Tribal leaders take custody of killers of endangered Philippine eagle

Leaders of a southern tribal community took custody Friday of a man who confessed he killed an endangered Philippine eagle four months after it was released back into the wild following treatment for a gunshot wound.

About 800 of the giant birds, also known as monkey-eating eagles, are believed to remain in the Philippines, where deforestation and poaching threaten their survival.

Higaonon tribal leaders were allowed to take custody of the suspect, Brian Bala-on, and will deal with him according to their justice system, said Felix Mirasol, a warden at Mount Kitanglad Natural Park on southern Mindanao island.

He did not say what their punishment might be, but an offender usually is made to atone for wrongdoing by offering a pig or a chicken and coins.

Bala-on, a 22-year-old vegetable farmer, was seen carrying an air gun at a vegetable farm where the eagle was shot, Mirasol said.

He later confessed to shooting the eagle, saying he thought it was a hawk. He said he chopped off its two legs, burned the feathers and brought home the 4-pound (2-kilogram) carcass and invited two friends to feast on the bird soup he prepared, the warden said.

"He said the meat was tough," Mirasol said.

The Philippine Eagle Foundation, which runs programs to protect the national bird by breeding it in captivity and tracking its survival in the wild, said its workers found the dismembered remains of the young male bird named Kagsabua last Sunday at the national park.

The foundation treated the eagle after it was found shot in the forest in 2006 and released it in the park in March, said spokeswoman Irene Melissa Macahis.

She said the eagle had been tracked via radio transmitters attached to it, which on Sunday indicated the bird was no longer moving.

After trekking for hours, workers found the transmitters buried in a steep ravine. A few yards (meters) away, they saw the bird's nape feathers, a long rope, and the eagle's feet, Macahis said.

"The crime against Kagsabua is a crime done to the Filipino people," the foundation's president, William Hotchkiss, said in a statement. "The Philippine eagle is a national pride."

Mirasol said park authorities agreed to give custody of the suspect to the tribal leaders "in order to maintain our relations" with the community, which is a partner in the eagle conservation effort.

He said a 10,000-peso (US$222) reward would be given to the person who identified Bala-on as the bird's killer.

He said if the park management board decides to press charges against Bala-on, "I will bring him to court."

Under Philippine law, those found guilty of killing endangered species can face up to 12 years in prison.

The first eagle hatched in captivity by artificial insemination and released in 2004 was electrocuted a year later when it perched on an electrical post. Eighteen other birds have been bred by the foundation, but have not been released into the wilderness.