Conservation Documentary Features UNCW Professor Jamie Rotenberg

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

A film chronicling the rediscovery of Harpy Eagles in southern Belize illustrates that a successful conservation project begins with local people.

Wings of Hope,” which features UNCW environmental studies professor Jamie Rotenberg and para-biologists with the Belize Foundation and Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), highlights a field training program that equips locals with skills to become avian field technicians. As a result of the training led by Rotenberg, the Belizean technicians became conservation ambassadors in their communities. The 20-minute documentary was released in August.

“They were able to speak to their own people about the importance and merits of the protected areas and the wildlife that lived there,” Rotenberg said.  “It is one thing for someone like myself to come to a small, Belizean village and talk about biodiversity and conservation, but it is yet another level completely to have someone from their own community relate this information to them. I can’t say enough how much this has made a difference in the local communities.”

Harpy Eagles were determined to be extinct in Belize in 2000 because of habitat loss. In an effort to establish a new population, a reintroduction project involving eagles from Panama was started. Rotenberg and BFREE researchers rediscovered a naturally occurring juvenile Harpy Eagle in 2005 and began monitoring for a wild population, which subsequently was a pair of breeding adults. They discovered an active nest five years later in the Bladen Nature Reserve in the Maya Mountains in Belize.  

Researchers received funding from grants to establish an avian montoring program onsite and to conduct a five-year study.

“I never imagined that I would lead a research project involved with the largest raptor in the Americas,” said Rotenberg. The Harpy Eagle has a wingspan of seven feet and can weigh as much as 20 pounds.

December 2015 marks the 10-year anniversary of the rediscovery. Researchers are planning another expedition to observe the Harpy Eagles if grant funding is approved.

“As a member of the Department of Environmental Studies, my research now always includes a human element,” he said. “Whether that human element is citizen science, as with my work here in the Carolinas, or alternative livelihood training in the case of Belize, I believe that this is one of the keys to the success of my research projects.”