by Jayson Ibañez
Davao City, Philippines - For nearly three decades, the Philippine Eagle Foundation worked with the local government and communities at Mt Sinaka in Arakan, North Cotabato to conserve a pair of the IUCN “critically endangered” Philippine eagle and their nesting territory. With only less than 2,000 hectares of forest cover, Mt Sinaka is the smallest Philippine eagle nesting habitat in the world.
“Since our team validated a Philippine eagle family at Mt Sinaka in 1995, we helped empower the surrounding local communities to become responsible neighbors to the eagles through education, forest protection and restoration projects and livelihood support” said Mr. Dennis Salvador, Philippine Eagle Foundation Executive Director.
“And we’re very proud of these local partnerships. Through the communities’ careful watch and stewardship across the years, at least 11 young eagles hatched successfully at Mt Sinaka” he added. The life of the Sinaka eagle was also featured in the international wildlife documentary “Bird of Prey” by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
However, a tragedy happened in 2018. Ten days before Christmas Eve, a farmer found the lifeless body of a young Philippine eagle by the roadside.
Tragic eagle death from a bare powerline
Dodoy Rodriguez of Barangay Lanao Kuran left his home at 9:00 AM on December 15, 2018 to deliver tomatoes to Arakan town. While driving his motorcycle through Barangay Tumanding, Dodoy noticed what seemed to be a “white sack” lying on the grasses along the road. At first, he ignored what he saw. But when he got closer, he realized it was something else so he stopped and checked. To his surprise, it was actually a huge bird, lying on its back and with its cotton white under parts exposed.
As narrated by Dodoy, he touched the bird hoping it was still alive, but the animal was no longer breathing. “Ants already swarmed on the carcass but its body was still warm” said Dodoy. The farmer found the bird just a meter away from a concrete electric post (see photo). He also noticed burns on the eaglet’s left wing and right foot.
Realizing that the huge bird was a Philippine eagle, he brought the corpse to the house of a forest guard who, in turn, reported the incident to the Philippine Eagle Foundation.
Further examination by PEF Veterinarian Consultant Ana Lascano of the corpse showed burn marks on the left wing and on the right foot of the bird. The left wing also sustained a compound fracture while a hole about 1 cm in diameter was found on the bird’s footpad. Inspection of the eagle’s organs also showed that it’s a young male eagle.
Her necropsy report further wrote that “the bird was lying lifeless…on the roadside, about a meter distant from a concrete electric post owned and operated by the Cotabato Electric Cooperative (COTELCO)”. She also noted that the heart and surrounding vessels have ruptured. With the burn marks, ruptured organs and the corpse being close to a power pole, she concluded that the “…eaglet have been (accidentally) electrocuted.”
Based on reviews of photographs by electrical engineer Floro Baguec Jr of the Apayao Province Engineering Office, he explained that the power pole where the bird landed held a bare, non-insulated “secondary line” with 220 Volts of electrical power. The bird apparently came in contact with the two naked wires simultaneously, and that the full voltage passing through its body caused its death.
This is already the second eagle death case for accidental electrocution from bare wires in the country. The first was a captive-bred bird named “Kabayan” that was released at Mt Apo in 2004.
But globally, developed and highly industrialized countries like Japan, US and Europe had grave issues with large eagles dying of electric shock way for several decades now, and they have developed safe wire insulation methods to avoid its impacts. With the push for more electrification and urbanization projects close to formerly remote forests and eagle habitats, similar measures to prevent eagle and wildlife deaths from non-insulated powerlines must be implemented.
Pro-active partnership pilots a powerline retrofitting project
After the 2018 incident, COTELCO expressed that it wants to modify and insulate their powerlines at Mt Sinaka to protect the eagles. And in 2019, experts from the Asian Raptor Research and Conservation Network (ARRCN) of Japan led by its President, Dr. Toru Yamazaki came to Mt Sinaka to provide advice on a possible project to insulate and retrofit the powerlines and protect the eagles.
Engineers from the Davao Light and Power Company provided a range of retrofitting options. Meanwhile, their counterparts from COTELCO selected and provided price estimates for an insulated wire system fit for the electricity network at Mt Sinaka. Accordingly, the best fit for the project is a 23 KV Conductor, Insulated, Tree Wire, non-shielded High Density or Crossed Linked Polyethylene (HDPE/XLPE) Aluminum Conductor Steel Reinforced (ACSR) American Wire Gauge # 2 system.
But Covid-19 got in the way. Yet despite the pandemic, the LGU of Arakan passed an ordinance in 2021 that responded to the urgent conservation needs of the species. Named the “Ordinance declaring the Philippine Eagles as the Flagship Species (Bird Jewel) of the Municipality of Arakan and Providing for its protection and conservation and imposing penalties for violations thereof and appropriating funds therefor”, this landmark policy sets the stage for more proactive measures to secure at least two Philippine eagle families within Arakan town, including piloting a powerline retrofitting project.
We also continued our education campaigns. For instance, during the Philippine Eagle Foundation’s celebration of the UN Wildlife Day in March, 2021, Mt Sinaka and its Philippine eagles were also featured through a popular webinar on remnant forest patches.
Dr. Toru Yamazaki continued his support remotely by connecting the Philippine Eagle Foundation to Suntory, a Japanese wine and beverage corporation who also manages the Suntory Fund for Bird Conservation. Through Dr. Yamazaki’s help, grant money was awarded in 2022 to fund the purchase and installation of the first 1.5 km of insulated wire at Barangay Tumanding. The project also supported additional training and engagement of community forest guards. The Foundation’s Director for Research and Conservation, Dr. Jayson Ibanez, received the grant on April 11, 2022 through an on-line ceremony with Suntory.
As a kick-off of the new project, four additional organizations met and banded with the Philippine Eagle Foundation, the Arakan LGU, and COTELCO in September 2022, forming a Project Advisory Council. Each council member also pledged their respective talents and resources to the project. For instance, COTELCO shall cover manpower, transport, installation and miscellaneous cost of the installation and maintenance of the new retrofitted powerline.
On the other hand, the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) of the DENR commits to reviving the proposal to declare Mt Sinaka as a national protected area through a “Critical Habitat” designation. For its part, the Cotabato Foundation College of Science and Technology (CFCST) organized its faculty researchers and a few thesis students to study and document the wildlife species that are using the powerlines and the surrounding habitat during pre- and post- installation of the insulated wires.
In addition, the Mt Apo Foundation Inc. (MAFI) shall extend its local capacity building services and livelihood outreach to the host villages of the project. Lastly, the Tinonanon Manuvu Indigenous Peoples Organization of Arakan commits to organizing and supporting its members at Brgy Tumanding as volunteer forest guards.
Inaugural installation of the insulated powerline
After months of preparations, the installation work for the first 1.5. km of a 4.5 km retrofitted powerline system was finally launched through a simple ceremony last March 24, 2023 at Sitio Bagtok in Barangay Tumanding.
The event began with an Indigenous ritual by the Tinonanon Manuvu elders close to the power pole where the Philippine eaglet was electrocuted in 2018. The ritual sought spirit guidance and consent for the installation of the new wires and the safety of the COTELCO line men through prayer and offerings. The ritual was followed by the collective unveiling of the project marker by the Advisory Council members, and the setting up by the COTELCO linemen of the first insulated line.
A short program to celebrate the fellowship amongst the collaborators at the Tribal Hall in Sitio Bagtok followed the inaugural installation.
Dr. Toru Yamazaki flew all the way from Japan to represent the ARRCN and Suntory at the inauguration. “When I learned that the Philippine Eagle Foundation needed help with finding funds to protect the eagles of Mt Sinaka, I did not hesitate to find the right donor in Japan” said Dr. Yamazaki during his special message.
He added that he saw the majestic male Philippine Eagle of Mt Sinaka when he visited in 2019. “I felt that I could not let the imperiled eagle couple down” he added. Dr. Yamazaki also donated five pairs of binoculars to the local volunteers guarding the eagles at Mt Sinaka.
Ms. Karol Mei Colambot, Head of Promotions of the COTELCO mentioned that the COTELCO management felt a sense of guilt after they learned about the accidental death of the eaglet from one of their electric posts. She added that total rural electrification is an important part of COTELCO’s mission but that they are also one with the Philippine Eagle Foundation in protecting our national bird at Mt Sinaka. “COTELCO is grateful and proud of their participation to the project and commit to protect the eagles through our best efforts possible” she added.
The installation will be completed before June, 2023 in time for the town-wide celebration of the Philippine Eagle Day in homage to the Arakan’s “Bird Jewel”.
“The survival of each individual to sexual maturity is very critical for an IUCN “critically endangered” species like the Philippine Eagle”, said Mr. Dennis Salvador. “We hope that through this pioneering project and by way of COTELCO’s example, we can encourage all electric companies operating in Philippine eagle forest habitats across the country to do the same avoid the wasteful death of our national symbol” he added.
The event was also attended by the CFCST, Barangay LGU Tumanding, LGU Arakan, Mt Apo Foundation, Inc. CENRO Matalam, and the Tinonanon Manuvu Indigenous Political Structure, with each representative of the organization giving their messages and commitment.