Spilornis holospilus

They’re usually best seen on clear sunny days, when the air close to the ground gets heated and rises in columns. They ride these columns of hot air, called thermals, in slow, graceful circular paths, their 3-note high-pitched calls periodically piercing the air. It’s a beautiful sound, their call, one that never really leaves you once you hear it. All the metaphors of their majesty are affirmed in these moments.

Known locally as the Banog or the Sikop (though local names are quite interchangeable depending on who you ask), the Philippine Serpent Eagle (Spilornis holospilus) has once again been becoming a common sight in my home village and the neighboring barangays. Along with the Brahminy Kite, these raptors (a category which includes ospreys, hawks, and the Philippine Eagle) have started to reclaim their lost dominion over our skies.

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Spilornis holospilus. Ironically, though, I took this photo in a zoo.

Our country has come quite a way since the days of ignorance when it came to man and the environment, when these birds were regarded as pests and were liable to being shot on sight. Tighter wildlife laws have seen to that, as well as increasing consciousness about the environment, especially with the younger generations.

Yet the struggle for conservation and wildlife is far from over. Majestic as they are, our raptors are still under threat, not least from ignorant individuals with guns. The death of Pamana and of other Philippine Eagles released into the wild in recent years are sad examples. Other raptor species, meanwhile, such as fish eagles, ospreys, hawks, etc. sadly get far less attention.

However, Individuals can be caught and jailed, reward money granted to informants, people can be dissuaded from their trigger-happy tendencies, but perhaps the biggest threat is habitat loss, as our forests continue to give way to farmland, and trees get illegally felled at an alarming rate. Often the long-term value of biodiversity and natural habitats are overshadowed by immediate need, as unsustainable land use and farming practices drive people to poverty. As the land loses its fertility, people look for new areas to clear, to feed an ever-increasing population. As is often said in conservation and academic circles, one cannot teach environmental preservation to the hungry. Too true, as the countrysides would starkly attest to.

Clearly, to keep things brief as I’m starting to ramble, a very big battle lies ahead for our generation. Part of the battleground is the issue of the right farming and land-use practices; how to get as much food from as small an area of land as possible, in a way that maintains soil health, biodiversity, and ecological balance, and does not introduce toxins and pollutants into the biosphere; how to farm in harmony with the earth, and how to get everyone to do the same. Only when these ground issues are settled can our eagles take flight once more.

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