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Archive for June, 2007

Any chance you’d remember how you came across the term “biodiversity” before? If not, let me make it easier for you by making you pick from the choices listed below instead. Could you have learned about biodiversity through:

A. Printed materials. It could be academic textbooks (don’t be shy now), magazines, posters, or newspapers. Billboards—why not?

B. Radio. Probably from listening to news announcements and radio programs. Or from an FM station, perhaps?

C. TV. Of course, the most popular and widespread broadcast communicating medium in the country. Let’s see: The Discovery Channel? Or late-night documentaries like The Correspondents or The Probe Team?

D. Friends or from other people. Maybe you know somebody who’s into environment stuff, hopefully not a pet collector. Or you’ve been invited to discussions, or a monthly forum? Let’s not forget the classroom.

E. Internet. Surfing the World Wide Web could lead you to environment-related sites, or could get you to this blog, for example.

Biodiversity, Conservation, and the Community

For me, it would have to be A. I happened to be tidying up the room of our college department laboratory, back at the time when I was already a graduating student. On one of the desks I was arranging, I noticed a book with an attractive front cover showing a pair of Philippine Eagles attending to their offspring. The title read, “Biodiversity, Conservation, and the Community.” I figured the book probably had something to do with animals, but I couldn’t quite define what “biodiversity” was. I was familiar with “bio,” which meant life, then “diversity” meant variety. Ah, variety of life! Easy. I scanned through the pages for a few seconds, then I put the book on a shelf somewhere, never to lay hands on it again until fate brought me to work for a conservation NGO several months later. But just to formally define “biodiversity,” I quote Catibog-Sinha and Heaney from their book, “Philippine Biodiversity: Principles and Practice,” which goes:

Biodiversity means the variety and extent of differences among living things, at the species, genetic, and ecosystem levels.

Most of you who have learned about biodiversity may have found out about it through either of those conventional channels I’ve mentioned above. If you encountered the term for the first time through this blog, that’s really flattering. But that only means you have not heard of it before regardless of whichever medium, which to me indicates that biodiversity, or more specifically Philippine biodiversity, still has a long way to go before it becomes as commonplace as Jollibee in the Philippines.

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It’s been more than an hour into our birding group’s foray into Mt. Polis. We had clambered past the crumbly soil of the potato fields, to enter the ever-receding tree-line. Every year, the tree-line feels more distant as the vegetable patchwork creep up the mountain. Once past the vegetable patches, we followed a narrow wood-cutter’s trail, where we looked on despondently around us as patches of scorched earth showed where “gardeners” burnt the forest. Such a waste, and all for a measly few pesos worth since the forest soil isn’t very suitable for cultivation once the thin topsoil has been washed away by rains. Below us in the valley, the chainsaws have begun their remorseless work. Along the trail, we counted at least four active snares. We proceeded uphill wordlessly, trying to put the scenes of desecration and waste out of our minds and focus on the object of our quest: an encounter with the Whiskered Pitta (Pitta kochi), the country’s largest pitta.

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Distribution of Philippine hornbills belonging to the genera <i>Penelopides</i>

I was commissioned to draw the maps for a Philippine biodiversity handbook earlier this year. One set of maps intended to show the distribution of the different species of hornbills in the country. Since the time my fascination for those birds began, this was the first time I had truly realized that there were indeed so many species of Philippine hornbills. Based on a study made by JC Gonzalez, a professor on wildlife studies at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, there were 5 genera of hornbills consisted of 15 species, amazingly found only in the Philippines. The genera Penelopides alone is composed of 8 species, each of which are restricted only in certain islands in the country as shown on the map. You can just imagine that even such a small island like Basilan has its own species of hornbill!

I remembered the first time I encountered hornbills. It was in the remote island of Dinagat, Surigao del Norte in the summer of 2002. I was a fledgling mapping specialist then for an environmental NGO, and at the time, we were conducting a biophysical field assessment of the forest areas there. At one point during the survey, I was climbing Mt. Kambinliw together with a team of biologists who were doing a bird inventory using a 2-kilometer transect line along the slope of the mountain.

It was raining incessantly since the start of the trek. Then after the rain had abated, somewhere halfway on our transect, I heard them. The sound approached from the distance that came closer to us by the second, until they passed us by. Had it not been for the dense tree canopies, we would’ve seen them flying overhead. The somewhat nasal sound that went like “OCK-OCK-OCK-OCK-OCK” came from a group of animals, which could not have been anything else but birds. Probably noticing the puzzled look on my face, Boying Fernandez, a veteran field biologist, had been the one to tell me that the birds we heard were called hornbills, or “kalaw” in the local dialect.

Later on, I was to find out that the particular kind we heard were the Rufous Hornbills, the largest of the Philippine hornbills. I was fortunate to see one of them for the first time in the wild—although it hadn’t mattered much to me then—perched high along the trunk of a large tree located on the adjacent Mt. Redondo. It was a huge bird indeed! And the most distinct feature that left an imprint in my memory was the protruding horn-like appendage on top of its large red beak, which was probably why the birds were named so in the first place.

Rufous Hornbill

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Sad stories?

I think most people would agree that the panda ranks high up there in the cuteness meter. Big, cuddly, and sweet, the panda’s plight for survival has attracted universal appeal and it has even become the logo of international conservation group WWF.

Which is why seeing this article naturally did not exactly make my day:

Panda released into wild found dead

The five-year-old panda “Xiang Xiang” (a name which means auspicious or lucky) in April 2006 became the first captive-bred panda released into the wild. He survived for less than a year, and was found dead on February 19. What makes the story doubly sad and ironic was that Xiang Xiang most likely died from injuries sustained while defending himself from other wild pandas, who might have been threatened by the presence of another male in their territory.

“Xiang Xiang died of serious internal injuries in the left side of his chest and stomach by falling from a high place,” Heng Yi, an official from the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center in Sichuan, said in a telephone interview.

“The scratches and other minor injuries caused by other wild pandas were found on his body,” he said. “So Xiang Xiang may have fallen from trees when being chased by those pandas.”

xiang-xiang.jpg

It took the Chinese authorities two months before they announced the panda’s death, supposedly because of “the need for a full investigation” (see CCTV site for info and more photos). Considering that it’s such a high-profile setback, this reluctance of the Chinese authorities to disclose the news really comes as no surprise.

A similar fate was suffered a couple of years ago by the first captive-bred Philippine Eagle that was released in the wild. “Kabayan” managed to survive for nine months at the PNOC reserve in Mt. Apo before it apparently made the fatal error of perching on an electric post, and was electrocuted.

kabayan4.jpg

I can only imagine the feelings of those people who were directly involved in taking care of Xiang Xiang and Kabayan.

In her previous post, Em discussed the country’s efforts at breeding its most threatened species. High-profile “failures” such as the Kabayan incident notwithstanding, some measure of success have been achieved, not only in the breeding program themselves but in the value addition that they deliver in terms of heightening awareness on these threatened species and drawing much-needed support. What’s clear is that breeding should be complemented by parallel efforts at habitat restoration and awareness-raising.

Both the Chinese and Filipino scientists acknowledge that the deaths of Xiang Xiang and Kabayan are definitely disheartening, but have also yielded valuable lessons to guide future steps. So while the Chinese were understandably reluctant to publicize Xiang Xiang’s death, maybe we can still glean messages of hope from this whole exercise, enough to encourage us to go on convinced that it’s really not all in vain.

Photos from www.cctv.com and www.philippineeagle.org.

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