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Mea culpa

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Of all the things William Oliver said to me, this was one that stuck the most. It was probably because the last time I heard him say it, that was during the tumultuous time of transition from FFI to PBCFI. When I received the news this morning, I was shocked. I didn’t even know he was not in good health. I meant to visit him but that plan never came into fruition. There were a few times when I was in Malate and was tempted to just pop in, but I never did.

I first met William while I was still with PESCP back in 2005. He was with my friend, Carmela Espanola, at that time, and I just arrived from Boracay for this particular meeting. He told Carmela then that I might be suitable for the new project he was cooking up. A few months later, I was working for FFI.

William and I were not always in the same page. I resented the way he communicated with me at times.  There were instances when I directly disobeyed him. I did not do it simply to irritate William; I believed I was acting ‘in the best interest of the project’. That was another statement that, if you work for William, you’ll always hear from him. I learned a lot from William, albeit he never really intended to– be it how to, or how not to go about doing something. I fell in love with the leopard cat through a project I did for him. It was through the Reintroductions Project that I was honed to deal with different kinds of people, from government agencies to farmers to private land owners. But most of all, he shared his passion for conservation.

The fact that I will never be able to discuss conservation woes with him or talk about his reintroduction plans is just starting to sink in. The artist who rendered endangered Philippines species to life with his ‘Only in the Philippines poster series’ will no longer produce another work of art. This person who did so much for the conservation of endemic Philippine wildlife will no longer be around to see Visayan spotted deer roam the forests of Panay. I regret that I never visited him and never talked to him when I got back after finishing graduate studies. Mea culpa.

Farewell, William.

Martha In his first technical book, The Bird: Its Form and Function (1906), William Beebe wrote the following oft-quoted statement: “The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” 

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the most popular Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in history: Martha. She was named after George Washington’s wife, and resided at Cincinnati Zoo until her death from old age at 1 PM, 1st of September 1914. The breeding attempts of the Zoo were in vain; and by 1910, Martha was the sole survivor of her kind. The last known wild bird was killed in Ohio in 1900. A reward of $1000 was even offered to find a mate for Martha but there were no more male Passenger Pigeons to be found.

In the online database of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, there are about 828 extinct species of known plants and animals; 272 of these are mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Ectopistes migratorius  is just one of them. Working in conservation, we are usually pelted with bad news about dwindling populations, vanishing habitats, and policies that are detrimental to conservation. Good news are far and few between. Martha’s death is important, not only because she was the last of her kind but more so because the demise of her kind was brought about by humans in so short a time. It took only decades for possibly the most abundant species of bird to dwindle to one individual.

But what if there is a possibility to bring extinct species back to life? It is a given that it will be long difficult process; it is given that there is a need to explore the ecological implications of what can be called ‘reintroduction’; this effort will have to be in addition to what we’ve already been doing (in situ conservation, policy-lobbying, awareness, etc). Should we give it a chance?

NB: The objective of this blog is merely to inform, and ask a question. The author is not endorsing revive&restore (http://longnow.org/revive/). An account about the Passenger Pigeons can be found at: http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmnh/passpig.htm

I am wildlife biologist. I get paid to study wildlife and the complex relationships they have formed with other living beings and their environment. Well, I used to get paid, that is. I recently came back to the Philippines after completing my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, and since then, I’ve sent out somewhere around 50 job applications and inquiries. With all the none-responses and rejections, I can’t help feeling inadequate. Here I am, almost 30, with a master’s degree, without a job and still a nomad. So I write—papers for publications, more application letters and inquiries, and this blog.

If I am truly honest with myself, as much as I don’t like the word, it is my career. I maybe passionate about it, but I can’t help but think I still lack something (and perhaps that’s why I still don’t have a job). In a way, I envy the people who’ve lived all their lives in the natural world. They’re so entrenched in it that they can feel its pulse. No one is more attuned to it than they are—jungle tribes, desert people, mountain villagers, seafarers. I have to use a GPS to navigate the forest (and even then I still get lost), while these people use memory. I can barely identify plant species, let alone tell you what they’re useful for, but these people can not only name them, they can tell you a dozen ways on how to use a particular plant. I will be hard up detecting a leopard cat’s track on the moist and litter-covered forest floor, but these people can not only tell the animal have just been where you are, they can also tell the direction it was heading, and perhaps, whether it’s a male or female. The list just goes on. Perhaps they’re not as backward as we like to think they are.

Maybe instead of us going to them with our donated clothes, medical missions, high-tech gadgets, and teaching them about what we call the ‘civilized’ world maybe we should turn the tables around. Maybe during one of our international conferences, instead of academicians and scientists presenting the results of their studies from their sterile labs, or the far-flung wilderness (where they hire these people to be their guides and porters!), maybe we should have one of the indigenous peoples speak to us. Teach us how to be connected once again to nature—one that we’ve kept at bay with our well-manicured lawns, pesticides, and the exterminator. One we’ve flattened by our parking lots, shopping malls and carefully landscaped suburban villages. One that we only have a glimpse of through our shiny car windows, infrequent trips to the zoos, texts we read on our Kindles, and wildlife films we watch on our huge HD TVs and Blue-Ray players. One that is increasingly becoming largely a part of our museums, and our distant past.

I’m not advocating going back to the caves. Or living with the tribes. I just wish we’re not so disconnected. I’m getting preachy. I should go back to job-hunting.

An Inconvenient Farm

From the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE):

The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, spearheaded by the California Academy of Sciences, is in full swing.

“The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition is the largest expedition undertaken by the Academy. It will be the first expedition to make a comprehensive survey of both terrestrial and marine diversity. Between April 26 and June 10, 2011, Academy botanists, entomologists and marine biologists, will explore shallow-water reefs, the deep sea, and terrestrial and freshwater areas for new life and document the biodiversity of this island nation. Educational outreach will be conducted on location and back at the Academy.” (http://www.calacademy.org/science/hearst/)

Joining the Academy’s expedition team are researchers from the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, Philippine National Museum and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. The expedition is also being organized with groups like Conservation International-Philippines, Pusod, and Philippine Science Centrum.  Research areas include the Verde Island Passage, Mt. Makiling, Mt. Isarog and Taal Lake.

Right now, the expedition’s shallow water team members are based in Mabini, Batangas and are finding all sorts of amazing underwater creatures, a number of which are new species! For regular updates, visit the expedition blog at http://www.calacademy.org/blogs/expedition/

In the meantime check out this video of spawning corals that the team was able to document!

Biblical scholars say that Noah’s Ark measured about 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. We can argue about which cubit to use but let’s say Noah used the Roman cubit which is about 0.4445 m. That translates to an ark that measures 133.2 x 22.2 x 13.32 cubic meters. Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit who published Arca Noe in Tres Libros Digesta in 1675, said that the ark only has 150 kinds of birds, and roughly the same number of animals from the other vertebrate groups. This of course, did not include the fishes since they don’t need a boat, or those that arose from spontaneous generation. During the 17th century then, the animals did fit snugly in Noah’s Ark, not to mention his grinding mills.

By the end of the 17th century however,  500 species of birds, 150 species of quadrupeds, and roughly 10,000 species of invertebrates were recognized by science. By then, the ark is overcrowded. Now, we know that there about 5,498 species of mammals, 10,027 birds, 9,084 reptiles and 6,638 amphibians (Hoffman et al., 2010). You can tell me to exclude the marine mammals and the birds that spend most of their lives in open ocean but they still won’t fit in Noah’s Ark, however he calibrated his cubits. Especially if they came in pairs. Even if there were only a pair of rice-field rats in there.

Linnaeus solved this problem by saying that the Ark should be interpreted symbolically, rather than literally. He who has described, named, and catalogued about 6,000 species would know that biological reality does not reconcile with the Biblical story.

Taken literally, or metaphorically, with the way we’re consuming our resources, perhaps given a few years, life on Earth will fit again in Noah’s Ark.

Silliman University is hosting the Philippine Biodiversity Symposium in Dumaguete City on 11-14 April.  Twenty years ago to the day, a group of 26 wildlife conservation practitioners met in Silliman to share experiences, discuss common conservation issues, and plan collaborative research and conservation endeavors.  Little did they know that this initial meeting would be the first of yearly conferences, with about 200 conservationists participating. The original group was formally registered in 1993 as the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines (WCSP), a professional organization of wildlife researchers, managers, scientists, and conservation practitioners. Silliman has been host to WCSP’s milestones: the 1st, 5th, 10th, and now this 20th symposium.

Keynote speakers for the opening program on 11 April include Dr. Angel C. Alcala, the former Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and former president of Silliman University; Dr. Ben S. Malayang III, former undersecretary of the DENR and current president of Silliman University, and Dr. Lawrence Heaney, a research biologist from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, in the United States. Both Alcala and Heaney are pioneer members of the Society.

Over 200 delegates have arrived from all over the Philippines from Batanes to Zamboanga, as well as participants from Australia, the United States, Guam, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium. WCSP members, DENR personnel from the central and field offices, non-government organizations, research institutions, teachers and students will be convening to discuss the state of biodiversity research and conservation throughout the Philippines, and helping identify priorities for the future. “The Philippines has the greatest concentration of unique plants and animals of any country in the world,” says Dr. Heaney. “You can think of the biodiversity of the Philippines as being like the Galapagos Islands times ten. This biological richness can become a great source of national pride, ecotourism, and economic stability.”

The growing participation in the annual symposium demonstrates the increasing interest in biodiversity in the Philippines. In part, this growth reflects concern about the rapid loss of native plant and animal species within the Philippines, as more natural land is developed or farmed. This year’s theme, “Celebrating 20 Years, Preparing for Future Challenges,” is a prompt for a review of the status of Philippine biodiversity over the past two decades, WCSP’s growth and contribution, and planning and networking to continue to advance wildlife research and conservation in the Philippines.

According to Dr. Alcala, “In the early 1990s, only few faculty members in selected higher education institutions were engaged in biodiversity research.  There is probably no question that WCSP has, through its annual symposia, contributed to the increasing number of teachers in higher education institutions who have been conducting research on biodiversity and are involved to varying extent in conservation activities.”
Negros Oriental is an excellent location for this symposium with its rich biodiversity.  Along with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the local government protects this biodiversity through the Provincial Wildlife Conservation Council, and the official mascot of Negros Oriental, the Negros Bleeding-heart Pigeon.

Sponsors of the symposium include Flora and Fauna International, Smart Communications, Conservation International, Bat Conservation International, the University of Kansas, The Field Museum of Natural History, and the Province of Negros Oriental (offices of the Governor, the Vice-Governor, and the Congressman of the 1st District).

Source: WCSP Symposium Organizing Committee

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