More than a metaphor, the Philippine eagle is evidence of the country’s riches often overlooked. The dominant theme of our self-expression, such as in our films, after all, is lack and limitation.
Critically endangered as our national bird is, with only 400 breeding pairs of it remaining (exactly why we need to give it more attention), we are rich. According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, ours is home to more diverse life forms per hectare than any other country on earth. In the world, we have the fourth largest number of species of birds endemic to a country. We are number one in terrestrial mammalian diversity concentration, eighth in the number of endemic reptiles, and third in marine biodiversity.
We’re just talking birds and animals, as represented by the Philippine eagle, the controversial icon that has made it to the redesign of the ₱1,000 banknote, the first note in a new series of Philippine currency that Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) will release beginning April 2022.
Through the eagle eye, we might realize how rich we are with more than 52,177 described species, half of which can be found only in the Philippines. Of 1,300 species of terrestrial wildlife in our country, half are endemic. Plus, we have 576 bird species, 174 indigenous mammalian species, and more than 10,000 or one-fifth of all known marine species on the planet.
On legal tender are myriad birds, including hummingbirds on the Brazilian real, cockatoos on the Indonesian rupiah, hoopoes on the Gambian dalasi, and the giant weaver on the dobra in Sao Tome. Since 1776, the American bald eagle has flown in and out of the US dollar coop. In 2015, Kazakhstan issued a 20,000 tenge banknote featuring not a real bird but the magical Samruk of Kazakh folklore. There is a menagerie of other animals in world currencies, green turtles on the Aruban florin, for instance, zebras on the Rwandan francs, and camels on the UAE dirham.
A recent study shows that at least 1,383 banknotes in the world feature people, of whom 547 are political figures and 320 are royals, living like Queen Elizabeth II on the pound sterling or dead like Eva Peron on the Argentinian peso. Of these people, 153 are writers like Hans Christian Andersen, who graced the Danish kroner until 1975, and Jane Austen, who only recently replaced Charles Darwin on the British 10-pound note.
Some banknotes honor war heroes — Jose Abad Santos, Josefa Llanes-Escoda, and Vicente Lim on our current ₱1,000 banknote (which isn’t going to be demonetized, according to BSP governor Ben Diokno) or world record-breakers like mountaineer Edmund Hillary on the New Zealand dollar. Others honor ordinary people representing the masses, like the boys playing rugby with a coconut on the beach on the Samoan tālā, or even just things, like a fishing vessel on the Maldivian rufiyaa, a dhow boat on the Kuwaiti dinar, Everest on the Nepalese rupee, or an insect on the Fijian dollar.
Banknotes need constant upgrade due to wear and tear, on account of inflation, and as a defense against counterfeiting. These upgrades are an opportunity to rethink how the numismatic design and content reflect national identity and aspirations.
In the Philippines, where the new series marks the switch to the stronger, more secure, more environment-friendly polymer, we need to realize that while we do need heroes, we also need to be reminded constantly what these heroes died for, our rich flora and fauna included.