DATE: 18 OCTOBER 2003
FROM: Sharon Matola
SUBJECT:Monthly update on the Harpy Eagle Restoration
THE HARPY EAGLE RESTORATION PROGRAM
A. Brief History/Background
In 1989, The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit organization
dedicated to the conservation of raptors and their habitats,
began a program to begin breeding Harpy Eagles (Harpia
harpyja) in captivity. At The
Peregrine Fund headquarters in Boise, Idaho, USA, biologists
employed proven captive-breeding techniques and housed the
harpies in special facilities which were built in an attempt
to provide the birds with an environment that mimicked some
of the conditions of their natural habitat. However, despite
painstaking efforts only ten chicks survived to hatching
age in approximately seven years. 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.
The first eagles were moved from Boise to Panama in October
2000. Two additional pairs were moved in October 2001. The
first chicks were hatched in January 2002, just fourteen
months after the move. The embryos hatch without assistance
and the chicks are vigorous and healthy. At this writing,
nineteen captive-bred Harpy Eagles have resulted from this
Restoring these rare birds-of-prey into the forests of
Panama was initiated by the Peregrine Fund in cooperation
with the Panamanian government. To date, eleven individuals
are considered to be successfully released within the forested
landscape of Panama. The objective of this Program is to
restore the species back to its historical range, wherever
populations had been reduced or lost, focusing primarily
on the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor, the forest remaining
within the Central American isthmus. Panama and Belize have
large tracts of tropical forest suitable for such a complicated
The Harpy Eagle Restoration Program, both in Panama and
Belize, is highly experimental. However, the program has
the potential to provide strong and positive collaborative
conservation action on a national and regional level, and
will draw international attention towards this important
In October 2002, at the suggestion of Lee
Jones, Sharon Matola traveled to Panama to present a
paper on the status of the Harpy Eagle in Belize. Finding
out about the Panama effort to restore the species back
into the forests there, she encouraged Peregrine Fund individuals
to consider Belize for a similar program.
In December, Dr. Leonardo Salas and Angel Muela came to
Belize for a ten day assessment in order to evaluate the
possibility for a Harpy Eagle restoration program. The Harpy
Eagle team met with Marcelo Windsor of Conservation Division,
Without Borders personnel, Chris Minty of Las
Cuevas Research Station, Edilberto Romero of Programme
for Belize, Philip Balderamos of UNDP/gefsgp, Celso
Poot of The
Belize Zoo, Wil Mahaeia of TIDE,
It was decided that, due to positive response from all
contacted, Belize could undertake a Harpy Eagle Restoration
The style of releasing known as "soft release"
involves placing the young birds in a specially designed
aviary, called a hack box, for three to four weeks before
they are released. This time spent in the hack box allows
the birds to become accustomed to the area, and increases
the chances that they will feel safe and secure in their
new surroundings, once they are free flying. After exiting
the hack box for the first time, the birds will continue
to return to the hack box area for food for several months,
until they learn to hunt on their own. Since each bird was
fitted with two radio transmitters prior to their placement
in the hack box, hack site attendants can and do easily
monitor each bird on a daily basis.
In order to successfully release Harpy Eagles, at least
two factors must be in place: The release area must be large
and relatively isolated from human activity, but, it must
also be accessible to allow for easy transport of volunteers,
and regular shipments of harpy food. This logistical combination
is not easy to achieve. So, in order to allow for the continued
soft-releasing of young eagles in one area, older birds
must eventually be re-captured and released into other more
remote areas of Belize. These so-called "hard releases"
will occur only after the eagles become completely independent
of human care and all are assured that they are successfully
hunting on their own on a consistent basis. At "hard
release" sites, birds are released without the benefit
of a hack box, so that they will more freely disperse and
continue to hunt and exist completely independent of human
care. The forests of Rio Bravo, managed by Programme for
Belize, were chosen for the "hard release" site.
In January, Francisco Barrios from The Peregrine Fund/Panama
arrived and led the construction of the hack site at Las
Cuevas Research Station.
On 19 March 2003, two eagles, one female (identified with
a leg band Blue MX) and one male (identified with a leg
band Black-DX), were fitted with two VHF radio transmitters
(tail mount and backpack), so that they could be easily
monitored once they were free-flying.
On 20 March, this first set of Harpy Eagles arrived to
Las Cuevas Research Station. They were quickly placed in
the hack box, where they remained for three weeks. During
this time, they were fed and observed on a daily basis.
It is important to prevent the birds from becoming too tame
or associating humans with food. Therefore, observations
are only made from a blind. The eagles are unaware of human
presence. Food is always placed in the hack box at night,
so that human intervention is not visible to the Harpy Eagles.
The hack box if only approached from the back, which is
made of sheet metal to create a visual barrier. These precautions
help keep the eagle wild and helps them to develop a natural
fear of humans, which is critical for their survival.
A third Harpy Eagle, hatched blind in one eye, was given
to TBZ by TPF for an education exhibit, officially opening
on 26 July. This eagle serves as an “ambassador”
for the Harpy Eagles being released back into the forests
of Belize. At TBZ, visitors can get a close view of a Harpy
Eagle, and learn about its natural history from nearby zoo
On 12 April, 22 days after the eagles first arrived in
Belize, they were ready to be released. The doors to their
hack box were opened before first light. Both birds exited
the hack box within an hour of sunrise. They began to feed
on the rats that were placed outside. Over a period of several
weeks, biologists and volunteers continued to observe the
birds every day. During the first few days of release, both
birds stayed close to the release site. Over time, they
both began to explore the area which continuing to return
to the hack box area to feed.
On 27 May, (based on the success of the first release),
two more eagles, one male (Black DM), and one female (Blue
LG), were transported to Las Cuevas from TPF/Panama/Neotropical
As with the first set of birds, these two eagles were placed
in the hack box and observed daily. They were released on
Today, all four birds continue to be tracked on a daily
basis. They still return to the hack box to feed while spending
most of their time exploring the surrounding forest. TPF
volunteers have been able to see each bird every two-three
days, and report that all four birds are in good health
and are eating well. Each Sunday morning The Belize Zoo
(TBZ) communicates with TPF volunteers to receive updates
on the Restoration Program.
With funding assistance from UNDP-GEF/SGP, an Environmental
Education program began in August. This grant also assisted
with the development of the Harpy Eagle enclosure at TBZ,
as this exhibit is vital to the Education efforts being
put forward to support the Restoration Program. Ten villages
are involved in a Zoo Outreach Education program, targeting
the raising of awareness about Harpy Eagles. Brochures,
posters and ready to teach lesson plans on the Harpy Eagle
are being produced as part of this program. A short film,
to be televised on national radio, about the Restoration
Program is being finalized, as is a slide program on the
eagle’s natural history. Some of the funds will be
utilized to bring schools and other community members to
the zoo, so that the children and parents alike can become
familiar with a Harpy Eagle. “Panama”, the Harpy
Eagle at The Belize Zoo is kept accustomed to people, so
that he feels comfortable in the presence of zoo visitors.
The Belize Zoo Education Department has teamed up with
Birds Without Borders – Aves Sin Frontereas (BWB-ASF)
and will be working with the community of Rancho Dolores
in a bird guide-training program. Meetings have been held
with prospective community members, Zoo Staff and BWB-ASF
personnel to discuss the objectives and other activities
of the program. BWB-ASF is currently working on a bird checklist
of the area; this will serve as a vital tool to guides leading
tours between Bermudian Landing and Rancho Dolores. This
initiative is a component to the education program’s
community involvement and is also funded by UNDP –
A. LAS CUEVAS RESEARCH STATION
Each Sunday morning, Animal Management Supervisor John
Foster radios through to Las Cuevas Research Station and
receives the latest updates from hacksite volunteers, Eva
Kay, Jennifer Struthers, and Shelly Johnson. Sharon Matola
made a site visit on 6 and 7 October, bringing 400 rats
for the released Harpy Eagles near the Field Station. The
rats arrive from Florida, frozen. TBZ stores them and transfers
them to the Field Station when necessary.
- Birds can be heard calling at the hack site. Three birds
were in the immediate area. One female goes further away,
and has been tracked at least 2 km away from the hack site.
- Two rats are placed high in each selected tree in the
night. These trees are located a fair distance away from
the hack box itself.
- Up to now, no other predators have taken the rats; a
topic of conversation for those of us involved. Why not?
- The eagles apparently do not eat every day. They do not
eat if the weather is foul/rains/storms. (The Harpy Eagle
at TBZ does not eat in unpleasant weather, either).
- Two of the eagles have lost their tail radio transmitters.
They are tracked by their backpack signal only.
- The eagles are monitored daily and their positions plotted
on computer using “Arcview” software. With this
method, it can readily be seen where the eagles are and
their general movements.
When questioned about the needs for the Harpy Eagle Restoration
Program, it was stated that :
- A high platform within the hacksite area would make for
easier triangulation and receipt of signal location of the
- New telemetry equipment. The current equipment is not
in good operating order.
- A GPS for the project.
- The steady incursions from Guatemalans seeking to cut
palm leaf is an on-going problem and threat to the program.
These “Xateros” come over the border, numbering
in the hundreds, set up camps close by the Research Station
and search for and cut leaf from the palms, Chamadorea
elegans and Chamadorea oblongata.
with confiscated leaves of Xate palm/Las Cuevas Research
- However, the Xateros have also hunted wildlife in the
area, stolen research equipment, torn down Harpy Eagle posters,
and have caused a great deal of concern within the research
community at Las Cuevas.
- The safety of the young women monitoring the Harpy Eagles
causes concern. They must walk between 1-2 kilometers to
the hack site, along a lone, forested path. Sharon Matola
was told that someone accompanies them at all times for
their necessary travels. However, it should be noted that
as long as the Xateros are in the area, a threat to the
safety of the people at Las Cuevas Research Station, exists.
When Matola visited, both the Belize Defence Force, (BDF)
and British Forces were present. This was extremely effective
in eliminating the above threats. The GOB is commended for
taking the necessary measures to see that this military
B. THE BELIZE ZOO AND TROPICAL EDUCATION CENTER
- “Panama” The captive-bred, blind-in-one-eye
male Harpy Eagle is faring well in his new exhibit at The
Belize Zoo. The Durrell Conservation Trust (DCT), United
Nations Development Programme/Global Environmental Fund/Small
Grants Program (UNDP/gefsgp), and The Peregrine Fund, all
assisted in the funding of this exhibit and the accompanying
- The exhibit has been popular with visiting school groups.
Education Director Celso Poot reports that the graphics
are an important part of the Harpy Eagle visit, and have
received favourable comments.
||Sharon Matola explaining natural history
of the Harpy Eagle to visiting schoolchildren, using
graphics nearby the bird's exhibit.
- Many people inquire about “Panama” having
a mate. Sharon Matola readily responds that this could only
happen if another Harpy Eagle is captive-bred in Panama,
is “disabled” at hatching, and is not suitable
- “Panama” prefers the rats from the rat-breeding
facility in the USA. TBZ is breeding rats, however, there
is a definite preference to the “imported rodents”.
Animal mgt./TBZ is trying to find out the diet given to
the imported rodents. When Sharon Matola captured 3 healthy
vesper rats, (local rats), “Panama” showed little
interest. He eagerly chose the imported rats to eat.
- “Panama” as with the other raptors at TBZ,
has been vaccinated against West Nile Virus by our vet,
Dr. Sheila Schmeiling. None of the animals vaccinated at
the zoo have shown adverse side effects from this vaccine.
After much communication with many people, and thorough
review of all available literature, the decision was made,
with confidence, to safeguard TBZ collection by administering
- Exhibit Expansion. Initial communications with Dr. Nancy
Garwood of the Natural History Museum, London has resulted
in the beginnings of a “Forest Exhibit” located
near the Harpy Eagle enclosure. This will feature the palm,
Chamadorea elegans (“Xate”) and explain its
unique qualities and rare status. Four C. elegans have been
planted and are doing well. While the basic soil type, “Pine-Ridge
soils” are not suitable for growing this species,
TBZ has had, over a ten year period, the steady leaching
of calcium carbonate into these acid soils, derived from
the limestone-chip pathways and this has enriched the substrate
and made possible the growing of many species of plants
otherwise not found in the Pine Ridge. For instance, the
Ceiba, tree, Ceiba pentandra, and the Mahogany, Sweitenia
macrophllya, are thriving on zoo grounds. The theme of this
exhibit will be to draw attention to the importance of the
Chiquibul Forest and the role it plays in the protection
of the unique biodiversity of this area of the Mesoamerican
Biological Corridor. The Harpy Eagle, the Xate palm, and
a variety of other species of plants and animals, will be
- Tour Guide Enthusiasm: Tour guides are showing great
positive response as they are proud to show “Panama”,
the Harpy Eagle to their clients, and eager to share with
these visitors to Belize, the important steps that Belize
is taking in order to bring the Harpy Eagle back into this
part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.
C. POPULATION AND HABITAT VIABILITY WORKSHOP (PHVA) HARPY
EAGLE, August 2003 Chiapas, Mexico.
Goals of the Workshop:
- Bring together interdisciplinary groups and organizations
from Mexico, Belize and Guatemala that have an interest
in Harpy Eagle conservation.
- Develop an Action Plan to start a conservation program
with the Harpy Eagle in the Maya Forest (Belize, Mexico
and Guatemala), that includes field research, environmental
education, and captive breeding.
- Use the population model VORTEX to know what is and what
will be the Harpy Eagle’s future in the Maya Forest,
taking into consideration threats to the Harpy Eagle and
- Most of the people at the workshop were from Mexico.
Guatemala, Panama, Venezuela, the USA, and Spain were also
represented. Belize sent a detailed report on the work being
undertaken concerning this species. (via e-mail to Chiapas
sponsors from Sharon Matola).
- It was agreed that the PHVA was a good effort to see
that a Harpy Eagle Conservation Program continues to develop
within the Maya Forest. All agreed that communications regarding
this important idea, should continue and expand.
- “Panama” and Sharon Matola both appeared
in a short brief in the USA October issue of ELLE magazine.
- The Harpy Eagle Restoration Program will be featured
in upcoming issues of SMITHSONIAN Magazine and AUDUBON Magazine.
- “Panama” was part of a segment recently filmed
at TBZ for an MTV production entitled, “WILDBOYZ”.
“Panama” was hand fed by a near-naked young
man who spoke about the rare bird’s natural history.
This airs in December.
E. FINAL COMMENTS ON HARPY UPDATE NUMBER 2
This program owes a great amount of gratitude to the Natural
History Museum, London, Las Cuevas Research Station. The
infrastructure available as well as kind help with logistics,
has made the first stages of the Harpy Eagle Restoration
Program go forward successfully.
The Government of Belize is also thanked for their understanding
of the risks involved from the unfortunate incursions from
Guatemalan “Xateros”. Their support to send
military presence is paramount to the on-going success and
safety of this project.
The UNDP/gefsgp has played a major role in the sound beginnings
of the Harpy Eagle Restoration Program. The Environmental
Education program promises to be a very effective project
and will inevitably strongly enhance the Restoration efforts.
The entire staff at The Belize Zoo has been essential to
the Program’s successful standing. Collecting permits,
frozen rats, and organizing necessary logistics has been
dealt with in an organized and extremely professional manner.
The Education Department has been making an impressive effort
in Program development for villages and schools about the
For many of us, weary of reading negative reports on the
loss of biodiversity, and the continued fragmentation of
tropical habitat (i.e. The Reporter Press Sunday 19 October
2003, “World Losing battle Against Extinctions”),
the Harpy Eagle Restoration Program and its associated positive
facets, is a hopeful move forward within the important arena
Funding needs are a continual concern. Grants for Program
support are currently being pursued.
Another update will be sent within the next two months.
As previously stated, comments, suggestions and ideas about
the Harpy Eagle Restoration Program, are very welcome. Photos
are attached. Thank you.
Sharon Matola, Belize Coordinator
Harpy Eagle Restoration Program
Back to main Harpy Eagle introduction
Update 3 of January 2004
Update 4 of July 2004
Update 5 of December 2004