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Gabrielle Therin-Weise / Getty Images

WILD LIFE | 04.19.18

Raptor at the end of the Road

The future of the once-lawless, still-wild terrain of the Darién Gap will determine the fortune of Panama's national bird.

Story by Mike Unwin

Photographs by David Tipling and Mike Unwin

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The town of Yaviza is still asleep when, at 5:00 am, we pull up beside the locked gates of the jetty. A single neon sign flickers outside the bar on the opposite side of the road. Carlos Bethancourt wanders over to rouse the security guard, leaving us to unload the gear. “Hurry up, guys,” he urges. “If you want to see Panama’s national bird, you have to get there early.”

Yaviza is at the end of the road. Indeed, Yaviza

defines

end of the road. This ramshackle frontier town marks the very point where the Pan-American Highway—an otherwise uninterrupted 48,000-kilometer (30,000-mile) network of highways that links the northern tip of Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina—comes to a stop, its North American section severed from its South American by the forests, swamps, and mountains of Panama’s wild Darién Province. Through the forest runs the country’s border with Colombia. And on the other side, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the southeast, lies the small coastal Colombian city of Turbo, where the highway resumes.

This geographical interruption of the world’s longest road is known as the Darién Gap. For decades there have been plans to bridge it with a connecting road. But so far, the difficulties—both practical and political—have proven insurmountable. This is a region notorious for its instability, lawlessness, and drug-trafficking. For many years, its seemingly impenetrable terrain provided a refuge and strategic base for the anti-government Colombian rebels known as the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Largely because of that history and notoriety, the Darién contains the largest tract of undisturbed lowland rainforest on Central America’s Pacific Coast, and is home to an astounding array of biodiversity that scientists and intrepid tourists are eager to explore. Among its wealth of wildlife is the harpy eagle (

Harpia harpyja

). This massive raptor is the apex predator of the forest canopy, occupying a comparable niche at treetop level to that of the jaguar on the forest floor. Once found throughout the region, it now has one of its last strongholds in the Darién.

But the region is changing. The last decade has seen a gradual improvement in security, with the FARC scaling down its operations and entering peace talks with the Colombian government in 2012, culminating in the organization’s official renouncement of armed struggle just last year. Increasingly, the province is opening up to foreign visitors, with Darién National Park now the focus of an increasing number of tour groups. The prospect of laying eyes on a harpy eagle is a big part of the appeal.

Travel here remains a challenge, though. Having reached the end of the road at Yaviza, our journey has really only just begun. We travel first by motorized dugout canoe along the dark Chucunaque River; then, after disembarking at the riverside village of El Real, by 4x4 along a bumpy road into the park. By the time we hit the trail, leaving the banana plantations behind and filing onto a narrow trail through the forest, the sun is already high enough to have us wiping the sweat from our brows.

The pace is brisk. We are heading to an active harpy eagle nest, one of three sites where park authorities have constructed rudimentary observation points for visitors. Bethancourt is anxious to be in place before one of the adult eagles makes its customary morning prey delivery to the single chick. Within an hour and a half of leaving the vehicle, having received our briefing at the nearby ranger station, we are in position beneath a small tarpaulin, peering up into the canopy of a towering almendro tree (

Dipteryx oleifera

) about 150 meters (nearly 500 feet) away. A window in the tangle of foliage reveals a large edifice of sticks and branches about 25 meters (80 feet) above the forest floor, wedged into a fork between the tree’s muscular limbs. The sheer size of this construction—as big as a child’s tree house—leaves no doubt about the identity of its architects. Breathless with both exertion and excitement, we settle down to wait. After 10 minutes, a fluffy white head pops into view. And, sure enough, spotting scopes reveal the dark eye and hooked bill of a juvenile harpy eagle.

Just two months old—with another four months before, all being well, it leaves the nest—the awkward youngster gives little indication of the formidable predator it is destined to become. Weighing up to 9 kilograms (20 pounds), an adult female harpy eagle vies with the Steller’s sea eagle as the world’s largest eagle. Its huge talons are also the largest and among the most powerful of any raptor, with the 13 cm (5 inch) hallux, or hind claw, being longer than the claws of a grizzly bear. This fearsome weaponry allows the bird to snatch sloths, monkeys, and other mammals from the canopy, usually killing its prey on impact. Harpy eagles are also known to capture macaws and other birds in flight, and terrestrial mammals such as agoutis from the forest floor. Prey too heavy to carry off is torn apart and consumed on the ground. Adult red brocket deer, which weigh 30 kilograms (66 pounds) or more, are known to have fallen victim.

Such predatory drama, it turns out, is not on our agenda this morning. Time ticks by as the heat rises. A slaty-tailed trogon (

Trogon massena

) chimes overhead, howler monkeys roar in the distance, and leaf-cutter ants process past our feet. Still, no adult eagle appears. A burst of urgent "yip yip" calls has us grabbing for binoculars. The youngster sits up and flaps its stubby wings, as though anticipating a delivery, but none arrives. At this stage of the chick’s development, Bethancourt explains, the parents may make just one visit a day and we may have already missed it.

Even so, our long, hot vigil provides the opportunity to reflect on the significance of what we’re seeing. The harpy eagle is a species in trouble. Across its range, it is losing vital forest habitat to logging, prospecting, and cattle ranching. In some regions it is also persecuted as a reputed livestock killer. Today the IUCN lists the species as Near Threatened. And in Central America it is doing particularly badly: Now extinct in El Salvador, it hangs on by a thread elsewhere, with populations in some countries reduced to single figures. Only Panama still has significant numbers—now estimated at about a thousand breeding pairs. This is just one of many reasons Darién National Park, with its large expanse of pristine forest, is so important. Established in 1981 and declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1983, the reserve is now Panama’s largest protected area, covering some 5,790 square kilometers (2,236 square miles) and lies at the heart of the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena biodiversity hot spot, one of just 36 recognized worldwide.

Last Stronghold

Panama’s Darién Province, and Darién National Park in particular, boasts the largest tract of undisturbed lowland rainforest on Central America’s Pacific Coast. Home to an astounding array of wildlife, it’s one of the region’s last strongholds of the endangered harpy eagle.

Pan-American Highway

Darién National Park

Columbia

Panama

Yaviza

Courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

Darién Province is also home to the Emberá-Wounaan, a people indigenous to the region, who have lived alongside harpy eagles for millennia. Their knowledge of the forest and the birds has been invaluable to researchers. Emberá guides, for example, were instrumental in surveys of the Darién conducted between 2000 and 2006 by U.S.-based raptor conservation organization the Peregrine Fund, which found 30 occupied harpy eagle nests within its study area. This was the third largest total of confirmed nests recorded by any study anywhere. The same study also found that each pair’s breeding territory averaged 24 square kilometers (9 square miles) or less, smaller than those found in similar studies in Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, and French Guiana. The scientists concluded that this exceptional density not only reflected the quality of the Darién’s habitat but also a human factor: what it described as a “low level of persecution due to the ancestral cultural values of the local indigenous communities.”

The park authorities control visitor hours carefully to avoid undue disruption to the nesting birds, so by mid-morning our viewing time is up. When we return to the ranger station, I browse through images of jaguars, pumas, tapirs, and giant anteaters, all taken by camera trap on the surrounding trails, and learn more about other local conservation projects, including the Fundación Yaguará Panamá, which monitors jaguar populations. Signing the guestbook on our departure, I notice that visitors from Belgium, Russia, and the U.S. have all recently passed this way.

The guestbook illustrates a key part of the harpy eagle conservation story: ecotourism. My base for the week is the Canopy Camp, a private property located about an hour’s drive from Yaviza and the third of three eco-lodges owned by Raúl Arias de Para, a native Panamanian who’s passionate about protecting his nation’s wildlife heritage. Until recently, the Darién had effectively been off-limits to all but the most intrepid independent travelers. Now Arias de Para’s new camp is busy with groups of birders that have come to enjoy the abundant local birdlife—514 species have been recorded around Canopy Camp alone—and to visit Central America’s most obliging harpy eagles.

When I ask whether tourism can succeed in the Darién, Arias de Para describes how visitors have been revitalizing the park, both through their entrance fees and through their very presence, which helps deter logging and other illegal activities. He also explains how his operation benefits the local community. “We’re providing employment in a sustainable activity to local residents who would otherwise be involved in slash-and-burn agriculture,” he says. To further this cause, Canopy Camp runs a social responsibility program that has sponsored numerous local projects, from the construction of rural aqueducts to a radio show that Arias de Para says “extols civic virtues and conservation.”

Bethancourt has been with Arias de Para since 2000. But it wasn’t until 2015 that he saw his first harpy eagle in the Darién. “It was a big moment for me,” he recalls. “My national bird!” Since then, harpy eagles have twice been spotted from the camp itself. I thus keep an eye on the skies as Bethancourt leads me along one of the camp’s circular trails, pointing out the diggings of armadillos at our feet and the electric iridescence of a blue morpho butterfly in floppy flight through the understory gloom. At a fork in the trail, we crouch to watch a display of golden-collared manikins, males puffing up their brilliant throats and hopping between the low stems to a bizarre chorus of clicking and popping. “The important part is we’re sending the message to people,” whispers Bethancourt, explaining how the local community is waking up to the value of their own natural heritage.

The following morning, we board another boat and head up the Tuquesa, a tributary of the Chucunaque, to visit the Emberá village of Nuevo Vigia. By daylight, the river reveals its wildlife riches: spectacled caimans (

Caiman crocodilus

) basking on the banks; a neotropical otter (

Lontra longicaudis

) munching a fish in the shallows; Geoffroy’s tamarins (

Saguinus geoffroyi

) scampering through overhanging cecropia trees. We find the village arrayed along a bend, its palm-thatched huts raised on stilts. Fishermen wave from dugouts as we approach and a group of garlanded women usher us ashore to the beating of a small drum.

The Emberá-Wounaan people, the original inhabitants of the Darién, accounted for about 35 percent of its population as of 2007. In a region long beset by poverty, they have suffered the most—displaced, dispossessed, and exploited by outside colonizers. Today their conflict with the outside world continues, as newcomers to the area clear the forest and establish new settlements with little regard for the traditional land-tenure systems long practiced by the indigenous community.

Such realities and conflicts are seemingly set aside for the moment, however, as our small party is welcomed into the village. A group of women perform a traditional dance, passing a scrap of cloth from mouth to mouth with arms flapping like wings, as they mimic vultures feeding on meat. Afterward, the president of the village’s tourism board, a senior woman named Lerni Aji, gives a brief welcome speech and invites us to inspect the handicrafts on sale. Among the bolts of colored cloth is a collection of masks woven from palm fibers. One shows the unmistakable hooked bill and flaring crest of a harpy eagle. “Seeing this bird gives me a feeling of something good,” our host tells me, via Bethancourt’s translation. “Having the birds and the wildlife will help our community.”

Courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

Photograph by David Tipling

My visit to the Darién has allowed a brief but memorable immersion in both the region’s charms and its challenges. But one goal has eluded me: I would still love a glimpse of an adult harpy eagle. My travel companion, wildlife photographer David Tipling, who has previously photographed many of the world’s eagles but never its most powerful, feels the same. “

Jamas te des por vencido

,” Bethancourt has said: “Never give up.” And so on the day before our departure we head back to the nest. The routine feels familiar: the predawn run to Yaviza; the hair-raising boat journey through darkness; the bumpy truck ride to the park; and the long, sweaty tramp into the forest. By 7:50 am—nearly an hour earlier than our previous attempt—we are crouched in the leaf litter beneath the tarpaulin, staring up, and hoping.

Luck is on our side today. A high, whistled call, a beating of wings above the canopy, and suddenly the female is there, perched on a branch beside the nest. Bethancourt quickly finds her in the scope and for 5 minutes we are able to take in this magnificent bird: the dove-grey head, surmounted with a long black crest that flares up as she fusses about the nest; the massive yellow talons; the hatchet bill and piercing auburn eyes. Then she is off again, prompting a volley of camera clicks as she launches from the nest and flies over our heads, her heavily barred underwings just visible through the canopy tangle. “

Perfecto

,” breathes Bethancourt.

The tide is on its way out as our boat chugs back upriver toward Yaviza. Egrets and ibises gather on the exposed mud banks, while black vultures wheel overhead. It’s an altogether more relaxed journey, and as others scroll through memory cards and check field guides, I am able to reflect at more leisure on our experience.

It is clear that the fortunes of the Darién will determine the future of the harpy eagle in Central America. The Peregrine Fund has estimated that Panama may be home to as many as 1,200 pairs of the species—but also that less than 26 percent of the country’s forested area provides suitable cover, and that most of that suitable forest is here. Today, conservation groups such as the Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON) and the Peregrine Fund are working to protect both the eagle and its habitat, using captive breeding and reintroductions to boost wild populations, while promoting among local communities an understanding of the value of their natural heritage.

The long-term fate of the Darién hangs upon larger questions, however, of which the most critical concerns the fate of the famous gap. Completion of the Pan-American Highway has been mooted since the 1950s, with numerous plans drawn up and studies conducted, but today the project remains in limbo. Colombia is all for pressing ahead, arguing that bridging the

El Tapón del Darién

would create a vital intercontinental trade corridor, while also allowing the country access to the Panama Canal. Panama, however, continues to express concerns about the environmental impact of completing the road, as well as issues of border security and disease transmission. The U.S., which has blown hot and cold on the issue over several decades, has recently shared Panama’s concerns. Of several different routes proposed for completing the highway, the one with the greatest support would pass directly through the two national parks—Darién in Panama and Los Katios in Colombia—both of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. UNESCO views this as being of “particular conservation concern.” Other conservation groups have expressed worries about the likely impacts on both the region’s biodiversity and its indigenous communities.

Bridging the gap is not imminent, but as the economic arguments of globalization continue to gain traction, its prospect is unlikely to go away. The consequences would be profound. “Darién will be solidly integrated into global markets at the heart of the Americas,” predicts Daniel Suman, in a paper published in the

University of Miami Inter-American Law Review

. “The losers, however, will be the rich cultural and biological diversities of the region.”

Ultimately, then, this story is about more than just one bird. The harpy eagle, like all apex predators, is an indicator species. Beneath the symbolic umbrella of its 7-foot wingspan is a precious forest, one that is both vital to a healthy, functioning environment but one that may also stand in the way of human ambition. Wherever the eagle has disappeared across its range, it is because its forests have disappeared, too—and life has seldom improved for the people that remain. Sixteen years ago, in April of 2002, the harpy eagle was declared the national bird of Panama. The challenge now is to ensure the bird survives as long as the emblem.

Photograph by David Tipling

Map by James Davidson

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ABOUT THE Author

Mike Unwin is a freelance natural history and travel writer based in the UK. Winner of UK Travel Writer of the Year 2013, his books for both adults and children include

A Visitor's Guide to Southern African Wildlife

(Bradt),

100 Bizarre Animals

(Bradt), and

The Atlas of Birds

(Bloomsbury). Unwin traveled to Panama’s Darién Province courtesy of Canopy Camp.

ABOUT THE Photographer

David Tipling is renowned for his artistic images of birds. His many accolades include a European Nature Photographer of the Year Award for work on Emperor Penguins. Tipling’s many books include the critically acclaimed

Birds & People

, and his latest book—

A Bird Photographer’s Diary

—charts his 30-year career in pictures. See more of his work at www.davidtipling.com

Mike Unwin David Tipling

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