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Archive for May, 2007

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.

Helen’s Piglets [Marloes van Delft 2004]

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.

Ronnie’s Hearts [Lou Jean Cerial - April 2007]

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.

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As an ordinary bloke with no formal training in biology, I’ve always wanted—perhaps unreasonably—a clear answer to this question.

But it seems that no one knows—or at least, no one is reckless enough to hazard an answer. Why is this? I figured the history of the struggle to conserve the Philippine Eagle has its fair share of acrimonious debates. There is just too much at stake in this matter which has led people to be very circumspect.

On the few occasions that I’ve managed to buttonhole a conservationist to ask him about the number of eagles in the wild, the reception I invariably got was a look of patient concern, like that of a long-suffering parent to a rash, impertinent child.

Am I being unreasonable?

On more than one occasion, I was lectured on how the exact number doesn’t matter. The important think is that everyone agrees on the Eagle falling under the category of Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List. This List is a criteria used to determine extinction risk and set numerical thresholds for qualification for the three globally threatened categories. These are based on factors including rate of decline, population size, area of geographic distribution, and degree of population and distribution fragmentation. But at this point my eyes had glazed over.

Turning to books, I encounter the usual hesitation to pin a number. In “Threatened Birds of the Philippines” (1999, Bookmark) by Nigel G. Collar etal, the section on Population begins with these grave words:

“Attempts at articulating a fully reasoned estimate of population size in the Philippine Eagle have persistently been compromised by the absence of solid data on its density and the extent of its habitat, and by an understandable but perhaps over-cautious reluctance to accept or even attempt extrapolations using data that appear to overturn the traditional view of its great rarity based on field encounter rates.”

After this caveat, the authors (God bless them!) proceed—in herculean proportions—to detail the history of population studies and assessments done on the Philippine Eagle. From early estimates of Mindanao populations which varied between 600-1,900 pairs in 1910, to 225-450 pairs in 1992, these make for fascinating reading, especially for the Philippine Eagle enthusiast.

No doubt about it, this book is a very important document in Philippine bidoversity! But I must admit that the onslaught of numbers and figures leave me bewildered and feeling hopeless.

Among the 65 species in the book, the discussion on the Philippine Eagle is the most exhaustive, and I remember, while he was with Haribon Foundation, Neil Aldrin D. Mallari, one of the co-authors, say that for editorial purposes, they had to trim the Eagle discussion. This attests to the fact that so much documentation is available about Philippine Eagle studies, and yet, so much vital information remains to be uncovered.

Looking for more answers, I turned to the website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines to get a look at their country bird records—since its inception the club has collated first-hand reports of local and visiting birdwatchers. The online records of the WBCP go back only to 2003 and accepted Philippine Eagle observations total only ten (2006 and 2007 records have not yet been uploaded).

Of the ten reports, nine are from Mindanao and four are from the same locality, Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park. The only one recorded outside of Mindanao was of a rescued Eagle in General Nakar, Quezon, that suffered from a gunshot wound.

Ten records in three years! Encountering such low numbers made me yearn for the rigorously derived estimates listed in Collar etal. I’m starting to understand this Critically Endangered tag.

Finally, after trawling cyberspace for information and considering the various answers, I hit upon BirdLife International’s (2007) Species factsheet: Pithecophaga jefferyi which indicates population estimate as 226, with population trend as decreasing.

I have to write that again to keep it in mind: 226. Decreasing.

As an antidote perhaps to all the mention of extrapolations and variances, I visit the website of birder Don Roberson where he listed the Philippine Eagle as the Best Bird of The World (outpointing such outlandish beauties as the Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise and the Horned Guan). In his site, Roberson recounts his journey to Dalwangan, Bukidnon, in 1990 along with guide Tim Fisher. It’s a fascinating account that brings to focus all the facts and figures that scientists and conservationists have so painstakingly collected so that we can get a better understanding of the Eagle’s condition in the wild.

Only to have impertinent laymen like me childishly demand a number.

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A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from wildlife illustrator Oscar Figuracion Jr. saying that he had just finished an oil painting of a Philippine Eagle and was looking for buyers. I came to know Oscar a few years ago when his illustrations had graced a series of NGO-produced species-identification guides meant for DENR personnel. Someone somewhere, it seems, had noticed that aside from a few exceptions, DENR personnel could not confidently identify rare animal species in the field (and were too proud to say so). The idea of illustrated field-guides was a great project whose time had come.

However, as with most NGO projects with foreign funding, the field guide series petered out and when the interminable NGO-style project assessments came to an end, Oscar was told that his talents were great but no longer needed. Alas, such is the life of an environmental NGO hired hand.

When the projects dried out, Oscar left Quezon City and settled back to his native Mindanao, where, as a young student, he was hired by the leading wildlife biologist of the time, Dr. Dioscoro Rabor, to be an expedition artist. Oscar’s job, during Dr. Rabor’s fieldworks, was to accurately draw the fresh specimens collected by the hunters before they lost forever their colors. No one does that anymore. The advent of megapixel digital cameras has rendered the expedition-artist extinct.

Somehow I’ve always linked the Philippine Eagle with sad stories. Of mis-chances. Ruin and extinction. I am sure there are upbeat voices out there from people who are in touch with the latest schemes and programs to keep the Eagle alive. Once or twice I’ve come across the works of people like Dennis Salvador and Jayson Ibañez who seem to be doing tremendous work for the Eagle and its habitats. I just wished my experiences were as rosy or filled with hope.

The memory that Oscar’s painting stirred from the muddy depths of my brain was the sight of the birds languishing in the Raptor Center in Mt. Makiling. The center was set up in the ‘80s to attempt a well-intentioned captive-breeding program. It has failed. The Raptor Center in Makiling is rundown, moldy, and the large enclosures slowly succumbing to the vegetation, although cheery droves of school-children still regularly troop there to see the forlorn eagles and other captive birds too sick or too habituated with humans to ever be released in the wild. The kids don’t care because being kids they’ll have fun anyway and the teachers are content to give the little kids their exercise away from the confines of the classrooms. The Center earns from these excursions, but barely enough to cover maintenance, I imagine.

The last time I went to the Raptor Center, the unused cages were dilapidated and a caretaker grumbled how their meager allowances were slow in coming, and how they had to feed the Eagles by farming rabbits in the vicinity. Lack of funds, inadequate support and other, familiar, gloomy travails were aired out. I never visited again.

More on the subject of sad stories: Let’s go back to the man who discovered the Eagle in 1896 for science—the naturalist John Whitehead. “Disease and ‘slow starvation’” hounded Whitehead throughout his stay in the Philippines, in the words of ornithologist and author Nigel J. Collar, “[Whitehead] often fell victim to gross misfortune; yet his most celebrated moment resulted from one the cruellest pieces of luck he endured. In 1895 an entire consignment of skins, the result of several months’ concentrated collecting on Samar and containing many anticipated new species, was lost when its carrier, the German ship, Weiland, caught fire and had to be scuttled off Singapore. Whitehead was therefore forced to go back to the island in May 1896 and try again.”

What a blow that news must have been for the young man! But return he did and it was on his return trip that he collected the first specimens of the Philippine Eagle, a species that will forever be linked to his name. But within three years of that great discovery, Whitehead would succumb to fever at age 38.

The scarcity of the Eagle and its constantly shrinking habitat is not a new observation or problem, for Whitehead himself wrote: “The forests that are left in Samar are still very vast, especially on the Pacific Coast, but for miles inland those of the western coast have been destroyed, leaving ranges of low undulating clay hills chiefly covered with lalang grass. When this country has been passed, the traveler finds himself at an elevation of nearly 1,000 feet and meets with the true virgin forest of Samar. This forest is becoming annually smaller owing to the cultivation of hemp. . . .”

Fast-forward to 1977, when Robert S. Kennedy, the man who has done the most to save the Philippine Eagle, published in the March 1977 issue of The Wilson Bulletin the results of his studying a pair of Eagles at Tudaya Falls in Mt. Apo National Park on Mindanao.

Part of the article goes over now-familiar terrain, “As land has been cleared for agriculture and for lumber, the lower edges of the forests inhabited by the eagles have been retreating up the sides of mountains. The birds have partially adapted to this change by hunting over cleared land and living in second growth forest.” It seems that the Philippine Eagle has been teetering on the brink of extinction since its discovery!

Kennedy’s findings was enlivened by a quaint illustration by John P. O’Neill of a perched Eagle serene and safe while the silvery cataract of Tudaya Falls gracefully pours in the background. It is green everywhere.

When I last went to Tudaya Falls in the early 90s, the hills were bare and planted over with crops. I have no knowledge of any Eagle sighting in Tudaya Falls for the last two decades. Perhaps they are there for all I know. I have never been back since, afraid of what I might find out for sure.

At about the same time that I received Oscar’s e-mail, I got an e-mail from a new UP graduate. She had responded to a mass e-mail I had sent out to a writers’ group looking for contributing writers for a small magazine that I was editing. The new grad said she was in Bukidnon and so would I have a topic in mind for her to write while she was there. I responded excitedly, writing that Dalwangan, in Bukidnon, was perhaps the only place left in the entire world to have a reliable sighting of the Philippine Eagle in the wild. Can she write about the situation in Dalwangan? She never wrote back.

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Endemicity. Threatened species. Cacatua haematuropygia. Protected area management. Biodiversity. These are not exactly things that you would normally talk to your friends about while sitting in some coffee shop, but for a small community of conservation workers, this group of bloggers for instance, that is precisely the case. Except, perhaps, instead of a coffee shop, it’s a busy conference room, with manila papers and other workshop materials strewn about; a mountain trail in some remote area; or a barangay hall hosting a community meeting. It’s a diverse community, composed of biologists, communication specialists, project managers, fundraisers, management planners, community organizers. Our work in biodiversity conservation is a challenging, fulfilling, amazing endeavor, and yet we can’t help but feel that the community is quite small, especially considering the extent of the work that has to be addressed, the immensity of the information that has to be shared. We know that we don’t want to be just talking to ourselves. We want people to sit around in coffee shops talking about biodiversity, to think twice before buying a souvenir made from threatened wildlife, to appreciate the unbelievable biological richness that our country has to offer. With this blog we will try to do that.

They say that there are about two blogs born every second. Today, the International Day of Biodiversity, Samu’t Saring Buhay is proud to join this growing community, and we hope that you will stay and talk with us.

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