Strictly for the Birds | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Theirs is a high-flying career, though it’s hard to tell when one of them recalls how he and his staff used to sleep in bird cages for want of sleeping quarters, trekked up mountains saddled with goats and chickens for their wards, and worked without pay in their early days on the job. The other, meanwhile, offers free bird shows to make a point.

But passion for the country’s exotic winged creatures has kept life soaring for Dennis Joseph Salvador, executive director of The Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF), and birdman Dr. Roberto “Bo” Puentespina, Jr.   The two have eschewed lucrative job offers, willingly risked life and limb in rebel-infested areas and shifted careers to give wounded birds sanctuary and treatment.

Thanks to Salvador’s conservation efforts, the Philippine Eagle Center located at the foothills of Mt. Apo in Davao is now a flourishing home to 36 eagles, 18 of them bred in captivity. The Center was set up for the care and propagation of the endangered raptor, but it is also a research facility that educates the public on the Philippine Eagles, other animals and plants unique to the Philippines, as well as the country’s forest ecosystem.

Deeply committed to this cause that he has worked for these past 24 years, Salvador and eight of his colleagues gave up their salaries for almost a year to make sure that the eagles continue to soar. Some of them even volunteered to sell some of their personal stuff just to make sure the eagles were fed.

As Salvador recounts, “In 1987, the government stopped funding the project because some officials believed it was not going to work.  We were instructed to wrap everything up and send all the birds to the Parks and Wildlife Bureau in Quezon City. The order came just as we were dealing with another crisis—we were caught in a crossfire between the army and the insurgents.”

Leftist rebels abound in the area and the staff of the Center risked their own lives caring for the endangered raptors.  “At one point,” recalls the Foundation’s executive director, “A 105-mm howitzer shell fell just about 50 meters from our facility. So now I know how it feels to be at the receiving end of a canon.  We hurriedly built makeshift enclosures at Malagos (where we are now) and, with help from local volunteers, spirited the eagles away from the Mt. Apo facility. In the end, the birth of Pag-asa, the first Philippine Eagle produced through artificial insemination in 1992, proved the government wrong.”

Unknown to most people, the Philippine Eagle plays a crucial role in preserving its natural habitat.  Salvador explains, “The Philippine Eagle is the primary predator of the rainforest ecosystem and is necessarily at the top of the food chain.  By preying on weak and aberrant animals, it keeps prey populations healthy and in check. Its presence in a particular forest is often indicative of the health of that forest ecosystem.  It usually means that the forest still harbors enough prey and biological diversity to keep the system balanced and functioning.  This, in turn, ensures that ecosystem services valuable to humans are intact and available such as water for drinking and irrigation, flora and fauna for food and medicine and for flood and soil erosion control, and so on.”

Their deep belief in the conservation cause has prompted Salvador and the PEF’s committed staff to accept the sacrifices expected of them in their job.  Salvador recalls how he once had to act as fastfood delivery boy to his winged wards:  “My assignment when I was just starting on this job was to take care of the eagles’ food.  It required me to buy goats and chickens from the market and take them up the mountains to the facility.  I would hang on to the goats and chickens on top of the jeepney, then walk up the steep slopes for two kilometers from the jeepney stop.”

The sight of the thriving national bird is however enough balm for his tired body.  The Philippine Eagle is a 3-ft high rainforest raptor with a wingspan of 7 feet, the broadest in the world.  It is estimated that only 400 pairs of these eagles remain in the islands of Luzon, Samar, Leyte and Mindanao.  Deforestation and hunting have threatened their survival.

The plight of raptors in the country is apparent when one enters the center. Sitting at the entrance of the tropical garden filled with golden bamboos, giant ferns, and bird of paradise flowers is Alex, a Brahminy Kite.  He quietly sits on a wooden stand greeting guests, unable to fly.  The poor bird was found in the forest, its wings injured by hunters.

While there are long tailed macaques, crocodile, owls, deer, a warty pig and 10 species of birds at the Center, the Philippine eagles are clearly the stars. They are comfortably housed in large enclosures mimicking their natural habitat in the forest.  As we walk around, Salvador points out the cages housing the eagles. He used to sleep in there with his crew. “When we transferred to Malagos from Mt. Apo, we had practically no infrastructure except for these cages. We had to sleep here and had to use these empty units as temporary sleeping quarters for the staff.

Severely limited resources have forced the Center to survive on clipped wings.  Salvador recounts how once their staff had to rescue an injured eagle. In the middle of the long journey, the dilapidated four-wheel drive vehicle conked out, forcing the staff to hail a taxi to get the eagle posthaste to the Center for treatment and rehabilitation.

The tireless efforts of Salvador and his team in rehabilitating, breeding, and releasing Philippine eagles to the wild are noble, but they are not enough, he says. “The eagles will hopefully remain safe and productive in our Davao facility.  Barring the outbreak of diseases, they should be okay.  But the real cause for concern are the eagles in the wild.  Habitats continue to diminish and eagles continue to be trapped and shot. Many young birds don’t make it to adulthood and, as a result, old breeding populations are not being replaced.  This could result in a sudden crash in the eagle’s wild population.”

This, Salvador adds, could lead to our national bird becoming extinct.  “I feel our own efforts pale in comparison to the escalating problem. While we have had many successes, both in breeding and community-based habitat protection, these are but small pockets of hope.”

You might say that Salvador’s dedication to the Philippine Eagle is a belated atonement for his bird-hunting days as a child.  “I quickly realized that working with the eagles gave me a real opportunity to save a living national treasure, while working on improving the lives of so many impoverished families in the uplands.  To be able to make a little difference, even affect small changes to a system gone desperately wrong, that is what gives me a kick!”

The Bird Doctor of Malagos

The Puentespina name has long been associated with orchids and lately, with the Malagos Garden Resort.  But with veterinarian Bo Puentespina, Jr.’s untiring work with found and abandoned birds, the name might soon be associated with bird shows, the chief tool he uses in his conservation efforts.

Dr. Bo is the third of five Puentespina siblings behind the Malagos Garden Resort. What began as a one-hectare garden with a restaurant and swimming pool, featuring his mother’s indigenous orchid species now extends to a 12-hectare full service resort with accommodations, restaurants, sprawling landscaped gardens, and nature attractions.  One of the resort’s come-ons is the bird show that Dr. Bo gives every Sunday.  Since 2002, the veterinarian has taken on the full-production interactive free flight bird show.

“Previous to this, I would go to my child’s pre-school and other schools to show a rehabilitated bird. I was hoping to illustrate to them what NOT to do with birds,” he says.

In April this year, Dr. Bo introduced his Climate Change and Disaster Risk Mitigation bird shows.  The stars of the show were birds given up by previous owners and left to Dr. Bo’s care. Some were gunshot wound cases, others were weak from malnutrition, psychologically depressed, or illegal trade victims.

Dr. Bo is the biggest fan of these resilient creatures. There are over a hundred birds in the show, but the veterinarian joyfully describes his favorites:  “There’s Buts (pronounced Bootz, short for Buta, which is the term for “blind” in the vernacular).  The Black Palm Cockatoo is blind in one eye. Leila is the charming Umbrella Cockatoo who does the trash throw and scooter ride to highlight our need to reduce our carbon emission and follow RA 2003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Act.

“Kado is a rehabilitated Eclectus parrot that lost all his feathers because of the boredom of being in a cage for too long. Donated to us in 2002, he has mated with Ruby after courting her through a wooden wall divider. They have since reared at least eight progenies who are also flying. They are part of the family sequence. Wacky is a bright large-billed crow that scoops money from the audience and tucks it into my shirt pocket. But he returns the bill by the end of the segment and demonstrates the value of saving by putting coins into a can.”

Adds Dr. Bo:  “Owls make a beautiful quiet flight and prey on a rat lure. We highlight here the importance of predator-prey concepts in our environment, and their importance to control zoonotic disease (meaning animal to human) transmissions especially during floods.”

On this Saturday morning, a group of about 10 children are visiting Dr. Bo’s clinic and watching him bathe the birds.  He explains, “I like to show kids that they can enjoy a bird like you would a puppy. I want to show them responsible pet ownership chores like grooming or cleaning your pet. Besides, it’s amazing to have a bird not fly away or peck you while you’re handling it.  Therefore kids will be more gentle and understanding of the other animals’ behavior. Also, training a bird requires a lot of patience, a virtue that growing children must learn.”

Dr. Bo’s advocacy has been incorporated into Malagos Park’s attractions. The resort encourages close interaction with animals since last year. Guests can hand feed the birds: a  white umbrella cockatoo, a yellow golden pheasant, African lovebirds, and Frigate birds all gently peck seeds from your fingers.

Like Salvador, Dr. Bo’s passion stems from his early experiences.  As a college student, he joined rallies in Liwasang Bonifacio and Mendiola, his dream to be a lawyer set aside. Then he met Salvador and his colleagues at the Philippine Eagle Foundation.  The veterinarian recalls, “It was in 1988 while doing a research for a Parasitology subject that I visited the Philippine Eagle Conservation Center at the slopes of Mt. Apo.  It was a difficult journey since it was relatively far, the roads were bad and the security risk was high.

“It was an NPA hotbed and there was this anti-communist vigilante group called Alsa Masa prowling the area.  There was even a howitzer aimed at the direction of the Center because it was in the fringe of the Mt. Apo National Park forest. There I met a dedicated bunch of workers determined to study the eagle and I felt their commitment to the cause. They challenged me to graduate from vet school and hopefully help them work on the Philippine eagle as there were very few veterinarians exposed to this species.”

Today, aside from promoting environmental education, rescuing birds is a priority for Dr. Bo.  “I do rescue trips for downed eagles in far flung areas in Mindanao. I use any available resources and contacts, and travel anywhere—even high-risk areas—by land or air to get them.  Once, I almost missed taking my wife to hospital to give birth, as I was working late with eagle cases.”

Knowing Dr. Bo’s passion for birds, people usually bring their injured pets or wild birds to him. He then decides what’s best for them once they are in better health. “We release birds that can be released after rehab, especially raptors like owls, serpent eagles, kites, crows, etc. If hornbills, pheasants, and parrots cannot be released due to a broken wing or leg or blindness, we pair them for conservation breeding. The last option is to use the birds in the bird show as part of our education efforts.”

A fine example is Nigel, a 14-year-old sulfur-crested cockatoo that lost—and regrew—its feathers, and can’t fly, but has joined the disaster management sequence of the bird show. Toby, who does not fly, makes a cheery companion when Dr. Bo visits the children’s cancer ward in the government hospital in Davao.

For Dr. Bo and Salvador, it is apparent that a bird in hand is worth all that sacrifice and hard work in the bush. •

Special thanks  to Marco Polo Davao, for the warm hospitality during my visit to Davao. Marco Polo is committed to the conservation of the wild. They have kindly adopted Marikit, one of the Philippine Eagles at the Center, shouldering the costs for the food and care of this endangered bird.

For more golden delicious moments in food and travel, follow the author on Twitter@theMaidastouch, read Maida’s blog, or email her at Pineda is also the author of “Six Degrees of Expatriation: Uncovering Lives of Expats in Singapore” and “Do’s and Don’ts in the Philippines.”  She has a Master of Arts in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu and the University of Adelaide.