Greetings. My name is Eduardo Alvarez and I am the President of Earthmatters.org. I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, but my family was based in Ciudad Bolívar, on the right bank of the Orinoco River. My city’s original name was ‘Angostura’ (Spanish word for a narrowing) because it’s near one of the narrowest passages of the Orinoco. It was the home of Angostura Bitters, first developed in the 1820’s by a German Surgeon General in Simon Bolivars’ army, to treat many ailments, including Malaria. I am still very much a fan to this day. Ciudad Bolivar was, for a long while, the largest and oldest city on the river.
In the early 1970’s I attended college at Utah State University and trained to become a cattle rancher. However, during graduate school I met a group of biologists conducting wildlife surveys in the desert of southwestern Utah. One of them, Peter Küng, became a lifelong friend and collaborator in research. I soon realized I didn’t want to be a rancher, but rather a field biologist. Upon completion of my Master’s degree, I was hired by EDELCA, Venezuela’s hydroelectric company, which in 1978 was building the world’s largest dam. There I started my path as an environmentalist.
I was charged with environmental evaluations of the lower Caroní River, being flooded by the Guri Dam. I moved on site with my wife, Lucie, and spent 10 years conducting wildlife inventories and aquatic ecosystems studies. We were fortunate to have herpetologist Dr. Steve Gorzula, and ornithologist Glenda Medina, provide the initial training of my field team. Peter Küng also arrived with a crew of biologists from Logan, Utah, bringing equipment and providing hands-on coaching for the inventory of vertebrates. I also enlisted the Forestry School of the Universidad de Los Andes to conduct evaluations over the span of almost 3 years.
In the early 80’s, as I started the bird list for the Guri Lake area, I heard the first stories about encounters with Harpy eagles. For instance, a logger told me that he had seen a huge eagle near the lake where they were clearing the forest, and that he shot it; he showed me one of the impressive claws. In 1983, during our field surveys of the Guri Lake basin, I saw my first Harpy near the site of a reported eagle shooting. At that time, I could only find two publications about the Harpy, reporting on nearby Guyana’s eagles. One of them was by Jim Fowler (1964), followed by another from American filmmaker and naturalist Neil Rettig, who was the first to film this species in the wild and would later inspire and encourage me to continue his work.
The distribution for this raptor described in the Field Guide to the Birds of Venezuela was based on the handful of specimens in museums. I became concerned – this is a large, rare bird and rather difficult to find in the wild, but when people encounter them, they tended to kill them, in part due to ignorance, sometimes due to fear. I realized we would lose the eagles before losing the rainforest. At this point, in the mid-80s, I decided to study these animals and figure out how to protect them in their natural habitat.
In the 10 years I was lived in Guri (1978-88), I gathered many sighting records and ended up with a collection of seven dead eagles shot by locals. For instance, a logger had a whole eagle in his freezer for ten years, looking for someone who could prepare an exhibit. Our family, now with the addition of two boys, moved to the United States in 1988 and I started my doctoral program at the University of Florida in Gainesville. When I stated the Harpy Eagle Conservation Program, I concentrated my early efforts in Venezuela and Panama, envisioning a constellation of projects in each country harboring the eagles.I am very grateful to The Peregrine Fund for supporting my doctoral research from 1990 until 1997.
In 1989 when I began my field work, I found the first active harpy nest reported for Venezuela (Alvarez, 1996). I also set out to visit museum collections. I found out that field teams from two different museums in Caracas had participated in the environmental impact studies for a bauxite mining site at Los Pijiguaos. A few months apart, both had encountered and shot a harpy eagle (very likely a pair). Traditionally, environmental impact studies consisted mostly of collecting vertebrates, but I could not think of any valid scientific reason for a biologist to be collecting harpy eagles in the late 80’s.
In 1997 after I was awarded a PhD, I teamed with Peter Küng who spearheaded the creation of Earthmatters.org. Our team set out to expand the program which had at that time located more than 30 nests in Venezuela, and 10 nests in Panama. Our innovative georeferenced approach, and field techniques to locate nests and study the eagles, have served to implement a Conservation Plan for this species.
After the untimely passing of Peter Küng on June 27th 2017, Earthmatters.org continues to uphold his principle of always striving to do the right thing. Our initiatives provide an excellent means to train researchers, conservationists and natural resource managers to face the problems related to biodiversity at different scales. We recognize that human beings are unavoidably a part of the landscape. Our approach focuses on bottom-up conservation, engaging local communities to embrace the value of the forest and its inhabitants, and using the harpy eagle as a symbol of local and national pride.