Winner avatar
2017 Whitley Award
Alexander Blanco Venezuela Terrestrial
Nest protectors: conserving Venezuela’s magnificent Harpy Eagles as a rainforest flagship

Winner of the Whitley Award donated by the William Brake Charitable Trust in memory of William Brake


The Harpy Eagle is one of the world’s largest eagles and certainly the heaviest! As the apex predator of the Venezuelan canopy in the Sierra Imataca, it is an indicator of forest health. This magnificent eagle has become rare in many parts of its range where poverty, hunting, political instability and a resulting lack of law enforcement have led to a sharp increase in illegal deforestation. Harpy Eagles are slow to reproduce and research indicates most harpy nests are found outside of protected areas, putting them at greater risk.


Trained as a veterinary surgeon, Alexander has been working with Harpy Eagles since 1996 where his veterinary, biological and climbing skills are put to the test. Some may remember him from the BBC wildlife documentary ‘The Hunt’ where he was climbing 40 metre high trees to tag eagle chicks and nursing injured eagles back to health before returning them to the wild. He has helped to conserve these iconic birds in Brazil and Ecuador, as well as in his native Venezuela where he is President of the Esfera Foundation and leads a national programme to protect the species.


Alexander’s long term vision is to develop protection strategies delivered by local people so that conservation is more resilient to economic and political perturbations. By cementing the Harpy Eagle as a flagship, Alexander hopes to limit deforestation and protect a greater number of nesting sites. Using a mixture of nest monitoring and community engagement, Alexander and his team have already convinced landowners to protect harpy nests and maintain forest patches around them. His work demonstrates that with the right approach, human settlement does not have to mean the local extinction of Harpy Eagles.


  • Partner with landowners and recruit local people as nest guardians to protect 70 nests and the surrounding forest
  • Restore fragmented habitat and establish livelihoods in shade-grown coffee and cacao that limit deforestation and provide an incentive to maintain forest cover
  • Develop positive attitudes to conservation among locals and 90% of school children in the municipality

Why it matters:

  • The Sierra Imataca region has amongst the highest recorded densities of Harpy Eagles
  • The area supports jaguar, giant anteater and the lowland tapir among other threatened species
  • Every week, an area of forest bigger than central London is cut down in Venezuela

“After my first experience tagging an eagle chick nearly 20 years ago, I decided that this was what I wanted to do.”