First glimpse of the elusive eagle
MANILA - “Magnificent” is how an award-winning American wildlife cinematographer describes the Philippine eagle, whose eyes have pierced through his heart when he first saw one 38 years ago.
“It's a tough eagle. It's proud. It's got this beautiful crest that stands up and it's got piercing eyes,” said a passionate Neil Rettig. “The Philippine eagle is the most unique and incredible looking and powerful eagle in the world.”
Rettig, who has been interested in birds of prey since he was young, first came to the Philippines in 1977 to film the rare monkey-eating eagle.
"Everybody who was interested in birds of prey knew that there was a mysterious eagle in the Philippines that was very endangered, critically endangered, so right there and-- at that point back in 1977, we decided we'd try the Philippine eagle next," he recalled.
Rettig found himself in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, where sightings of the monkey-eating eagle had been reported.
His crew initially had difficulties finding the first nest, but they eventually found one near Mt. Apo.
Rettig said the team went to the site immediately to catch the first glimpse of the Philippine eagle.
"They are just absolutely the most magnificent eagles on the planet. And they're one of the rare or the rarest eagles in the world. It’s hard to explain how beautiful they are. I mean you look in their eyes and you just feel this admiration and this, like gripping beauty and there's nothing else like it in the world,” he said.
The mother eagle was incubating her egg the time Rettig’s team came. He said they rolled the film and waited for the egg to hatch.
But the baby eagle died after 27 days.
“The baby (eagle), at 27 of age, choked on a bone accidentally that the mother was feeding and died. And the entire expedition fell apart. That's the only nest we had so we are just there with nothing. Nothing to work with,” recalled Rettig.
The Philippine eagle lays egg every 2 or 3 years only. And just to find a nest, especially back in the limited technology of the 70’s, is extremely hard.
Rettig's initial plan to camp for just a couple of months turned into a stay of nearly two years in the Philippines, just for the sake of documenting the elusive eagle.
"Our whole purpose at that time was to make this – the documentary films for the Philippines. And without that nest, without the success of that baby surviving, we were just devastated but we didn’t give up,” he added.
The team turned out to be successful in the next attempts and Rettig produced a documentary that was aired and acclaimed internationally.
Rettig went back to the United States and went on to document more endangered animals to inspire more people.
An emotional homecoming
Neil Rettig working on his documentary
Rettig was away from the Philippines for nearly four decades. But just recently, he and his wife, Laura, found themselves back in Philippines to film animals in Palawan.
They visited Manila where they saw something that moved them – again towards the Philippine eagle.
“We decided to go have a look at a captive Philippine eagle in Quezon City – in a zoo. Both of us became incredibly emotional and that was the moment that we decided we will come back to the Philippines and do what we can to help save the bird,” he recalled.
“I started to cry you know and right then I said, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to come back to the Philippines and do what I can and use all of the experience I've had all over the years filming and my experience with birds with eagles to focus and do the best that I can to make beautiful images that will inspire people,’” he added.
After the emotional encounter, Rettig decided to go back to the Philippines for a new documentary project about the Philippine eagle, hoping to intensify the campaign to save this rare bird species.
A lot of new things welcomed Rettig in the Philippines – some good, some bad, as he puts it.
“When I arrived at the airport in Davao, it was just completely different in many ways. The population of the Philippines really almost doubled since I was here in the late 70's. And Davao was more than, much more than double the size,” he added.
Thinning forests of the Philippines
The population boomed and technological development came, but the Philippine eagle is still endangered – probably threatened more than ever, as urban development sprawled over the provinces through the years.
There are only about 400 Philippine eagles left, a fact that puts these birds of prey in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (ICUN) red list as critically endangered.
Contrary to common belief, the Philippine eagle is not only seen in Mindanao. Screen grab from the ICUN website
One of the biggest threats to the Philippine's national bird is the thinning of the country's forests – something that shocked Rettig when he came back to Davao after over 30 years.
“The main difference is there's much less forest than there was in 1977. I think in 1977 probably 20 percent of the forest was left in the Philippines. Now there's only 5 percent left, 5 percent of primary forest. It's sad. So because that is a shocking reality," he said.
“You find fragmentation where they can live. There may be one pair of eagles living in the top of a mountain range and maybe 40 or 50 miles or 60, 70 kilometers before you get to the next habitat,” he added.
Eagles still being shot, cooked
The Philippine eagle. File photo
Aside from deforestation, shooting and hunting is still a threat for the Philippine eagle. Even in these times of technological advancement, there are still records of eagles caught to be sold, eaten or killed just for “sports.”
Rettig recalled that while he was not in the Philippines, he got news from friends in the country that an eagle they got to know really well was shot dead.
“One eagle nest that we were filming in the last part project, which we became very familiar with the male or the father eagle and mother eagle and the baby, the whole family and we were getting very close to them. Tragically we learned not long after we left Philippines that the father eagle, the male eagle was shot,” he shared.
Rettig said he cannot imagine how some people can just cold-bloodedly kill something that is on the verge of extinction.
“You have a bird that's almost — it's very close to the verge of extinction,” he said.
“We had tears in our eyes when we found out that that bird was killed. He was (a) very charismatic and beautiful bird.”
In 2011, a Philippine eagle named “Calbiga” was found shot in Barangay Bulwan, Calbiga, Samar. Unfortunately, the bird was shot in its chest with a shotgun and died a few months later.
Losing the Philippine eagle
People may ask: what does it mean to lose the Philippine eagle – a bird species that has been fighting for its life for decades?
For Rettig it’s not even a question, but the public has to understand.
“If you lose the Philippine eagle, we lose the Philippine eagle, because it’s not just a loss here in the country. It’s an international loss, a worldwide loss,” he said.
“You're losing a piece of art from nature, an evolutionary perfect creature that evolved within these forests that took millions of years to become what it is today,” he added.
More importantly, losing the Philippine eagle means losing the forests of the country because what are we, really, but our habitat?
“If you lose the Philippine eagle that means you're losing the rainforest because wherever there's a healthy rainforest there’s a good chance we’re going to find the Philippine eagle,” he said.
Hope for the tough, proud eagle
Neil Rettig at work, trying to capture on video the elusive Philippine eagle
Despite the thinning forests of the country, Rettig believes there's “a darn good chance that eagle's gonna make it.”
Rettig is pinning his hope on the compassion of Filipinos, whom he has gotten to know more, and like he knows the Philippine eagles.
“I think the Filipinos right now are very compassionate people… I certainly never ever think that it's a done deal that we're going to lose the biodiversity in the Philippines. I think that there's too many people that want to do something about it and I think they will,” he said.
There’s a lot to be done, said Rettig, and there are tools to help save the Philippine eagle. But the easiest one, he said, is to have effective law enforcement.
“Even in this day and age when there is so much information and so many people working so hard to help save the eagle it's still being shot. Now that's something that can be stopped. The laws have to be enforced. There are laws,” he said.
“Those laws must be respected. People must not shoot the eagle and they must not illegally cut trees and forest and must respect the forest,” he added.
Rettig also said it is very important to educate Filipinos about the Philippine eagle, which has been reduced to just an image in a postcard, especially for people in the metro.
He said that the Philippine eagle must not be a stranger to the Filipinos and should even be treated as a close relative.
“If they don’t understand, (if) it's completely a stranger to them, they will never be able to preserve it. It's almost like the Philippine eagle needs to be like a family member, like a relative almost, something that you love, something that you're proud of, like a friend you know. I think that’s a very necessary emotion. It can't just be some creature that we never see that's maybe legendary,” he said.
Rettig said education about the Philippine eagle is what he hopes he can contribute with his latest documentary.
“I think the images are in the stories we can tell to invoke pride and maybe make people feel a little closer to the eagle. They have to understand it more to be able to preserve it,” he said.
See Rettig at work on his new documentary. Watch "Agila: Laban ng Lahi" on June 14 on Kapamilya Sunday's Best.