Much to Harp About

By Sharon Matola
Edited by Naturalight Productions

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In Greek mythology the half-woman, half-bird characters Harpies would swoop down and seize the souls of the dead. Exactly how their namesake bird earned a similar reputation as baby snatcher is unclear to the conservationists who are literally racing against time to stop its extinction. Maybe it came from seeing the bird in flight carrying a monkey prey or maybe this legend comes from staring at the intimidating looking bird.

The adult males weigh approximately ten to sixteen pounds while the females grow to be about thirty percent larger. Standing half the size of an average human adult with a wingspan of about seven feet, the Harpy Eagle's back is covered with slate black feathers; its underside is white with a black band across the chest; its head is pale gray. What earns this species its title of "the most powerful eagle in the world" is Harpia hapyja's five-inch long talons, the size of a grizzly bear's claws, that exert enough pressure to crush the bones of sloth, monkey, iguana, rodent, and other birds it grabs from the treetops.
As powerful a raptor species as the Harpy Eagles is in the wild, the bird is equally vulnerable. In fact, ornithology literature states that the Harpy Eagle is "all but extinct in most of Central American countries" (Ferguson-Lees 2001). Besides the steady loss of forest habitat necessary to sustain their populations, the feared Harpy Eagle is being hunted at an alarming rate. In Belize sightings of the eagle had become so rare that birders rejoiced in 2000 when a group captured video footage of a harpy near the archaeological site of Caracol. Soon after, a published photo showing a hunter from neighboring Guatemala holding the bird's carcass shattered the hopes of bird watchers. Today, about five years after this tragedy, the future of the Harpy Eagle in Belize is looking brighter.

Thanks to the collaborative efforts of The Government of Belize, The Belize Zoo, Programme for Belize, the United Nations Development Program, and The Peregrine Fund, five Harpy Eagles now call Belize home. The story unfolds in 2002 when the Belize Zoo Director, Sharon Matola, observed a program developed by The Peregrine Fund. Aimed at restoring the population of the Harpy Eagle in the forest landscape of Panama, The Peregrine Fund breeds the eagles in captivity, releases them into the wild, and at the same time creates an attraction for over seven million bird watchers in North America while boosting the tourism industry.

Inspired by these efforts, Matola became convinced a similar program could be successfully executed in Belize.

"We can make it work here," she insisted as she encouraged The Peregrine Fund to consider replicating this progressive conservation work in Belize. "Besides having the necessary forest habitat, we can also combine the restoration of the eagles with aggressive environmental education. The Belize Zoo is already known for its wildlife education programs. The potential to make this a success is great."

If Matola's enthusiasm didn't convince The Peregrine Fund, then their visit to and assessment of Belize certainly did. A pair of Harpy Eagles needs about eight miles of forest home to survive. In Belize, The Peregrine Fund found expanses of healthy tropical forest that's ideal habitat for the eagles. Following meetings with government officials, the Belize Harpy Eagles Restoration Program was set in motion.

Months later three harpies that had been born in captivity made the northern journey from Central America's tail country, Panama, to its head country, landing in Belize on March 20, 2003. Advocates for howler conservation who had been nervously observing from the sidelines were happy to learn that the harpies had come accompanied by twenty pounds of frozen rat dinners. Their concerns were not unduly warranted though; harpies in Panama have a delectable preference for the slow-moving arboreal sloth. Belize has no sloth but is sustaining healthy populations of spider and Black Howler monkeys, which are known to be another favorite for the Harpy Eagle.

On a subsequent trip two other harpies were transplanted onto Belizean soil. Of the five, four were soft released in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve of the Cayo District where The Peregrine Fund setup up a research center at Las Cuevas. While the harpies were "in the wild", they still relied on their biologist adopted parents and returned regularly to feed. Using radio-telemetry, their "parents" monitored them daily to assess the eagles' progress. Eventually the biologists reduced the amount of food at each bird's "feeding tree", thus coercing them towards hunting for their own meal.

The first one to fly the coup was a female tagged "LG" who started venturing so far away from Las Cuevas that eventually helicopter flights had to be used to locate her. LG is the first released Harpy to reach independence in Belize. One of the male harpies did not make it to independent life in the wild, while the remaining pair was transported to their 260,000 acre home in the relatively protected Rio Bravo Management and Conservation Area of the Orange Walk District, in northern Belize. There the female, named "Brave Maid" by a ten-year old girl in a school contest, was the first of the two to be documented as a successful hunter, indicating that the harpies are well on the way to living independently in the wild.

In the two years since the harpies have become acquainted with Belize habitat and cuisine, documented prey species include the anteater, porcupine, grey fox, kinkajous and possum. While howlers and advocates alike gave a sigh of relief at this news, researchers monitoring the program are also very pleased that the eagles have been able to adapt.

As for the fifth eagle ... Found to be blind in one eye upon hatching, he has been hand raised and is still hand-fed. As a result, he can never be released into the wild. Panama, as he has been affectionately named, was a gift to the people of Belize. He has become a poster child for the education awareness component which reinforces the importance of the restoration program at the Belize Zoo.

Lead by Belize Zoo Education Director, Celso Poot, the awareness building aspect invites the people of Belize to be active participants in the restoration program. At the same time, the dissemination of information will help end the baby-snatcher legend, minimize the fear of the public from this foreboding creature and eventually lead the public to see the Harpy Eagle as assets to be protected.

Future plans are for more Harpy Eagles to make the trip from Panama to Belize and make a home in the forested landscape of the Rio Bravo. This year as the juvenile harpies approach sexual maturity, optimism is high that the birds will begin to breed within these forests, providing the country with an empowered ecological profile; one that boasts the re-established presence of the most magnificent bird-of-prey in the world, the Harpy Eagle.

For More Information, click on the links below:

The Belize Zoo

Images Courtesy of:

  • Tony Rath Photography
  • The Belize Zoo

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