Biodiversity in Belize
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Harpy Eagle reintroduction in Belize
Wild Harpy Eagle at Caracol, Belize. Photo Kevin Loughlin
Wether the Harpy Eagle maintains a breeding popuplation in Belize remains undecided but on 5 February 2000, Rick Taylor found a Harpy Eagle, Harpia harpyja, perched along the road about 2 miles north of Caracol in the Maya Mountains of western Belize, the first authenticated record for the country since 1958. Kevin Loughlin rearranged the itinerary of a tour he was leading to Belize to try to relocate the Harpy and, amazingly, succeeded. On 15 March 2000, his group watched the bird on a roadside perch for 50 minutes and later relocated it perched about 200 meters farther along the road (photo Kevin Loughlin).

Once present in lowland Neotropical forests ranging from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) populations have been severely reduced throughout much of their range due to forest fragmentation and indiscriminate hunting by humans. Now, The Peregrine Fund (TPF), Las Cuevas Research Station, the Belize Zoo, and the Belizean government, are working together to begin restoring this majestic raptor back into its former range.

Harpy Eagle recently placed in Hack box
The Peregrine Fund, based out of Boise, Idaho, USA is a non profit organization dedicated to the conservation of raptors and their habitats across the world. Having developed successful captive breeding and release techniques for Peregrine Falcons, California Condors, and Aplomado Falcons, TPF biologists developed a program to begin breeding Harpy Eagles in captivity. The objective of this program is to restore the species back to its historical range, wherever populations had been reduced or lost.
Despite painstaking efforts, however, such as building special facilities for the Harpy Eagles in an attempt to mimic some of the conditions of this species' natural habitat, few chicks survived to hatching age. Biologists believed that the differences in humidity, temperature, and sunlight between Boise, Idaho and a Neotropical climate, were affecting the rate of productivity among the captive breeding pairs. Realizing that in order to achieve the highest production possible, the eagles needed to be placed in an area more in tune with their natural habitat, The Peregrine Fund decided to build a captive breeding facility in Panama, Central America. In 2001, The Peregrine Fund Panama (Fondo Peregrino - Panama) and the Neotropical Raptor Center were born. To date, 19 captive bred Harpy Eagles have successfully hatched at this facility.
Finishing construction of Hack Box in Belize

4 of these eagles, two males and two females, were recently successfully released into the Chiquibul Forest of Belize, at the Las Cuevas Research Station. The first two eaglets were brought to Las Cuevas from Panama at the end of March. Upon their arrival, the birds were placed in a specially designed aviary, called a hack box, where they spent 3 weeks prior to their release. There, they were able to become accustomed to the sights and sounds of the area, thus increasing the chances that they will feel safe and secure in their new surroundings once they are free flying.

At this time, volunteers were also able to observe the birds from a blind and collect data on their behavior. These harpies were released on the 12th of April. The second set of birds arrived at Las Cuevas at the end of May. They were released on the 18th of June.
All four harpies were released from the hack box at approximately 6 months of age. It will take them another 7 or 8 months before they begin hunting on their own. Until then, they are dependent upon Peregrine Fund volunteers for food. They are fed approximately 2 rats each per day. In order to keep these birds as wild as possible and to prevent them from becoming accustomed to humans, all their food is placed at night, under the cover of darkness, while the birds are roosting away from the feeding area.

Recently Released Harpy Eagle

Volunteer conducting observations

Prior to their placement in the hack box, all four harpies were fitted with two radio transmitters. This allows Peregrine Fund volunteers and staff to track the birds on a daily basis. Currently, all four birds are doing wonderfully. They all have begun to explore the surrounding forest, while continuing to return to the hack site to feed.

Photos by Angel Muela and Marta Curti

 

Read more about this project in the October 18, 2003, January 2004, July 2004, December 2004, June 2007, October 2007, August 2008 and December 2009 updates by Sharon Matola.

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Last modified: December 20, 2009