AFC Flag Expedition #1
In this inaugural Flag Expedition, David Kitler and his wife, Ly, spent a month in the dense tick and snake-infested rainforest of Panama where they and the endangered Harpy Eagle shared the same forest canopy.
The objectives of the expedition were to observe, study, and gather reference material for the subsequent portrayal of the Harpy Eagle and its habitat. The resulting artwork and publicity from the expedition have been used to support conservation efforts currently underway to restore the Harpy Eagle to its historical ranges, while helping to educate the public on the key role that conservation of this species plays in the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem.
“We saw it all and we were blown away. We had deliberately kept our expectations low. To sit there and observe a mother and her chick was something we had only dreamed about. To have had this opportunity from day one and then spend nine days under the nest was the highlight of our amazing experience.”
David Kitler’s journey began on December 1, 2005, when he and his wife, Ly, left Calgary, Canada and headed into unknown territory to observe and portray the endangered Harpy Eagle. What awaited them was something beyond their wildest expectations. On December 7, accompanied by their guide, Guido Berguido, the Kitlers set out into Panama’s Darién province to a native village called Llano Bonito (meaning beautiful plain.) What was extraordinary about this particular village was that within a half-hour’s walk there was the ideal Harpy Eagle nesting site. Secretive by nature, the Harpy Eagle pairs left in the wild also range over a wide territory, which makes them extremely hard to find. The Kitlers had not anticipated that their good fortune would come so early into the journey.
Perched on a hillside, sitting eye-level looking into the nest, Kitler captured the life and habits of the Harpy mother and her eaglet. “It was the next best thing to sitting in the nest,” an enthusiastic Kitler declared, as he talked about positioning his hammock adjacent to the nest for yet another night of sleeping under the stars. “Spending time in that spot in the jungle left me feeling completely in touch with nature and all its unspoiled beauty.”
This amazing raptor once ranged from Mexico to Argentina. Unfortunately, the Harpy Eagle has disappeared almost entirely from these areas, and has become one of the most critically endangered species, its numbers declining sharply. The most powerful bird of prey in the world (around 3 feet tall, with a 7-foot wingspan), the Harpy Eagle has few, if any, natural predators. Only humans are a threat to this species, mainly through the practice of killing the birds for food and/or feathers, and destroying the birds’ habitat through development, logging and agriculture. Deforestation has impacted heavily on the survival of the Harpy Eagle.
Conservation of the Harpy Eagle in Panama received a helping hand when the Harpy Eagle became the country’s National Bird in 2002. This status has translated into greater public awareness, mingled with national pride at being the home of such a majestic bird. It has also provided the legal clout necessary for the enforcement of anti-poaching laws. Today Panama has the largest concentration of Harpy Eagles in all of Central America, at an estimated 200 breeding pairs, and is the home of the Neotropical Raptor Center, a facility funded and managed by the Peregrine Fund for the captive breeding of Harpy Eagles for subsequent release in the wild. The Center utilizes the same species restoration techniques that were used to re-establish Peregrine Falcon populations, and to date almost 30 captive-bred Harpy Eagles have been released in Panama and Belize. If everything went as planned, some of these Harpy Eagles should have started reproducing in 2007.
The presence of Harpy Eagles is said to indicate the health of the forest’s ecosystem, as top predators are among the first to disappear when pristine habitat is altered. Where the Harpy Eagle thrives, the tropical forest thrives as well. Protecting the Harpy Eagle also protects large areas of rainforest, along with everything that lives in them. Rainforests cover only 5-6% of the earth’s land mass, yet they contain 70-90% of all species. Supporting the conservation of Harpy Eagles and their habitat is akin to supporting biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem.
Around 50 years ago, 70% of Panama was covered by forest; today, that number is just over 40%, making deforestation one of the country’s worst environmental problems. The destruction of the rainforest not only wipes out the animals that live in it, but also leads to soil erosion and water shortages, and is a threat to traditional indigenous cultures. According to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, there are over 100 species threatened with extinction within Panama, including the Harpy Eagle, jaguars, and all five species of sea turtles. It becomes imperative that these species are protected from any further threats.
Kitler’s experience is captured in hundreds of photographs and a special journal containing nearly 150 pages of sketches, writings, paintings and collages. A comprehensive section on the AFC website has been dedicated to showcase this incredible body of work produced primarily in situ, in the remote rainforests of Panama.