Giant birds, tropical forests and indigenous cultures: a field trip to the southern Philippines

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Giant birds, tropical forests and indigenous cultures: a field trip to the southern Philippines

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In February this year, RIEL colleague Hmalan Hunter-Xenie and I travelled to Mindanao in the southern Philippines to learn more about conservation, livelihoods and indigenous culture in the region.

The Philippines is biophysically opposite to northern Australia. It is an archipelagic nation of over 7,000 islands. It is mountainous, with dramatic peaks rising to over 2,500m and numerous active volcanoes. Of course, the Philippines’ ecosystems have been significantly altered due to population pressure. In 1900, around 70% of the archipelago was covered with forests. By 1999, that coverage had reduced to 18.3%. It is certain that this figure has been further eroded in the fourteen years since.

However, the Philippines is still a renowned biodiversity hotspot, with the remaining forests and coral reefs harbouring an incredible diversity of species. One such endemic species is the Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi). It is a giant bird, with adults having a wingspan of up to 2 metres and weighing up to 8 kilograms. Formerly known as the ‘monkey-eating eagle’, its powerful talons are built to latch on to prey such as flying lemurs, civets, tarsiers, squirrels, lizards, snakes, bats, hornbills, other birds of prey and, of course, the odd monkey. The Philippine Eagle is the national bird of the Philippines and its image is readily seen in corporate logos, on billboards, on t-shirts and of course on jeepneys.

Hmalan and Beau presenting at the Philippine Eagle Centre

Hmalan and Beau presenting at the Philippine Eagle Centre

However, the Philippine Eagle is critically endangered. There are believed to be as few as 400 breeding pairs in the wild. Each pair requires a forest territory of between 70 and 100km2 (which in a country where the human population density is 312 people per km2 is a rather large space!). As can be imagined, there are few forests left where the eagle can dwell without the threat of habitat destruction or hunting by humans.

For our trip we were hosted by the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF), who is leading the effort to protect the critically endangered Philippine Eagle and its rapidly vanishing forest habitat. Jayson Ibanez is the Director of Field Research and Community-based Initiatives at PEF, and is conducting doctoral research through RIEL. Through this connection, Jayson invited both Hmalan and I to participate in a cultural awareness workshop with staff at the foundation’s headquarters in Davao, Mindanao.

Hmalan’s presentation drew from her experiences in the Aboriginal Research Practitioners’ Network (ARPNet). She talked about Indigenous peoples past experience with government programs and policies and how these mostly negative experiences have shaped their reaction to and involvement in research. She spoke about local Indigenous people in the top end of the Northern Territory raising the issue of strengthening Indigenous involvement in research which ARPNet grew from. Hmalan concluded by sharing her thoughts on what could be done within an Indigenous research context globally to ensure Indigenous participation occurs, is supported, is acknowledged and that Indigenous peoples voices be heard.

Hiking to the nest site near Mt. Kitanglad, Mindanao

Hiking to the nest site near Mt. Kitanglad, Mindanao

I presented some of the work I conducted with the Djelk Rangers in Arnhem Land who supplement their land and sea management activities with commercial harvest of saltwater crocodile eggs. We shared perspectives and ideas on the tensions between livelihoods and conservation, something that is immediately obvious even in remote parts of the Philippines.

We were joined by a renowned Indigenous musician and artist named Waway Saway. He was certainly the star of the show, proceeding to describe the culture and beliefs of his tribe – the Talaandig – with humour and an infectiously beaming smile. Though Waway’s message about engaging appropriately and sensitively with Indigenous peoples was a serious one, it was artfully delivered from the heart and left participants with renewed enthusiasm for their work.

The undoubted highlight of the trip however was a field visit to an eagle nest in the forested slopes of Mount Kitanglad – at 2,899 metres, the Philippines’ second highest peak. Led by PEF field staff and local forest guides, we hiked for around an hour up a steep and leech infested bush track. Being so high up in the mountains it meant that the air was cool and crisp, with little sunlight penetrating the forest canopy.

On reaching the nest site we were met with… very little! There was some concern that the eaglet was roosting and it would be our unlucky day.

However, after patient observation for half an hour or so, the surprisingly large two month old eaglet raised its head into the sights of our binoculars and scopes. It clumsily paced around its spacious 2 metre wide nest of tree branches and ferns, occasionally stretching its sparsely feathered wings.

A two month old Philippine Eagle eaglet

A two month old Philippine Eagle eaglet

 

The eaglet stretches its wings

The eaglet stretches its wings

Then, without any warning, a flurry of giant wings completely filled the lens of my binoculars – one of the parents had returned! The adult sat on a bough above the nest for 10 minutes at most, presumably checking on the safety of its offspring, before flapping its giant wings and disappearing into the sky above the forest, leaving as unceremoniously as it came.

Hmalan spying on the eaglet

Hmalan spying on the eaglet

It is incredibly clichéd, but seeing a Philippine Eagle in captivity really cannot compare to the treat of observing one in the wild. Positioned in its natural setting, the bird’s immense size truly stands out. Especially when it spreads its wings – it feels like half the sky is taken up by feathers.

We were joined by a photographer from one of the leading newspapers in Davao.

We were joined by a photographer from one of the leading newspapers in Davao

 

Hmalan and our local forest guide

Hmalan and our local forest guide

The nest was located near the ancestral domain of the Talaandig tribe, one of seven ethnic groups belonging to central Mindanao. PEF works closely with the Talaandig on several community conservation projects in the Mount Kitanglad region. Following our visit to the eagle nest, we travelled for around 20 minutes to visit the Talaandig community and cultural centre.

When the Spanish first invaded the Philippines the Talaandig resisted colonisation and fled to mountain refuges. It is because of the resistance of their ancestors that the Talaandig retain much of their language and cultural tradition today. It is on this heritage that the tribe are building sustainable livelihoods, protecting the forests and ensuring the health of local watersheds.

We were fortunate to be welcomed to the village by Datu Migketay Victorino L. Saway, Waway Saway’s brother. Like Waway, Datu Vic has achieved in both the Indigenous cultural world and the non-Indigenous western world; not only is he a chief of the village, but he is a university trained anthropologist.

Hmalan and Beau with staff from the Philippine Eagle Foundation.

Hmalan and Beau with staff from the Philippine Eagle Foundation

Under the strong guidance of elders like Waway and Datu Vic, the Talaandig have established a cultural school to educate their young people in the traditional way, and have established a successful cultural tourism enterprise. Further, many of the tribe are successful artists and they are involved in growing crops such as ‘native coffee’ (i.e. locally grown Arabica). We were treated to a complimentary mug of this aromatic local brew. It was strong enough to ensure I barely slept that night!

So while the Philippines may be quite contrasting to northern Australia in many ways, some of the key political and livelihood issues for indigenous people are not. The pressure to develop ancestral domains (or country as is the Indigenous Australian vernacular) using large-scale and destructive livelihood options such as mining, logging and damming is very real for indigenous people in both places. Organisations like PEF are working with Indigenous people to identify and invest in alternative livelihood activities that offer local people the opportunity to earn a decent income without destroying the natural values on their ancestral domains.

Hmalan and I would like to thank PEF for the opportunity to share experiences and their hospitality during our stay. Special thanks to Jayson Ibanez and his family, who took time out of their busy schedules to truly make us feel at home. If anyone makes the trip to Mindanao, make sure you visit the Philippine Eagle Center, just outside Davao. Not only is it a beautiful place to spend a day, but you will also be contributing to the effort to preserve the habitat of the Philippine Eagle and help Indigenous Filipinos to sustainably diversify their livelihood incomes – both worthy causes!