April 23, 2004 (STAR) By Edith Regalado — "Kabayan" has taken to the skies, but "Gloria" will remain under the aegis of her handlers.

The 17-month-old Philippine eagle bred in captivity finally flew into the wilds of Mt. Apo yesterday, leaving behind Gloria, another captive-bred eagle at the Philippine Eagle Center (PEC) in Malagos, Calinan district here.

"The release was the first ever in Asia and is particularly significant as the Philippine eagle is considered one of the rarest eagles in the world," Environment Secretary Elisea Gozun said prior to setting Kabayan free.

Kabayan was released, as part of the PEC’s World Earth Day celebrations, into the forests of the Philippine National Oil Co.’s geothermal reserve located within the Mt. Apo Natural Park in Kidapawan City, North Cotabato.

Eagles that were let loose in the past were born in the wild and matured in their natural habitat. Most of the wild eagles were brought to the PEC to be cared for and for treatment of injuries prior to their release in the area where they were found.

Kabayan was the product of artificial insemination using the eggs and sperm of captive eagles "Kahayag" and "Junior."

A makeshift cage made of cyclone wire, called a hack box, was put up at the release site. The bird was transported from the PEC and put in the hack box, where it stayed for over two weeks to allow it to adjust to the new environment.

Witnessing Kabayan’s flight to freedom were President Arroyo’s daughter, Luli, who opened the hack cage with Gozun, Sen. Noli de Castro’s wife Arlyn and Energy Secretary Vicente Perez.

The senator is Mrs. Arroyo’s running mate under the banner of the administration Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan para sa Kinabukasan (K-4). He goes by the moniker "Kabayan," which was taken from his program on the ABS-CBN network titled "Magandang Gabi, Bayan."

De Castro had donated P100,000 a year for the upkeep of his namesake eagle under the PEF’s adopt-an-eagle program.

The eagle Gloria, on the other hand, was named after the President last Dec. 1 during the opening of the new Davao City International Airport.

The PEF recognized the President’s contribution to the effort to bring development to Mindanao by naming one of its 13 captive-bred eagles after her. The PEC began its captive breeding program in the early 1990s.

Gloria remains within the PEC reserve until the center in Malagos determines that she is fit for release and can survive in the wild.

De Castro, in a speech read by broadcaster Erwin Tulfo, gave his namesake’s release into the wild a political twist.

"Today, as we grant eagle Kabayan the gift of freedom, he becomes a symbol of hope for our country’s dwindling wildlife," the senator said. "Kabayan’s freedom is also symbolic of our countrymen’s impending liberty — under the GMA-Kabayan administration — from poverty, helplessness and lack of opportunity."

"Like eagle Kabayan, I also wish (for) freedom from the bondage of poverty for majority of our people. Like eagle Kabayan, I also aspire that our country’s economy may reach new heights... I pray for a more survival-friendly environment for the Filipino people of the present and the future," he said.

De Castro also said, "we humans should help Kabayan survive. I am well aware that majority of our countrymen are, like the great Philippine eagle, striving to survive. But as we seek to make ends meet, let us not forget to also invest in our future. Let us not compromise the world our children will live in when we make our decisions today."

According to PEF executive director Dennis Salvador, Kabayan hesitated for 30 minutes after the hack cage was opened at 11:27 a.m. yesterday before flying into his new habitat.

"It must be that the bird was not accustomed yet to getting out of the cage and maybe it was distracted by the noise of the many people around the area," Salvador said.

Kabayan was equipped with a backpack-type radio transmitter to enable PEF staff and other volunteers to keep track of the bird within the forest reserve.

Since his birth on Nov. 23, 2002, Kabayan has been kept in an enclosure simulating a forest setting, with little human interaction and the periodic introduction of live prey into his cage to hone the raptor’s hunting skills.

Gozun said this pioneering experimental release project is part of a grand scheme for releasing captive-bred eagles into the wild.

Kabayan’s adjustment to his new surroundings will be monitored, even as his release will put the "release protocols" for the Philippine eagle to the test. The process is known as a "soft release." Results from this undertaking will be used in setting up a full-blown reintroduction program in the future.

No matter what the development may be, the PEF teams would be keeping an eye on the movement of the bird for at least six months.

Observation areas with camouflage blinds will be made available on all sides of the hack box for the PEF’s field biologists to take a close watch at the bird. The observation post nearest to the hack box is 10 meters away and will be on hand for use by guests as well as the media.

At least 500 pairs of Philippine eagles have been sighted in the wild, while 29 of the giant raptors are kept at the PEC in Malagos. Two others are kept at the University of the Philippines campus in Los Baños, Laguna.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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