Killer on Wings Is Under Threat
Could anything be more majestic, serene or threatening than the largest bird of prey in the world, the harpy eagle, soaring above its domain? Weighing nine kilograms and with a 2.2-metre wingspan, this giant of the .sky glides at 65 kilometres per hour over dense Brazilian rainforest. Its cruel head with flaring coloured crest and huge hooked beak twists constantly from side to side.
It spots a monkey in a treetop 2.5 kilometres away and zeroes in on its prey. The monkey munches on, oblirious to the threat. Then the eagle strikes,plucking its prey from its perch with talons bome on legs the thickness of your wrists. The monkey dies instantly, pierced by the talons. The eagle carries the body back to its treetop lair. The famed and feared harpy eagle has killed again.
Whether this frightening creature does indeed soar like other eagles in search of prey is open to conjecture . Forless is known about the harpy than any other eagle-the remoteness of its habitat sees to that. But it has been seen carrying monkeys, sloth and even small deer back to its nest.
This eagle's extraordinary eyesight is one of its greatest assets. Like many other eagles, it can see between four and eight times as much detail as canhumans. The result is an ability to see clearly a smaU monkey at a distance of up to 2.5 kilometres and to judge distances with pinpoint accuracy . The latter is an obvious requirement if prey is to be snatched at speed.
It's hard to believe that a creature so well equipped to survive could- ever find itself under threat. But with huge tracts of rainforest being felled in Centraland South America, the harpy's food sources are harder to find.
The threat posed could soon be similar to that facing the harpy's near relative, the Philippines monkey-eating eagle. This acutely threatened bird was reduced in numbers to fewer than 100 in the wild by the loss of its forest habitat and by the heavy demands of trophy hunters in the Philippines.
Like its Filipino cousm, the harpy eagle nests in the tops of the largest forest trees. It therefore needs an intact forest to breed. The seemingly invinable harpy is vulnerable for another reason. A mating pair is thought to produce only one eaglet every two years. Harpy eggs take up to 60 days to hatch and chicks take a further 60 days before they learn to fly. What is more, the youngster is fed by the parents for many months after it has learned to fly. Annual breeding then is impossible.
Folklore has long held that the harpy eagle preys on human babies as well as forest animals. To the ancient Mayans of CentralAmerica the bird was Moan,a bird of ill omen and death. The harpy from which the eagle derives its name was a mythical wreaker of vengeance. Yet there is no evidence, according to British naturalist Leslie Brown, that children have ever been taken by the harpy.
But the Anglia Television Company fflm crew from England that compiled a television documentary titled Fury of the Forest can vouch for the harpy's ferociousness when its nest is threatened. One camera team was attacked when filming a pair of harpys mating and nesting.
The harpy eagle does not face the same immediate threat as its Filipino cousin. But if the destruction of its forest habitat continues at its present rate, the largest of avian predators, too, could join those birds already on the endangered species list. Leslie Brown wrote in 1976 that nearly half of the 59 species of eagle were under threat. Those who appreciate nature will be hoping that the harpy can surmount this threat, to soar on over the forests of South America.