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Saving the world’s largest eagle in the Amazon

By April 25, 2020 No Comments

eagle, fauna, extinct, ecology

Our mission is very important. We are here to locate an extremely difficult-to-find hawk’s nest, believed to be about a kilometer and a half into this virgin stretch of the Amazon rainforest in Mato Grosso, a Brazilian state the size of Nigeria. With their elegant monochromatic bodies, fierce green eyes, and lush feathers on their heads, which look more like a hairstyle, the hawks – the largest eagle in the world – are often classified among the most spectacular birds on the planet, at the top of the list of many observers. They can weigh up to 11 kilos and have claws bigger than those of a brown bear, capable of exerting hundreds of kilos of pressure. Native legends say that hawks took children and, although there is no evidence, it is known that they manage to capture an adult sloth from a tree and knock down a nine-kilo deer. “They look like an animal described in a fantasy book,” says Miranda.

As predators at the top of the chain, hawks play a crucial ecological role, keeping prey species populations under control. Its presence in a forest is indicative of a healthy and functional environment. No one knows how many remain in nature, but scientists know that the species is disappearing. These giant birds of prey have lived from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, but since the 19th century, their occurrence has decreased by almost half, leaving the Amazon with 93% of the habitat occupied by the species. Deforestation – the main threat to the survival of hawks – shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, the world saw huge fires in the Amazon, and currently 18 hectares of the Brazilian Amazon are being destroyed per hour.

Miranda is a former mixed martial arts fighter who became a biologist and is at the forefront of efforts to save the country’s hawks. He says he is sure that, without effective conservation action, the birds of prey will soon disappear from their Brazilian fortress – the so-called arch of deforestation, a vast fragmented landscape that surrounds the southeast of the Amazon, like a crooked smile. He believes that the widespread loss of habitats can be combated and, through his work, shows Brazilians that standing forests are more profitable than being cut down and that hawks can be part of this solution. To that end, he recently helped create an innovative ecotourism program to encourage landowners to protect eagles and their habitats.

“When we guarantee the conservation of the hawk, we guarantee the conservation of most of the biodiversity in its ecosystem,” explains Richard Watson, president, and CEO of the Peregrine Fund, a non-profit conservation organization that leads a program of hawks in the Panama. Mapping the hawk’s nests to identify where they still live and then protecting them is the first step in ensuring a future for these birds.

If we find the nest that we are looking for, it will be possible to include one more important data to estimate the number of hawks in Brazil. Miranda pauses to look at Google Maps, which marks the spot where he believes the nest is. A swift stream, too deep to be crossed on foot, blocks our path. Without letting himself down, he finds a fallen and half-rotten log, which miraculously supports our weight as we cross. Climbing a muddy ravine, now finally on land, we travel the last kilometer and a half until we find the imposing and wide trunk of a Brazil nut tree. The tall branches in the canopy of this protected species are the preferred nesting place of the hawks. We approached silently – the hawks with young can be aggressive – and observed the dense foliage above. About 30 meters above, a crack reveals a giant cluster of branches. It’s the nest!

Miranda did not find this nest exploring the dense forest alone, he obtained help from local residents who harvest Brazil nuts to complement their livelihoods. Collectors had spotted the nest weeks before and shared GPS coordinates with it.

“Rachel, if you find a bone or a feather, I’ll make you a caipirinha,” whispers Miranda, winking, referring to the famous Brazilian drink that is deceptively strong and dangerously delicious. He quickly discovers a thin, white feather, but my exploratory skills cannot find any more evidence that the nest is occupied. The reproduction of recorded hawk vocalizations – a series of high-pitched screams – also fails to get answers. Miranda believes the chick must be a teenager who is already in the process of leaving the nest after three years with his parents.

“Today, everyone realizes that the hawks are important for the region, so people don’t kill this bird anymore,” says Roberto Stofel, who previously worked cutting down trees and hunting and now works with Miranda as a professional climber. In two cases, workers have even rescued baby hawks that would otherwise have been killed. These puppies were rehabilitated and released by Miranda, Stofel, and their colleagues.

To Miranda’s relief, he confirmed that the region’s hawks are not hunted for their parts or captured for the pet trade. Hunting is generally illegal in Brazil and, in most cases, people are not so poor that they resort to illegal hunting. “There is no one starving here – no one at all,” says Miranda.

In indigenous lands, however, it is allowed to hunt royal hawks. “The hawk-eagle is a very important animal because all parts are used,” says Roseno Zokoba Rikbaktsa, leader of the Escondido Indigenous Land, covering about 1,700 square kilometers. “Every time we kill one, we throw a party.” The bird’s carcass is transformed into a sweet broth, the claws are transformed into crafts and the bones and large feathers into arrows. Feathers are also used in ceremonial headdresses.

Roseno Rikbaktsa estimates that his community kills one to three royal hawks a year. Inacio Rikbaktsa, village elder and healer, adds that if the birds are threatened with extinction, it is the fault of the whites, not the indigenous communities. “There are hawks here because we care for the forest,” he says. “You destroy the forest.”

Miranda does not believe that subsistence hunting poses a serious threat to the survival of hawks in Brazil. “Indigenous peoples still have fully forested landscapes,” he says. “They are taking better care of biodiversity than Brazil itself.”