Sharon Matola, Belize Coordinator
A. BRIEF ECOLOGY REVIEW
The Harpy Eagle, Harpia harpyja, is considered to be the
world’s most powerful raptor (Brown 1968), and their
range formerly extended from southern Mexico to northern
Argentina (Wetmore 1965). However, due to the destruction
and fragmentation of rainforest and heavy hunting pressure
by humans, the Harpy Eagle is presently rare or extinct
in much of Central America. Throughout its range, it is
considered near-threatened (Collar 1994).
The Harpy Eagle is said to indicate an intact ecosystem
(Albuquerque 1995), as top predators are often among the
first species to disappear when pristine habitat undergoes
human alteration or fragmentation (Noss 1994, Terborgh 1997).
However, recent findings show that Harpy Eagles sometimes
occur in forest near recently disturbed areas (Alvarez 1996).
It has been argued that top predators such as Jaguars,
Pumas and Harpy Eagles are keystone predators and that their
removal from an ecosystem can cause profound changes in
neotropical forest communities (Wright 1994, Terborgh 1992).
The Harpy Eagle Restoration Program, just approaching its
first year in Belize, is highly experimental. The data collected
about the ecology of these Peregrine Fund Panama captive-bred
and released Harpy Eagles will strengthen natural history
records of the species and assist in efforts to conserve
this dynamic bird-of-prey. We also maintain that this important
conservation work may stand as a role model for Restoration
programs involving captive-bred raptors in other countries.
B. RELEASED HARPY EAGLES AT LAS CUEVAS RESEARCH
All four birds, captive-bred at The Peregrine Fund’s
Neotropical Raptor Center in Panama, and brought to Belize
in March/April 2003 for initial release, are currently within
the area of LCRS, Chiquibul Forest Reserve. All four birds
have stayed within 1-5 km of their initial release site.
The females have moved further away, consistently, than
have the males.
Monitoring the movements of the four Harpy Eagles are Hau
Truong, Jen Struthers and Eric Hallingstad. Shelly Johnson
recently left the program, having spent over four months
assisting this work.
The biologists monitoring the Harpy Eagles have established
“feeding trees” for the birds. These trees are
located away from their initial release site. At night,
and ideally out of sight of the Harpy Eagles, rats are placed
in these trees for the birds to consume. The only predator
noted to interfere in this feeding strategy is the occasional
possum. Otherwise, this regime has proven a successful method
of feeding the Harpy Eagles.
One pair of the eagles has been observed attempting to
hunt. In December 2003, less than 9 months of their being
released, one bird, a male, was seen flying into a group
of Crested Guans. This same bird was also seen to make an
attempt to take “Cheetah” the LCRS resident
cat. Interestingly, this small cat is similarly coloured
like the rats, which are provided for the birds by the Harpy
Eagle monitoring team.
One male was seen chasing either an Ani or a Great-tailed
grackle. However, the bird escaped into thick vegetation.
On 25 December 2003, one of the Harpy Eagles successfully
captured and killed a Kinkajou. This arboreal mammal was
eaten by a male and female Harpy, over a period of two days.
It appears that the hunting instinct in the Harpy Eagle
is imperative, innate and strong. The behaviour noted up
to this point mirrors that of reintroduced captive-bred
subadult Harpy Eagles on Barro Colorado Island, Panama (Touchton
2002). These birds captured prey and are assumed to exhibit
the same behavioural aspects as wild Harpy Eagles.
All of the above indicates that the Harpy Eagle Restoration
Program is developing in a positive and successful direction.
The program will be relocating in 2004 from LCRS to Rio
Bravo Conservtion Management Area (RBCMA) in northwestern
Belize. This change of venue for the program is viewed as
a logical project development for the following reasons:
a. The RBCMA (managed by Programme for Belize, PfB), is
the largest protected area in Belize, encompassing well
over 100,000 hectares of tropical forest. The recent data
collected on foraging and hunting behaviour of the Harpy
Eagle has occurred in Panama, Barro Colorado Island, a reserve
of 1500 hectares, and in northeastern Brazil, on a reserve
of 2000 hectares.
b. Prey species are abundant. In December 2002, two days
were spent assessing the lands at RBCMA. Species noted were
Crested Guans, Chachalacas, and other possible bird species
which Harpy Eagles would prey upon; also, White Tail Deer,
Collared Peccary and numerous Iguana were observed. Howler
Monkeys were heard and Spider Monkeys seen on another occasion.
The little data collected on prey species for the Harpy
Eagle shows a preference for solitary arboreal prey species
(i.e. sloths) as opposed to social arboreal species (monkeys).
Terrestrial species, in particular, juvenile deer and peccary,
have been recorded as Harpy Eagle captured prey. In 1968,
one ornithologist (Russell), observed a Harpy Eagle successfully
capture an Iguana in the forests near Gallon Jug, northwestern
c. The UNDP/GSFSGF Belize Zoo Environmental Education Program
is focused on the villages which are within the immediate
area of the RBCMA lands. In total, eleven villages will
be receiving the program about the Harpy Eagle in Belize.
d. The eventual presence of the Harpy Eagle in the RBCMA
will enhance the ecotourist value of this area. Given the
extremely rare status of the Harpy Eagle, the opportunity
to view one of these birds, arguably the most majestic bird-of-prey
in the world, is beneficial, not just to RBCMA, but to the
nation of Belize.
UNDP GSF/SGF ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION PROGRAM
At this time, a brochure explaining the natural history
of the Harpy Eagle, as well as the Harpy Eagle Restoration
Program, has been produced. A poster showing a young Harpy
Eagle in a forest setting has also been produced for distribution.
A short film piece about the species and the Restoration
Program is currently being finalized by award-winning cinematographers,
Richard and Carol Foster. All of these resources will be
distributed nation-wide. In January, this UNDP funded Environmental
Education program will visit the village of Rancho Dolores.
The program will be presented to the schoolchildren there,
as well as community members. After this presentation, students
and community members will visit The Belize Zoo and observe
the Zoo’s resident Harpy Eagle, “Panama”.
Because “Panama” is hand-fed daily, he has formed
a strong bond to humans and appears to enjoy the presence
of visitors at his exhibit. The education value of the Harpy
Eagle exhibit at The Belize Zoo is high.
BIRDS WITHOUT BORDERS HARPY EAGLE PARTNERSHIP
Field researchers from of Birds Without Borders (BWB) are
training six community members from Rancho Dolores on bird
identification techniques. This training will result in
their being qualified as tourguides specialized in bird
identification. The training spans over a six week time
period and includes lectures at the Tropical Education Center,
TEC, about resident and migratory species, visits to various
areas of Belize to practice bird-identification, and detailed
natural history about the Harpy Eagle.
“PANAMA” – THE HARPY EAGLE AT
THE BELIZE ZOO
In December, “Panama” was observed stalking
a large male Iguana. The reptile was just outside the bird’s
exhibit. “Panama” showed keen interest in its
movements, and flew as close as he could to the Iguana while
it remained in the area. “Panama” has been vaccinated
against West Nile Virus disease and has shown no side-effects.
APPRECIATION FOR SUPPORT
The current successful profile of The Harpy Eagle Restoration
Program is due to support from the following:
Las Cuevas Research Station
Government of Belize/Ministry of Natural Resources
The Peregrine Fund
Belize Defence Force
Programme for Belize
Manager and staff: Tropical Education Center
Operations Manager, Front Desk Personnel and Animal Management:
The Belize Zoo
Angel Muela, from The Peregrine Fund Panama, having spent
a week in Belize during mid-January, will return in February
to assess the program’s progress, spend time at RBCMA,
and join Belize Project Coordinator Sharon Matola for overflights
of the RBCMA forests.
The above-mentioned overflights will be provided by the
conservation organization, Lighthawk.
Grants are still being pursued to provide the necessary
financial support for the continuation of the Harpy Eagle
Restoration Program in Belize.
Photos relevant to this update #3 are attached. As ever,
comments and suggestions from all readers are encouraged.
Please feel welcome to distribute this communication.
Sharon Matola, Belize Coordinator
Harpy Eagle Restoration Program
1. Albuquerque, J.L. 1995. Observations of rare raptors
in southern Atlantic rainforest of Brazil. J. Field Ornithol.
2. Alvarez, E. 1996. Biology and conservation of the Harpy
Eagle in Venezuela and Panama. PhD. Diss. Univ. of Florida,
3. Brown, L. 1968. Eagle, hawks and falcons of the world.
McGraw-Hill, New York, NY
4. Collar, N.J. 1994. Birds to watch 2. The world list
of threatened birds. BirdLife International, Smithsonian
Institution Press. Washington, DC.
5. Noss, R.F. 1994. Saving nature’s legacy: protecting
and restoring biodiversity. Island Press, Washington, DC
6. Terborgh, J.V. 1997. Transitory states in relaxing ecosystems
of land bridge islands. Pp 256-274 in Laurance, W.F. &
R.O. Bierregaard (eds) Tropical forest remnants. Univ. of
Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.
7. Touchton, J. 2002. Foraging ecology of reintroduced
captive-bred subadult Harpy Eagles (Harpia harpyja) on Barro
Colorado Island, Panama. Ornitologia Neotropical 13.
8. Wetmore, A. 1965. Birds of the Republic of Panama. Part
1. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.
9. Wright, J.S. 1994. Are large predators keystone species
in neotropical forests? The evidence from Barro Colorado
Island. Likos 71:279-294.
Back to main Harpy Eagle introduction
Update 2 of October 18, 2003
Update 4 of July 2004
Update 5 of December 2004