Human Interest

King of Panama’s skies coveted on int’l black market

By Ana de Leon

Panama City, Jun 17 (EFE).- The harpy eagle, Panama’s national bird, is one of the world’s most coveted at-risk species due to the high value of its white, black and light-gray plumage on the international black market.

Known as the king of the Panamanian skies, that large and powerful raptor is listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

But the biggest threat to these birds comes from customers of species markets who want these animals for their personal zoos.

“It’s the eagle with the strongest talons, emblematic in many countries of the Americas, king of our skies,” the Panamanian Environment Ministry’s regional director for the Caribbean province of Colon, Felipe Cruz, told Efe. “And it’s coveted because it’s a very attractive bird of prey.”

A member of the accipitridae family, the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) measures between 89 centimeters (35 inches) and 1.2 meters from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail. The bird’s wingspan can stretch as long as 2.24 m when it fans out and reveals its patterned, mostly white, underside.

The eagle has a gray head, a white belly and a black band across its breast that is similar in color to the black feathers of its upperside.

It inhabits tropical lowland rainforests from southern Mexico to Argentina, but the largest population of that raptor in Central America is found in Panama.

It can be observed by bird watchers in that country’s Caribbean region – including the western province of Bocas del Toro, which borders Costa Rica – or perched in 70-meter-high (230-foot-high) trees in the eastern province of Darien, near the Colombian border.

The harpy eagle typically lays just two eggs every three years, but only the first to hatch survives because the mother begins seeking out food for its chick and stops incubating the other egg, Deyanis de Melendez, a guide at Parque Municipal Summit, a botanical garden zoo on Panama City’s outskirts, told Efe.

One of these eagles, a raptor named “Panama,” has lived in that zoo for more than eight years without reproducing, while another was stolen from that park in 2019 in an incident that became a national scandal.

Police offered a reward of $5,000 for information leading to the recovery of the eagle, whose theft shed light on the cruel indifference of the lucrative wildlife species market.

“No one would’ve thought there was so much money behind species trafficking,” Cruz, an expert in environmental crimes, said.

The harpy eagle’s beauty has made it one of the most-trafficked species by criminal organizations, according to a recent tally by Panama’s Environment Ministry.

“We presume that it can cost, depending on the size, between $250,000 and $500,000,” Cruz says of a trade where “collectors” purchase the birds from criminal groups that leverage their complex logistics networks and transnational capacity to traffic in illegal flora and fauna.

“Panama has laws that protect the harpy eagle; not only is hunting it illegal, the police can even arrest a person” in possession of a feather they found on the ground, the coordinator of Parque Municipal Summit’s Environmental Education Department, Yanis Chen, told Efe.

Environmental crimes in Panama, depending on the nature of the offense, are punishable by up to 10 years in prison, that nation’s Environmental Crimes Prosecutor’s Office told Efe. EFE


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