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A Whitley Award winner’s 20-year battle to save the world’s largest eagle in Venezuela

  • The Whitley, which has been nicknamed “the Green Oscars,” is one of the biggest and most important awards in the conservation world.
  • Alexander says he is honored to have received such recognition for his work: “I have devoted my entire life as a student and, after that, in the professional field, to the conservation of the biological diversity and to the dissemination of its importance and role as an essential element of the planet.”
  • Alexander studied veterinary medicine and was determined to specialize in working with wild animals. It was while rehabilitating harpy eagles at a Venezuelan zoo that he had his first contact with these magnificent birds of prey.

This is the second in a two-part series. Read part one: “Goddesses of the wind: How researchers saved Venezuela’s harpy eagles.”

When Fábio Olmos talks about a “civilizing leap” in his ((o))eco article titled “The country in which feeding birds is a crime” (in Portuguese), he’s talking about a coming age when all forms of life will be seen as fellows on our journey through the cosmos, with the same right to existence. He’s talking about old ideas of so-called “environmental philosophy.” But, as many other good innovations proposed by the “hippie dream” of the 60s, we are still waiting for this ethical expansion to happen for a big portion of humankind. This does not apply to Alexander Blanco, however.

Just like his mentor Eduardo Álvarez Cordero (read more about Eduardo in part one of this two-part series), Alexander grew up in close relationship with wild things and natural phenomena. “I was raised in the field, and my parents always encouraged an active care for nature,” he says. A life dedicated to this care fits perfectly a person with a great love for biodiversity, and the combination of this passion with decades of hard work has earned Alexander the honor of receiving the 2017 Whitley Award.

The Whitley, which has been nicknamed “the Green Oscars,” is one of the biggest and most important awards in the conservation world. Alexander says he is honored to have received such recognition for his work: “I have devoted my entire life as a student and, after that, in the professional field, to the conservation of the biological diversity and to the dissemination of its importance and role as an essential element of the planet.”

Driven by this personal philosophy, Alexander studied veterinary medicine, determined to specialize in working with wild animals. It was while rehabilitating harpy eagles at a Venezuelan zoo that he had his first contact with these magnificent birds of prey. Interested in learning more about the biology, ecology, and behavior of the species, Alexander learned that the main authority and pioneer researcher on the topic of harpy eagles was his fellow countryman, Eduardo Álvarez. When Eduardo gave a lecture at Simon Bolívar University, Alexander had the opportunity to meet the renowned biologist, and shortly after joined the staff of the Harpy Eagle Conservation Program.

A few months later, an invitation came from Eduardo, Alexander says: “They found an active nest with a young animal [that] was at the ideal age for banding and for the attachment of a satellite transmitter. It was the opportunity to band my first wild eagle and evaluate the habitat where it lived. We were able to stop the deforestation close to the nest, preserve the forest, and attach a satellite-based monitoring device on the chick. And we also created a small, protected area close to the nest, inside a logging concession. From this moment on, with the satisfaction of accomplishing all of these goals, I was inspired to keep working. It’s been more than twenty years dedicated to protecting this eagle and its environment.”

Doctors Eduardo Álvarez Cordero (left) and Alexander Blanco (right) in the field. Photo courtesy of Eduardo Álvarez Cordero and Alexander Blanco.

Alexander summarizes what he learned about working close to these nests over the past twenty years: “The first platforms we built were situated between thirty to forty meters away from the nesting tree. As the years passed, we kept shortening the distance and we managed to build platforms in trees and towers only fifteen meters away from the nest, with no harm to the activities of the eagles on their kingdom of heights.”

In the kingdom of heights

“The twenty nests which are open to visits already had students, locals, researchers, photographers, filmmakers, and ecotourists. Always silent and respectful, observing the eagles in their nests, from platforms installed between 15 and 25 meters away from the nesting tree, at the same height. In none of those twenty nests we’ve seen any sign of discomfort for the eagles, and there was no case of nest abandonment,” Alexander explains.

In fact, as Eduardo had already highlighted, more extreme cases exist. “For making his first harpy eagle movie, Neil Rettig — the award-winning nature filmmaker and author of the world’s second scientific paper on harpy eagles — had built a platform right on the nesting tree, and he got the whole movie done. This was during the 70s, and it’s still one of the best footage of harpy eagles we have. And the eagles didn’t get stressed, nothing happened.”

Neil Rettig became a kind of mentor to Eduardo, taking the then-young biologist to nests and imparting everything he knew about monitoring harpy eagles. The platform used in Rettig’s film was actually a mere 8.5 meters away from a nest with a chick. Thanks to this, it was possible to observe in detail the aspects of parental care and the process that turns a young eagle to a mature individual. Obviously, no one is suggesting that tourists should get this close to the eagles, but the fact that it’s possible to come so close while carrying old filming equipment without bothering the animals is really exciting. Compared to that, a group of silent birders observing the nest 20 meters away wouldn’t mean anything for the eagles.

Still, caution is needed. Alexander confirms what Eduardo has said in the past: “We don’t approach nests which are on the phases of building and rebuilding, or when the female is about to lay or in the process of incubating the eggs. When we find a nest which is not going through any of those phases, the first thing we do is to assess the adaptability degree of the eagles. We do this by performing small tests, like the approach of only one person at a large distance like 100 to 150 meters. This allows us to monitor them for our research and for the activities of controlled and sustainable ecotourism activities.”

Alexander takes this to a bigger scale. The possible results are unbelievable. “Each well-managed nest can receive hundreds of people a year. Having a lot of located nests which are also protected and monitored, to be sure there aren’t any negative effects to the eagles’ behavior, some thousands of people a year could observe nests from minimal distances of 20 to 30 meters. It is likely there are enough nests to create a new green industry which could help the protection of the forests.”

A juvenile harpy eagle who’s starting to explore the neighborhood of its nest. Photo courtesy of Bruno Moraes.

The eagle that resists

When I ask Alexander what impresses him most about harpy eagles, I have no idea what he will say. Harpy eagles, also called “goddesses of the wind” in the Imataca region, are more than simply gigantic eagles. Something as majestic as seeing one of these adult eagles arriving at the nest with prey for its young is a unique experience in the life of a birder or photographer. The eagles specialize in sudden and powerful dives, and is capable of plucking heavy prey like sloths and big monkeys right off of tree branches. This caught the attention of the Swiss naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who christened the species with a mythological reference: the harpies, winged specters of ancient Greek mythology, who suddenly captured people and punished them in the name of Zeus.

We don’t know exactly what the sloths and capuchin monkeys did to upset Zeus this much, but harpy eagles have flown over South and Central American forests for over a million years, hunting these animals way before human arrival.

“What impresses me the most about the harpy eagles is the capacity they have to resist and adapt to changes on their habitat,” Alexander says. “In spite of all the hardships they face, these eagles have the capacity of keeping their unconquerable spirit intact, giving them a reason to survive.”

In the course of his work, Alexander once suffered a serious, near-fatal fall from 35 meters high — a fall that was caught on film during the shoot of the BBC documentary ‘The Hunt.’ “It was a fluke accident, but against all odds, I somehow survived and have bounced back,” he says. “Of course the probability of surviving a fall of 35 meters is very small, but I was very lucky.

“The fall was caused by human error on the ground, when someone outside my own ropes team foolishly untied a critical rope without checking with me, and I fell all the way from the nest to the forest floor while trying to hold a baby harpy eagle in my arms. I suffered fractures of my femur, my radius, and my ulna, as well as serious bruises and a bad concussion. The eagle that I was cradling in my arms popped free during my fall and flapped its partially-grown wings enough to land softly next to me without experiencing any injuries whatsoever.

“This kind of accident never should occur, but despite all precautions, bad things sometimes happen.”

There is also another kind of risk when you’re climbing up to harpy eagle nests. A kind that is much harder to avoid. “The first time I was attacked was in the 90s, and I was climbing a tree. The nest was active, with a really small chick born just a few days before. I had already climbed three-quarters of the way up to the nest when the mother eagle, who had been sitting on her nestling to keep it warm, flew off the nest and attacked me. On the first and second passes, I managed to avoid her talons, but by then, I was spinning on the rope and she took advantage of my vulnerability to hit me hard with one foot, tearing a 3-inch-long gash in my back, even puncturing one of my lungs. Fortunately, I recovered without serious problems.” Over the years, Alexander has suffered two further attacks by harpies, but without significant injuries.

Real conservation

Alexander Blanco climbing a tree to access a nest. Photo courtesy of Eduardo Álvarez Cordero and Alexander Blanco.

This resistance to human presence is what allowed the Harpy Eagle Conservation Program to monitor the animals with observation platforms. It is also what allowed the flourishing of a tourism industry that shifted the desperate scenario Eduardo saw in the 80s.

“After so many years telling people about the project, everybody in town knows where the harpy eagles are and where the harpy eagle people are,” says Eduardo. Having in mind the former rate of eagle killings, which alarmed him so much it became the basis for his PhD dissertation, Eduardo says the transition has been incredible. “So now people come to report any problem, and the discovery of a new nest. And that’s how we find nests, and it’s the best way of finding more of them. So, eventually, everyone is protecting the eagles, and everyone knows that if you mess with the eagles, you’re going to get into trouble. This is real conservation.”

Alexander Blanco, after working in a project with such impressive positive results for biodiversity and people, articulates a beautiful call to action:
“The forces of destruction are huge, gigantic, and there are a lot of private and public economic interests which are based on exploring natural resources (gold, diamonds, coltan, wood, among others). A lot of those, under the premise of sustainable development, are actually destroying primary forests. We have to do something… By combining scientific inquiry, environmental education, local communities, and ecotourism, among other measures, we can make a positive change on the collective thinking, directed to the conservation of the ecosystems.”

One of the most iconic stories about harpy eagles, hardship, and survival is that of the orphaned juvenile harpy eagle Pancho, who thrived even after the loggers who chopped down the tree holding his nest went away, taking with them the plucked chickens they once fed him as a sort of atonement for having destroyed his home. Like other harpy eagles transitioning between the juvenile and adult ages, he had no option but to catch his own food. But he had no harpy eagles to teach him the proper way to hunt.

“I have a photograph somewhere of Eduardo, the logger, next to Pancho on the ground,” says Eduardo, the scientist. “It seems that he survived for a while by hitting the ground and hunting lizards, snakes, whatever he could find there. That was the way he fed himself to survive. His feathers and tail feathers were muddy and all broken up. He turned into a roadrunner, hunting on the ground.”

The small harpy eagle who survived the fall of a tree and was rehabilitated by loggers took some time before becoming a “wind goddess” and starting to capture the prey for which those talons were made. But Pancho did it, reinforcing the point that these eagles can tolerate even this kind of situation.

“That bird is somewhere in the forest, with a big band on his leg. It is the furthest place from Imataca that I ever went, and it’s not an easy place to go anymore, because the bridges are gone. But Pancho is out there, making a living as an adult, I’m sure. And he was completely saved and hacked by the loggers,” says the man who started, with courage and bold ideas, the project that reconciled harpy eagles and people.

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