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The Return of the Harpy Eagle

The harpy eagle is one of the world's largest birds and the largest raptor in the Americas.

“This endeavor is twofold in importance — it has transformed the Bladen Reserve from an exclusive place to one that involves the community.”

Alejandro Martinez
Director of The Nature Conservancy in Belize

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Update: In Spring 2008, a pair of harpy eagles was spotted nesting for the first time in 50 years in Belize’s Bladen Nature Reserve. The distinctive black-and-white harpy eagles were spotted by the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE).

Early one December morning in 2005, six researchers were breaking down their campsite in Belize’s remote Bladen Reserve. Suddenly there was a flash of white in the trees ahead: A large white bird was perched on a branch barely 150 meters away from the group.

“We thought it might be a sight that had not been seen in Belize since the 1950s — a harpy eagle in the wild,” says Jacob Marlin, director of BFREE, a Conservancy partner.

But the bird was young and the team wasn't sure. “We got closer and closer and took photographs and observed it for the next 45 minutes while it just sat there,” Marlin continued.

The mysterious bird finally flew away to the other side of the creek and the researchers resumed their work. After they circulated the pictures among several ornithologists, they got the news: The bird was indeed the legendary harpy eagle.

It was this brief and accidental sighting that began a sustained effort to return the harpy eagle to Belize’s Maya Forest — led by the Peregrine Fund and the Belize Zoo — and validated the significance of The Nature Conservancy's efforts to protect large habitats within Belize's forests. 

A Rare Raptor

The harpy eagle is one of the world’s largest birds and the largest raptor in the Americas. It has a six-foot wingspan, magnificent snowy-white feathers, strikingly dark eyes and a crown of tufted feathers on its head. Harpy eagles also have large, strong claws that help them while hunting monkeys, sloths, oppossums and other similarly sized mammals.

But this amazing eagle has been threatened throughout the Americas by loss of forest cover and development pressures extending through once-pristine forests. Sightings of wild harpy eagles in Central America are becoming rare: The bird's large wingspan and the heavy weight of its preferred prey mean that harpies make frequent stops during flight—and thus need significant expanses of contiguous forest cover to survive.

While the eagle has been completely eliminated from some parts of the Maya Forest, Marlin says the December 2005 sighting gave reason for optimism about the bird. "The initial sighting was a good indicator that there may be more harpy eagles in these remote areas.”

The Quest to Find More Harpy Eagles

Shortly after the sighting in late 2005, The Conservancy’s Belize staff, BFREE and other partners began a community-based conservation program to research bird habits and look for other harpy eagles in Belize’s Maya Mountains.

“This endeavor was two-fold in importance—it has transformed the Bladen Reserve from an exclusive place to one that involves the community,” says Alejandro Martinez, director of The Nature Conservancy in Belize. “And our engagement here helped to provide the communities with the necessary skills for alternate livelihoods such as becoming bird guides, avian researchers, tour guides and forest rangers.”

In December 2006, an eagle named "DT"—which was released into Belize’s Maya Forest earlier in 2006—was spotted in Guatemala after flying more than 6,000 miles in six weeks.

In February 2007, a small group of avian technicians, interns and researchers were once again by a riverside in the Bladen Reserve when they saw a large white bird fly onto the top of a tree. They observed it and took notes, photos and video footage.

Protecting Forests to Save A Species

“These sightings are significant," says Martinez. "They indicate that there are still extensive forests in the Maya Mountains that provide healthy habitats for large species such as the harpy eagle."

This multifaceted approach to restoring the harpy eagle to the wild exemplifies how the Conservancy works in Central America alongside others to protect habitat that sustains these species. In the 16 million-acre  Maya Forest of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, we are engaging governments, local communities and other NGOs in the fight to conserve the great forests of Mesoamerica for the birds, animals and people who live there. We work to foster better forest management practices, sustainable livelihoods, and increased awareness of how healthy forests can create healthy communities.

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