They are one of the largest species of eagles and females can weigh up to 24 pounds, with claws at times larger than that of a grizzly bear. They were once fairly common across Central and South America. But since the 1800s, the numbers of the Harpy Eagles have declined by over 40%. Loss of habitat in the rainforests of the Amazon and hunting have decimated their population to the extent that they are almost extinct in many countries here.
The Harpy Eagles (Harpia Harpyja) are classified as ‘near threatened’ as the decline is believed to be ‘moderately rapidly’ due to habitat loss and hunting.
Harpy Eagles: Straight From A Fantasy Book
The Harpy Eagles have sleek, monochromatic bodies. Their exuberant facial feathers resemble avian pigtails, and along with their ferocious eyes, they are among the most spectacular species of birds. Their talons, larger than a grizzly’s, can easily snatch a fully grown sloth from a tree.
Being a top predator, the harpy eagles play a vital role in keeping the population of prey species in check. Taking care of their conservation is crucial to achieving conservation of the total biodiversity in the ecosystem they operate in.
The large eagles build nests on lofty developing trees rising over the canopy of the forest. But until recently, it was not clear which species of trees they preferred for nesting.
Biologist Everton Miranda and his team of assistants from Brazil and the UK gathered all available information on the nesting habits of the eagles. They gathered locally available information from past studies on 98 nesting sites, preferred vegetation, and tree structures.
The team found that the harpy eagles preferred only 28 species of trees out of the 10,000 and more in the Amazon, for their nesting. The birds picked the tallest and fastest-growing trees that had specific shapes to support the large nests.
But the researchers suspected that the same trees were preferred by loggers in the region. They checked with the local commercial timber industry and found that 92% of the trees used by the harpy eagles for nesting were among the list for commercial logging. This indicated that the trees favored by the eagles were also among the most preferred trees by loggers.
Hunting The Magnificent Birds
Dietary analysis has shown that the birds prefer wild animals living in trees. Their favorite food is sloths, though they also hunt monkeys. Their hunting habits are vital in bringing down the population of leaf-eating omnivores and herbivores, such as the Capuchin monkeys.
This helps maintain the ecosystem of the rainforests. Harpy eagles have been known to occasionally attack livestock because they need to carry it up the trees to feed. They rarely attack animals that are heavier than 11 pounds (5 kilograms).
But people use their reputation for attacking livestock as a justification to hunt them down. People even shoot the birds out of curiosity. Shooting the birds is easy as the birds are known to remain stationary in their perch for hours, at times even the whole day.
This gives hunters sufficient time to hunt them down. Only 20% of the hunts have been linked to retaliation for or prevention of the predation of livestock. The harpy eagles have also been hunted for their meat. Superstition also plays a role in the hunting down of the birds. The claws are used for baptizing children, while the feathers also make their way to the illegal trade in wildlife.
Live birds are also at times captured for sale to private zoos. Many captures and hunts are never documented. Columbia is one of the worst offenders when it comes to hunting down these magnificent birds. Hunting is also prevalent in Brazil and Panama.
The Concept Of Selective Logging Of Trees
The logging industry uses a system of selective harvesting to protect the tropical forests. This system is opposed to the total clearing of a complete area of forest. Only marketable trees are marked for felling while the others are allowed to stand. That forest patch is left to grow back in 2 to 3 decades before the loggers return to those patches.
Some researchers suggest that scientific methods of timber production can help maintain the biodiversity of a forest that is comparable to native and protected forests. Some conservationists believe that it is a practical balance between the demands of commercialization and the protection of the environment.
But even selective logging done on a massive scale destroys the very purpose of selective logging. And that is exactly what is happening in the Brazilian Amazon. A massive area has been logged selectively. But recent studies show that 16% of forests that were selectively logged became completely deforested within one year.
The opening up of the canopy due to selective logging weakens the surrounding trees while also affecting the forest floor in tropical forests, as they dry up gradually. The first become drier and also susceptible to forest fires.
Crucial ecosystem engineers such as the dung beetle population are adversely affected as they are dependent on particular trees for their survival; similar to the harpy eagles. The researchers concluded that even selective logging harms the forests as much as total deforestation, only the process gets delayed.
Threats To The Survival Of The Harpy Eagles
Conservationists are not sure of the number of harpy eagles in the wild. But they are certain that their population is dwindling rapidly. These formidable raptors were once common from northern Argentina to southern Mexico. But their population is limited to the dwindling forests of the Amazon.
Deforestation to make way for farming, logging, mining, and other development are the primary threat to the survival of the species. But there has been no slowing down in these activities in the rainforests of South and Central America. Even in 2020, around 136 acres of forests were destroyed every hour in the Brazilian Amazon, the largest portion of the rainforest.
While selective logging has been held as a model for environmental and ecological conservation, new studies indicate that it doesn’t work that way, especially for the harpy eagles.
In the rainforests of the Amazon, studies have shown that trees favored by harpy eagles from their nesting sites are the main target of commercial loggers. Logging operations have intensified since President Bolsonaro took over as president of Brazil, leading to widespread degradation in the region.
This degradation has led to the decimation of the population of the harpy eagles in the region. They are now confined to the lowland Amazon, which is their last remaining stronghold. 93% of the existing population live here.
Biologist Everton Miranda from the KwaZulu-Natal University in South Africa is leading a study on harpy eagles in South America. He says that they are under a grave threat to their survival and hunting and widespread destruction of their habitat is the main reason.
The Preferred Trees Of The Harpy Eagles
The kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) is the most preferred nesting tree in the Amazon forests. These trees can grow up to 200 feet (60 meters) high. The wood is used for light construction and plywood. The waxy fiber of its seed is also used for mattress filler and insulation.
In the Guiana Shield, which encompasses Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and Venezuela, and parts of northern Brazil and Columbia, the harpy eagles prefer nesting in the enormous cachimbo or copo hediondo (Couratari guianensis). These trees are used in flooring and carpentry and this species was classified vulnerable in 1998.
The nests of the eagles can be as large as 8 feet (2.5 meters) across. The birds favor trees with branches that have shallow angles and broader crowns. This offers space for young harpy eagles to learn to fly while making it easier for the adults to comfortably land on with their prey. Miranda says that the birds are very specific about the structure of the trees they chose.
The harpy eagles select these strong, sturdy trees for their structure, size, and strength. It is necessary to support the nests of the huge birds which grow up to a length of 3.5 feet. The vantage point on these trees gives a panoramic view to the birds scanning for prey. It also protects the young ones from threats.
These massive trees themselves are an independent ecosystem, another reason the eagles prefer them other than for nesting. The bird is also extremely vital in controlling the numbers of capuchin monkeys that destroy the eggs of other birds. These monkeys also destroy palm trees by eating away at their palm hearts. The carcass dropped by the eagles may also help in the dispersion of seeds in their nesting areas.
The Destruction Of The Emergent Trees; The Preferred Nesting Sites Of The Eagles
There are no statistics to suggest the extent of illegal logging in the area. Illegitimate logging is rampant in Ecuador, Peru, and Columbia and has high levels of unlawful timber exportation and harvesting. It is estimated that a massive 90% of logging in the Amazon forests is illegal, and is prevalent in all countries in the region.
While the results highlight the threat to the conservation of the harpy eagles, it is difficult to infer these findings to the fate of the birds. It is not known how efficient they are at relocating to a different emergent when their nesting site is threatened.
The guidelines for the sustainable management of forests disallow the felling of all seeding trees of any particular species within a felling area, says Saulo Souza doing his post-doctoral study at Exeter University, UK. This allows the preservation of trees of a particular species for seeding purposes.
Souza notes that the law that prohibits loggers from cutting down nut trees has been successful and has benefitted the harpy eagles, who use it frequently as a nesting site.
The best way to save their habitat is to select the trees to be cut. Care needs to be taken to exclude trees with nests in them, especially of birds that are threatened, such as the harpy eagles.
But the harpy eagles are yet to make it to the Red List of the Internation Union for Conservation of Nature, the master list of threatened species worldwide. their status has not changed even though researchers and conservationists do know that there has been extensive degradation of their habitats. They strongly feel that the birds should be deliberated in the IUCN assessment the next time.
But loopholes in regulations continue to allow the continuation of intensive harvests. Illegal loggers continue to go around legal barriers due to a lack of enforcement measures.
Timber licenses are being inflated for commercially prized trees thus leading to excess logging than legally permitted. The change in guard in Brazil has been the worst thing that could have happened to the Amazon rainforests.
President Bolsonaro has taken multiple steps to increase the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon, granting logging licenses indiscriminately. Funding to the federal agency for the environment, IBAMA, has been cut and enforcement reduced under Bolsonaro’s rule.
Conservationists have been striving to work with regional and national governments, logging companies, and the local population to bring in best practices for the conservation of forests. This is the best way to stamp out illegal logging.
But governments across South and Central America have evinced little interest in taking measures to control illegal practices by several interested entities, like the logging industry, the agricultural industry, and ranchers. Commercial considerations have taken precedence over environmental protection, and it appears to stay that way shortly.
Saving The Harpy Eagles Through Tourism
A collaboration between conservationists and wildlife tourist operators, SouthWild could be a promising way to protect the harpy eagles. Local people who discover nests of the birds get $100 under the ecotourism project. The locals are also hired to build observation platforms to allow tourists to view the birds at eye level, and take care of the tourists’ needs.
Around 790 acres of forest land have been brought under this conservation measure through agreements with landowners. They earn around $20 per tourist each day. This has helped to stop the persecution of eagles in the region.
Miranda says that protecting the forest is the primary need as deforestation is the single vital threat. Forests lost to soy farming also remain a huge threat. Soy is mostly used to feed cattle and to tackle this, action is required at multiple levels. but Miranda feels that the birds have a fighting chance of survival as more countries make and enforce laws to protect endangered animals.