When people ask me what I do, my first answer would be: “I’m a veterinarian”.
After hearing this answer, they might begin to try and squeeze a free consultation out of me by saying “I have a dog with a problem…” I would then explain that I’m not that kind of veterinarian, as many of the things I learned at vet school have since been unlearned in the name of conservation.
The principles of animal production taught us that low-performing animals deserve the cleaver and high producers (i.e. those animals that produce a lot of offspring) should be kept. It is the other way around in conservation breeding: highly represented genes become least priority. The object is to have as much genetic diversity as possible and this can only be achieved by having all the animals in your collection ‘represented’ by their offspring.
What then, is the purpose of captive breeding? It is considered by many as one of the most expensive and labour-intensive methods available for conservation. For this, it is not very popular among field biologists. It takes away wildlife from their natural habitat, enabling them to develop behaviours that are ‘unnatural’. For some, it is synonymous to domestication, perhaps even for the pet trade. For others, it is an important supplement to habitat restoration and protection. In the eyes of many, there is a fine line between breeding for (commercial) production, and breeding for conservation, and this line has been manipulated to serve the purpose of one or the other. Funny, it sounds almost immoral.
The Philippine spotted deer Cervus alfredi conservation programme was initiated during the late 80’s after field biologists found out that the animal has been extirpated over much of its range. This animal, unique to the West Visayas (or Negros-Panay) Faunal Region, can now only be found in two of the five islands in which it formerly occurred. The same is true for the Visayan Warty Pig Sus cebifrons, which shares the same habitat and range as the Philippine spotted deer. For this, another conservation programme was initiated for the ill-fated pig. These programmes comprised of a series of approaches, including, but not limited to, the proposal of new protected areas that cover most of the animal’s existing strongholds; habitat restoration; education and awareness; training of relevant personnel; institutional capacity building; and conservation breeding. Three Biodiversity Conservation Centers were put up not only to hold the conservation breeding programmes, but also to serve as operation, training and education hubs for conservationists working in the area. These centres also serve as reservoirs of genetic material. For instance, one of the major threats of the Visayan warty pig, and indeed, many of its relatives in the Philippines, is genetic contamination. This threat may be considered grave because of its cryptic and nearly irreversible nature. Domestic pigs owned by people living at the forest edges have mated with their wild counterparts, effectively “contaminating” their DNA. Evidences of this threat have been recorded and some of these hybrids have been caught in the wild and misidentified as pure breeds. Up to this day, nobody knows how many hybrids there are in the wild. They continue to thrive and mate and spread their genes among our critically endangered pigs.
This initiative and others similar to it lead to Memoranda of Agreement between the Philippine’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources and concerned international and local institutional partners. These paved the way for the captive breeding of the Philippine spotted deer and the Negros bleeding-heart pigeon at the Silliman University – Center for Tropical Conservation Studies (SU-CenTrop) in Dumaguete City; the Visayan warty pig, Panay bushy-tailed cloudrat, Visayan writhed-billed hornbill and the Blue-headed raquet-tailed parrot at the Mari-it Conservation Park at the West Visayas State University College of Agriculture and Forestry in Iloilo; and the Visayan tarictic hornbill and the Philippine eagle-owl at the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation Biodiversity Conservation Center (NFEFI-BCC) in Bacolod City. All of these events are world’s firsts and have contributed not only to the increase in individual species numbers, but also served to renew commitments of partner institutions to Philippine conservation.
The animals played their role well as educators and ambassadors: educators for local and international biologists and conservationists who will otherwise have no idea about each of the species breeding behaviours (knowledge of which, is invaluable for on-site conservation of each of the species); and ambassadors for Filipinos who have not encountered them in books, television and other forms of education available to us. Nothing beats encountering the animal in the flesh, unless of course one encounters them in the wild.