. The Peregrine Fund has environmental education projects in the Darién. The Panama Canal Authority has even adopted the eagle as a symbol for the watershed. So I believe the eagle’s image has improved, and that there are a lot of interested parties working for it.
Q: How did the communities in Chagres respond to your environmental education work?
Aparicio: The people responded really well; they were very motivated. There were 22 participants from six key communities located near the nesting areas, which consequently need to be well informed. We had workshops in 1999 and 2000, and I’m still in contact with people. We lit a flame that continues to burn.
They became very motivated. In the end we did an analysis with the communities to see what we had accomplished, and what we hadn’t, and what they could do but needed help with. The people determined exactly which people and institutions should do what for eagle conservation in Chagres National Park. The key is participation, so that the people feel they are an important part of the process. One interesting thing is that one community’s teacher took his students to see the eagle at the nesting site, in its natural environment.
My goal is to be able to extend this community participation and education initiative to other regions, because if we could do it in Chagres, we can do it in the rest of Panama. This is especially needed on the Caribbean slope and on the Pacific side of eastern Panama, where there is still viable forest for the species. That’s what we’re working on with the Panama Audubon Society project, which is partly funded by the Panama Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Q: What are the principal eagle conservation areas in Panama?
Aparicio: One of my thesis’ results was precisely to determine where the important eagle habitat is. I also calculated how much of that habitat lies within protected areas and what portion doesn’t. The interesting thing is that just one-third of the habitat lies within protected areas, representing only 9 percent of the national territory. The rest of the habitat is within indigenous lands. Among the most important protected areas are Darién National Park, Palo Seco Protected Forest, in the northwest corner of the country, and Chagres National Park. Panama’s Caribbean side is fundamental, due to the amount of forest that it possesses, especially the Darién region.
Q: Considering current conditions, is it possible to maintain a healthy population of eagles in Panama?
Aparicio: Yes. In my study, I estimated that there are about 209 nesting pairs, and despite the fact that we have some problems with one area on the Caribbean side that isn’t forested, the rest of that region is. This is important for the eagles. The territory for a pair of eagles is 63 square kilometers. So when the juveniles leave the nest, they can’t stay in the parents’ territory. They have to seek out new territories. Thus the importance keeping forest areas connected.
The challenge, though, lies in connecting forested areas on a regional level. There has been a bit more research in South America, but there is a real shortage of data on Mesoamerica that we can base decisions on. We need to have a better idea of where the remaining isolated populations are within the eagle’s range. The problem is that no one is studying harpy eagles in Mesoamerica, and we need to know whether there are any eagles in an area or why they are disappearing before we can think about reintroducing the species.
Q: Do you work with indigenous groups in harpy conservation?
Aparicio: We at the Panama Audubon Society will soon be working in the Kuna Yala Comarca indigenous territory. The Kuna have responded favorably; they are very interested. We don’t intend to do the work for them. We’re just going to help them.
Q: Is there a difference between campesino and indigenous communities in respect to their attitude toward the harpy eagle?
Aparicio: The indigenous people understand and are dedicated to the cause. The truth is, I haven’t found any difference in this respect. As far as procedures go, with the indigenous people we first had to approach their congress, and then the sailas [Kuna chiefs] of each community, where one has to present them with their respective letters, approved by the congress. You need to respect their political structure. We’ve been aware of this, and throughout the process, we’ve tried to do things correctly.
Q: What are the principal obstacles to the harpy eagle’s protection in Panama?
Aparicio: According to my study, the greatest threats are hunting and deforestation. In Chagres National Park specifically, hunting is the main problem. In some regions the problem is not only people hunting the eagle but also the fact that they hunt the species on which the eagles prey. I think the situation varies according to the region.
Q: Why do people hunt harpy eagles?
Aparicio: According to my study, they are hunted for their meat and also killed out of fear. Since it is an animal that stands a meter [3 ft] tall, with a wingspan of two meters [6 ft], many people fear that it will kill their children or livestock. Others kill it for handicrafts, for example, to decorate hats with their white chest feathers. In the Coclé area, people drill holes in their wing bones and use them as flutes. They’re also used in traditional medicine, though there is no evidence supporting the curative powers the Indians attribute to the eagles. One indigenous group uses the feet, which they soak in alcohol; later they consume the dried bone for strength and vitality. Other Indians make a type of tea from the ground nails, mixed with a root, which they say cures epilepsy. The problem of hunting is about the same among indigenous people and campesinos.
Environmental education is therefore critical. Working by ourselves we biologists can not guarantee that we will save the harpy eagle; we’ve reached the point where we need help from local residents, who are the ones who live near the resources we want to protect. We need a lot of environmental education and local participation, as we had in Chagres National Park — involve communities in the process so that they gain ownership of it. The people of Chagres are now very proud of their eagles; since ’97, we have seen six chicks born there, and there is no record of anyone going there and killing them.
Q: Considering the protected areas that currently exist in Mesoamerica, how do you see the future of the harpy eagle on a regional level?
Aparicio: I think the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor can play a very important role in this area. In Panama, the distribution of the eagle coincides with the country’s part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. They are financing community projects that allow local people to participate in environmentally friendly agroforestry projects. This is precisely what needs to be done: promote environmental education and agricultural projects that improve the quality of life of local populations, because that will help the eagle.