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Peasants Paid to Protect Birds : 'Adopt a Nest' Aids Rare Filipino Eagle

August 25, 1986|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines — Ransom the eagle was just a month old when he was taken from his jungle nest on a mountaintop 50 miles south of here on the island of Mindanao.

Ransom was taken from his parents by loggers who sold him to a physician in the provincial capital several miles away. In turn, the authorities say, the physician, who is known as "Doc" Limbo, planned to sell the eagle for a tidy profit to a businessman in Manila.

This eagle-snatching is just one reason why the Philippine eagle, a magnificent bird with a wingspan of up to eight feet, is nearing extinction.

But in Ransom's case, someone was watching: friends of an American bird lover, Ron Krupa, who has spent nine years in Mindanao trying to save the eagles. They told Krupa and, together with a team of investigators from the Philippine Bureau of Forest Development, he obtained a search warrant and raided Doc Limbo's farm.

Now, Ransom is a key piece of evidence in a test case that may help save the Philippine eagle from extinction.

Krupa, of Northbrook, Ill., is spearheading the Philippine government's efforts to prosecute Doc Limbo, whose given name is Domingo, for violating the Philippine Eagle Protection Act and to get the court to send him to prison.

Precedent Sought

"We want this case to be a precedent," Krupa said in an interview.

The incident involving Ransom constituted a second offense for Doc Limbo, he said, adding: "If the tribes in the mountains find out he got off lightly, they will just go on stealing eagles and selling them, and there won't be a single Philippine eagle left in the wild."

There are between 300 and 400 Philippine eagles left, according to Krupa, and the number is steadily decreasing. The Los Angles Zoo had two, he said, but both died, one in 1984 and the other last February.

Many have been killed and eaten by tribal hunters. Many more have been sold to dealers and collectors. But most have simply died off as hungry Filipino peasants, continually searching for firewood and farmland, have cleared the forests and jungles that were once home to as many as 10,000 eagles.

Since 1977, Krupa, now 38, has been living at a research camp outside the city of Davao. He is part of a group of mostly Filipino conservationists called the Philippine Eagle Conservation Program. They have raised about $25,000 for their cause this year, but that is not nearly enough, Krupa said.

In the year since the "Adopt a Nest Project" started it has saved more than a dozen eagles.

The incentive behind the program is money. Krupa and forestry officials have put out the word that any peasant who sights an eagle's nest with an egg in it will be given 1,000 pesos ($50) for reporting it. When the egg hatches, the finder is given an additional 1,000 pesos, and when the bird takes wing still another 1,000.

"What we're trying to do," Krupa said, "is to get the people who live in the mountains, in and around the eagle's natural habitat, to respect the importance of the entire forest. We merely focus their attention on the eagle, and by helping us save the eagle, they help themselves by saving the forests."

The installment system encourages the peasants to protect the habitat around the nest, leave the trees that support the eagle intact and keep farmers and loggers from cutting down the forests. And the incentive goes beyond the 60 days it takes for an egg to hatch and the 4 1/2 months that an eagle needs before it can fly off on its own.

"The Philippine eagle produces offspring, on average, once every two years," Krupa said, "so, what we're telling the natives is that if they continue to support a nest, it's a constant source of income for them. And in the process, we're also working against deforestation and the destruction of other wildlife, natural watersheds and the entire ecological system in the forests."

Krupa and government forestry officials said that the tribe that had discovered Ransom provided the information about his abduction.

At first, the tribe did not know Ransom had been taken. When the elders tried to collect the last installment for the eagle's departure into the wild, Krupa calculated that Ransom could not be old enough to have left the nest. The tribe's request for the reward was turned down, and, to protect their investment, some of the tribesmen set out to find the bird. They found it in a shed on Doc Limbo's farm.

Government conservationists say only young eagles are susceptible to abduction.

"An adult eagle is so powerful that it can break your arm or leg with its beak," said Jessica Tobongbanua, acting director of parks and wildlife in northern Mindanao. Tobongbanua helped recover Ransom and is now in charge of prosecuting the case.

According to conservationists, the Adopt a Nest Project, though under-funded, represents a major breakthrough in efforts by Krupa and the government to preserve the Philippine eagle. Krupa said the key to saving the bird lies in keeping it alive in the wild.

Poor Survival Rate

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