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Application of Remote Sensing on the Conservation of Philippine Eagle

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Found among the islands of Luzon, Leyte, Samar and Mindanao, the Philippine Eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi lives as one of the largest and most powerful among forest raptors in the world. The bird of prey is equipped with a massive narrow-arched bill and large black claws, with its feathered and scaled legs—standing at its glory with a meter tall, around 95 centimeters long, weighing approximately 4 kilograms at a wingspan of 6.5 feet. While the eagle is widely known as the country’s national bird, it is notably of a rare kind, as it monogamously produces only a single birth over a two year period (Bueser et al., 2003). In rearing its young, the Philippine eagle shares alongside with its mate the responsibilities in caring for the offspring for over 17 months, nestled on dipterocarp treetops 30 meters off the ground (Harder et al., 2006). The population is observed to be on a critical decline, as estimates indicate that there are only about 500 pairs in the country, wherein the mountains of Mindanao are presumed to hold 200 pairs in its forests (Ibanez, 2006). With the bird occurring in low numbers at a low reproduction rate, the Philippine Eagle is listed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, leaving the forest raptor’s existence dangling on a fine line between endangerment and extinction.

Deforestation accounts as a primary factor that induces the rapid depletion of the raptor, and as the Philippine populace multiplies exponentially, forests areas are inevitably forced to cut its corners to accommodate human settlements and exhaust its natural resources for consumption (Harder, et. al 2006). Mindanao has an incidence poverty estimated to be at fifty percent, with about two-thirds of its population relying on cultivation in order to survive (Ibanez, 2006). In spite of the efforts exhausted by institutions in order to mitigate the impending forest degradation, it remains to fall short of efficiency and productivity. The deforestation of dipterocarp forests poses an immediate threat to the survival of the eagle. Mt. Apo, a recognized habitat of the Philippine Eagle, is known to have lowland dipterocarp forests. Philippine Dipterocarp forests are populated by broadleaf tree species such as the red and white lauan, tanhule, tiaong, almon, bagtikan and mayapis of the Philippine mahogany species (Bueser et al., 2003). The area is home to numerous threatened and restricted-range bird species of Mindanao along with the national bird, as its population has been monitored extensively since the 1960s. However, the area’s lowland forests have nearly been cleared or degraded (BirdLife International, 2019). The Philippine deforestation rate is reportedly 91,000 hectares a year, one that is particularly high within its Southeast Asian counterparts. At this rate, it is projected that the forests would be entirely denuded by the year 2036 (Bueser et al., 2003).

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A pair of Philippine eagles require approximately 4,000-11,000 hectares of forest land in order to thrive (Philippine Eagle Foundation, 2019), however in the present, forest habitats are driven to separation, resulting to insularization and structural modifications that is detrimental to the forest biodiversity, and consequently, eagle territories. As the fragmentation of forests propagate through time, this increases the species’ vulnerability to another primary threat to eagle populations—hunting. As forest corridors come to closer proximity to settlements, chances of contact with humans would inevitably result to acts of catching or trapping the creatures, may it be intentional or by unprecedented actions. Nonetheless, the act of hunting pertains as a behavioral issue that can be amended within a human time scale and can be regulated by strict policies imposed on the people (Ibanez, 2006). Whereas in contrast, deforestation requires longer periods to resolve and extensive efforts to rebuild lost habitat, and even at its reconstruction, it is never the same, and for the species that thrive in it, it might be already too late.

The dwindling numbers of the Philippine Eagle mirrors the state of the remaining forests of the country. By association, the conservation of the eagle has been used by organizations as a prominent example in addressing the country’s forest conservation initiatives. While saving the eagle holds importance in preserving the forest, the Philippine Eagle also takes the role of an apex predator that keeps the balance of the ecosystem. Due to its placement on top of the food chain, areas with a prominent presence of Philippine eagles are telltale signs of a healthy forest ecosystem (Philippine Eagle Foundation, 2019). As the creature represents environmental issues of the times, the eagle also serves as a cultural heritage of the Filipino people. An endemic species unlike any other holds cultural importance as the eagle is part of the country’s history and serves as the symbolic national bird—thus losing it to extinction would appear as if the nation has lost part of its identity as well. In order to conserve the species, the leading organization in eagle conservation, the Philippine Eagle Foundation, plans in preserving the eagles’ genetic diversity and to expand the its habitat corridors across the island of Mindanao (Ibanez, 2006).

Habitat conservation needs to be addressed immediately in order to sustain healthy, functioning ecosystem and safeguarding its biodiversity. However, due to the fast-paced developing times, the land cover have also drastically changed along with it. In conservation management, there exists the dilemma of having insufficient maps that are of detail and accuracy on geographical distribution, which is a key element is forming effective methods in conserving protected areas. Though there have been efforts in delineating forest cover and distribution through the application of remote sensing techniques, a hole is yet to be filled for the Southeast Asian continent (Wohlfart et al., 2014). The study aims to delineate the gradient of dipterocarp forests in Mt. Apo, producing a dipterocarp map to aid in conservation policies at 250m resolution based on Wohlfart, Wegmann and Leimgruber’s methodology of mapping threatened dipterocarp forests of the Southeast Asian continental area. The output would contribute in determining the current protection status of dipterocarp forests within the vicinity. The process is developed to map dipterocarp forests, taking into consideration the factors that are prevalent in Southeast Asian regions such as the strong seasonality, small scale structures and open canopy characteristic of dipterocarp forests. The approach is based on phenological information to enhance the distinction of seasonal dipterocarp forests and contribute to building geographical data of dipterocarp forest cover in Southeast Asia.


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