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Harpy Eagle reintroduction in Belize

Update 2 on the Harpy Eagle Restoration Program.


FROM: Sharon Matola

SUBJECT:Monthly update on 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 effort.

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 release program.

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 work.

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, Birds 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, and British Forces Belize.

It was decided that, due to positive response from all contacted, Belize could undertake a Harpy Eagle Restoration Program.

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 graphics.

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 Raptor Center.

As with the first set of birds, these two eagles were placed in the hack box and observed daily. They were released on 18 June.

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 – GEF/SGP.



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 eagles.
- 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.

Hacksite volunteers with confiscated leaves of Xate palm/Las Cuevas Research Station

- 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 presence occurs.


- “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 education graphics.

- 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 for release.

- “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 this vaccine.

- 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 highlighted.

- 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.


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 biological data.


- 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.


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 Harpy Eagle.

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 of conservation.

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 page

Update 3 of January 2004

Update 4 of July 2004

Update 5 of December 2004

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