Harpy Eagle Project Sparks Change in Panama

By: Amy Taintor

The harpy eagle soars above the forests of Central and South America and stands at a whopping 3 feet tall. This massive bird is one of the largest and strongest birds in all of the Americas.

But during a visit to Panama in 2002, Ron Magill saw two of these magnificent birds being kept in a cage too small.

“I saw these two beautiful birds in horrible captivity and knew I needed to do something,” Magill said.

This is how the Harpy Eagle Project was born.

The existence of the harpy eagle has an extremely important role in conserving tropical rainforests due to their unique ability to protect other species, thus giving them the nickname “umbrella species.” Having no natural predators, the most threatening causes to their survival are habitat loss and hunting.

Magill set to work raising money and awareness of the issue. He persuaded executives from Sony, American Airlines and Visa to contribute to the cause.

The result was the top-notch Harpy Eagle Center at Summit Zoo and Gardens in Panama City, Panama. Since its opening, the attraction has drawn tens of thousands of visitors each year, increasing local tourism and funding for the project.

But that wasn’t enough for Magill. He contacted the president of Panama and suggested that perhaps the country would like to make the harpy eagle its national bird. It is now is depicted on the Panamanian coat of arms.

That’s not the only place the bird of prey can be seen.

Magill suggested that there be a nationwide contest for school children. They could create their artistic renditions of the new national bird and the winner would be featured on the postage stamp. Unable to choose one winner, four different children’s drawings of harpy eagles now grace Panamanian mail.

In 2013, Magill, in collaboration with Zoo Miami, transported the first harpy eagle to hatch in captivity to the facility he’d helped create a decade earlier. Her name: Panama. He accompanied the bird on her trip.

“You would have thought I had just gotten off the plane with Kim Kardashian or something,” Magill said. “The people were so excited about the arrival of this harpy eagle.”

Magill says it goes to show the impact one person can make. You don’t have to be part of a big company, he says. If you are creative, you can create your own movement.

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