In Colombia, a long, perilous romance to save the harpy eagle

In Colombia, a long, perilous romance to save the harpy eagle

Wounded and wary, the young couple appear to be into each other: their arranged romance, years in the making, is aimed at preserving the rapidly disappearing harpy eagle, one of the world’s largest raptors.

In an immense dome in Colombia, biologists have recreated a tropical rainforest where they have slowly introduced the monogamous birds, hoping they will hit it off, mate and produce an eaglet.

That is, if the female does not get territorial and kill her suitor.

“A bad decision on our part could lead to an attack,” said Luisa Escobar, research coordinator at Biopark La Reserva, a foundation outside Bogota working to preserve Colomia’s rich biodiversity.

One of the world’s most powerful and largest eagles, able to hunt monkeys and sloths, the harpy eagle has been hunted to near-extinction in some parts of its territory in Central America.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists it as vulnerable, saying the species was “rapidly declining” due to deforestation and hunting.

Most of an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 individuals remain in the Amazon, which spans nine countries.

Colombia’s only captive harpy eagle pair was rescued separately in the southern Amazonas state in 2018.

– ‘A lot of hope’ –

The female, with a prominent gray crest, still has pellets in her body from when she was shot. They cannot be removed without risk of death.

The male, typically smaller, has a shattered left wing that veterinarians have been unable to repair.

They were separated for two years by a metal fence, but it was finally opened three weeks ago after they were spotted bumping beaks and feeding each other.

In other words, their keepers explained, they like each other.

Monitored by security cameras, the next test will be if they mate. Harpy eagles are notoriously slow breeders, raising only one chick every few years.

The couple’s behavior is “so calm… it generates a lot of hope that they will have a baby,” said Escobar, 26.

One meter tall and with a wingspan of up to two meters, the harpy eagle is the symbol of Colombia’s airforce, and the national bird of Panama.

Their habitat once stretched from Mexico to northern Argentina, but in some countries, like El Salvador, the birds have disappeared entirely.

Poachers “kill them … because they want them as trophies. They want to sell them, eat them, or take a photo” with their remains, said Mateo Giraldo, from the Colombian Large Birds of Prey Project.

Colombian authorities in 2021 seized 94 harpy eagle parts at the Bogota international airport.

The armed conflict that has haunted Colombia for six decades also makes it hard for scientists to study the raptor deep in the forests where it lives, said Giraldo.

Breeding chicks in captivity has proved successful in Panama and Brazil.


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