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Brunei: White-bellied Sea Eagle

Brunei and the White-bellied Sea Eagle. Artwork: Emilie Languedoc for Southeast Asia Globe

Solving the mystery of Brunei’s national animal has flummoxed scholars and the country’s Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism.

Joremy Anak Tony, a researcher and bird expert at the Institute for Biodiversity and Environmental Research at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, asked the ministry to confirm Brunei’s national animal was indeed the white-bellied sea eagle.

While scores of internet search results support the sea eagle as Brunei’s official beast, officials said there was no record of the bird being declared the national animal. 

In fact, Tony laughed when recalling that the ministry suggested, “Would you like to propose it?”

When he asked around, birders and local tour guides also had not heard about the sea eagle’s status as the national animal. 

“There’s actually no knowledge about Brunei having a national animal,” Tony said. “We might as well do the white-bellied sea eagle because when you Google it, ‘national bird of Brunei, national animal of Brunei,’ right away, it’s ‘white-bellied sea eagle, white-bellied sea eagle, white-bellied sea eagle.’”

Characterised by a white underside and a grey body, Brunei’s supposed national animal is found in abundance along the coastlines and rivers of countries from India to Australia, including most nations in Southeast Asia. 

Brunei’s supposed national animal is characterised by a white underside and a grey body. Photo: Wang LiQiang/Shutterstock

Clocking in with a wingspan of about 1.8 metres (5.9 feet) and weighing approximately 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds), the raptors feast on fish – especially catfish, which regularly surface close to the water – plus the occasional squirrel, sea snake or other birds.

Though falconers have been known to capture sea eagles, the predator has remained an animal of “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.

Still, Tony can’t explain why the internet has decreed the sea eagle as Brunei’s national bird. The resources and tourism ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

There are four feathers on Brunei’s national flag, but they stand for justice, peace, tranquillity and prosperity. Confusingly, the flag’s white, black and yellow colours correspond to those of the great hornbill, a species which isn’t even found in Brunei or Borneo, though other varieties of hornbill are common. 

While eagles carry cultural significance for some ethnic groups in Brunei, there isn’t national lore specifically linked to the white-bellied sea eagle, Tony said.

Brunei historians and researchers at Universiti Brunei Darussalam and Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg had little more to add to the conversation, unsure why the internet awarded Brunei’s animal crown to the sea eagle.

All possibilities have Tony stumped. His best guess is that mangrove tour guides spouted that sea eagles were the national bird as they flocked overhead during tours and somehow it stuck. But the great sea eagle mystery has gotten under Tony’s skin and he might accept the government’s challenge. 

“Now I feel like I really need to do something about this,” he said, suggesting he may take the ministry up on its offer of “proposing something.”

This article is part of Southeast Asia Globe’s World Wildlife Day Special series.

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