Bambang M., Lorelindu National Park, Central Sulawesi
Misperception is threatening the majestic Sulawesi Hawk-eagle (Spizaetus lanceolatus), one of Sulawesi’s endemic birds.
Considered pests that prey on pets and livestock, the eagles have been hunted down by residents. Local environmentalists have sounded the alarm that it may well be the beginning of an end for the species.
The eagles’ biggest enemy are farmers who live around the Lore Lindu National Park and who kill the eagles for preying on their chickens.
There are about 60 villages which have sprung up over the past several years around the 218,000-hectare park.
The Sulawesi Hawk-eagle is just one of 23 different species of birds of prey in Sulawesi. Lore Lindu is their main habitat. Unlike its “relative”, the Javan Hawk-eagle (Spizaetus bartelsi), of which there are only 300 left in the wild, the Sulawesi Hawk-eagle is quite large, although the exact number is not known.
The legally protected Javan Hawk-eagle is endangered because they are poached and sold as pets.
The Sulawesi Hawk-eagle is still easily spotted in Lore Lindu, with the peculiar whistle sound it makes while flying.
“In certain places you can encounter a flock of up to seven birds,” said Yulinda Asnita, a student of biology from Universitas Negeri Jakarta who researched the species for several months in 2001.
The population of the Sulawesi Hawk-eagle remains large because its habitat is still relatively intact and it has not caught on as a pet.
The easiest way to watch this bird is to stand in open area like a rice field at the border of the park. Early in the morning, Sulawesi Hawk-eagles can be seen playfully soaring high in the sky.
“They do it for some purpose, like chasing its prey on the ground, attracting a female, teaching their children or marking their territory,” said Yulinda, whose research was supported by the Nature Conservancy’s Lore Lindu field office.
The Sulawesi Hawk-eagle is a beautiful bird. An adult of the species is about 58.40 centimeters long from beak to tail, and has a wing span of 45 cm. It has a black beak and yellow eyes. It has black spots on its face and breast, and its stomach has black-and-white lines.
Although there are still many Sulawesi Hawk-eagles, the population is decreasing fast. In a survey conducted by Yuli, about 78 percent of respondents said the number of Sulawesi Hawk-eagles had declined over the past five years.
There are two main reasons why the population has fallen. First, farmers encroaching on their habitat, and second, more of the birds have been killed because they are seen as pests.
During her survey, Yuli said she saw hawk-eagle traps near several houses belonging to farmers.
“I lost 10 chickens — all eaten by hawk-eagles,” said Pak Towahid, a park ranger and also a farmer who lives in Kulawi, about 70 kilometers south of Palu.
According to Yuli, like other eagles, the Sulawesi species has sharp claws to kill its prey.
“Not all of the body of the prey is eaten by the eagle. First, the bird eats its brain and liver and finally the meat. And it does not touch the rest,” said Pak Towahid.
Local environmentalist warn that the poaching of the hawk-eagle will eventually lead to the extinction of the species. Many of the birds have been killed for the same reasons people killed the rare Sumatra elephant (Elephas maximus).
The elephants were hunted down because they encroached on plantations, which used to be their natural habitat.
It is also feared that the dwindling Sulawesi hawk-eagle population will disturb the natural balance, with its natural prey, such as rats and snakes, growing unchecked.
The lost of the hawk-eagle would also spark an international outcry, because Lore Lindu is known internationally as a center for the protection of birds. There are about 224 bird species living in the forest, 83 percent of them endemic to Sulawesi.