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Archive for July, 2007

I have been away for almost a total of 8 months from home. And it seems that anywhere I go there are always comments about the weather – particularly how much it has changed. I have never experienced the hottest summer here in the Philippines. I heard and read that it reached 36° C to 38° C! But I have most definitely experienced heavy rains and low temperatures in Spain during spring. The intense heat and dry air in Italy and most especially the heat wave in Athens that reached 46° C in June! Ah yes, I believe the weather or better yet the climate is really changing.

The Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) stated that global climate change is caused by global warming. Global warming is defined as the increase in average temperature of the Earth’s near-surface air and oceans in recent decades and its projected continuation. Warming is caused by the rapid rate of emissions of greenhouse gases or GHGs (e.g. carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons) from human activities such as burning of fossil fuels, tropical deforestation, etc. Factors with the greatest direct effects on estuarine and marine ecosystems are sea-level rise, wind patterns and hydrodynamic shifts, storminess, temperature change and availability of water from precipitation and run-off (IPCC TAR 2001).

The Philippines, being an archipelagic country has been deemed to be one of the countries most prone to the effects of climate change. Storm surges and riverine flooding is aggravated by the increasing frequency and intensities of tropical cyclones and other types of environmental degradation. Low lying areas are severely affected and high economic losses result from the damages caused by typhoons. Sea-level rise will then exacerbate the already flooded areas (IPCC TAR 2001).

Figure 1. Flooded low-lying areas in the Philippines will be further aggravated by rising sea-levels. (From Rommel Maneja)

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I wish I could take credit for the title of this post but, it was actually wildlifemayie’s reaction when I told her yesterday who the new Department of Environment and Natural Resources chief was.

In case you don’t read the papers, its in all the headlines. The new DENR head is former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza.

Former Mayor Atienza is most known for his urban development projects – sidewalk paving and road repair, fancy street lights and Baywalk – the man is an architect by trade. I covered the last year of his term as Manila Mayor and in fairness, he is not the devil incarnate.

But – from what I have personally seen and heard – I feel quite justified in squawking in outrage that the man knows nothing about the environment.

For heavens sake, he destroyed the Mehan Gardens and built a school building in Arroceros Forest Park.

I actually covered the opening of the Department of City Schools building in Arroceros Park. He renamed the park “People’s Park,” stated that the building did not take up the entire forest park and that the park was open for all the people of Manila to enjoy a slice of nature.

Then he said that he had plans to approve it. That there were no birds in the forest park because – and he claimed that he had experts to back this up – the trees in the park were not the sort that birds lived in. The experts he mentioned were never identified and as far as I know, other experts from Haribon and the Wild Bird Club have stated that there are at least ten bird species that made the park its home.

Of course that was before trees were cut down and construction began on the building.

The caretakers of Arroceros is the Winner Foundation, they fought long and hard to prevent any construction in the park. For their trouble they were banned from the park.

Not only that but – when the park was re-opened to the public – they were still not allowed. Apparently the guards on the gate were under orders to not let them in.

Then when Milenyo hit and trees were brought down by its winds, the Winner Foundation asked permission to go in to the park to clean up. Atienza initially agreed, then he withdrew his permission for unspecified reasons.

Seriously, where was the harm in letting people who were volunteering to clean up in the park? Manila was pretty wreaked by the storm and the City Engineering Office was already stretched thin cleaning the roads and damage to the cities infrastructure. You would think they would welcome help. The only reason I can think of that help might be refused would be. . . pettiness.

The man is not the devil incarnate. I actually think he would make a good cabinet secretary – if he was given an appropriate position – such as say with the Department of Public Works and Highways.

He is an architect by training and. . . urban development is something he has a relatively good track record on. Why wasn’t he given the DPWH instead?

In the end, his lack of understanding and. . . pettiness over the Arroceros Park issue does not fill me with hope that the man will be a great caretaker of our natural resources.

Anyway here are links to the Inquirer articles on the subject:

Lito Atienza new environment head

Environmentalists shocked over Atienzas appointment to DENR
From the environmental point of view, the Inquirer is doing the best job of covering this issue. They actually mention the reasons why Atienza is not qualified for the position. Most of the other papers focus on whether or not Department of Energy Secretary Lotilla was fired or not.

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The Philippines, a small country comprising of 7,107 islands, is home to six species of really large rodents called cloud rats—a name coined to these interesting creatures because of the ash-colored fur of a certain species from Luzon, and also because of their nature of going way up tall, hollow trees. Cloud rats are nocturnal (active at night) and arboreal, having large hind feet that are highly specialized for arboreal life and large foreclaws used for eating tender young leaves, fruits, and roots. In the wild, they are observed to be either solitary or in pairs, giving birth to one or two offspring. Aside from their sharp foreclaws, these creatures ward off their predators by using their musky odor. The species are classified into two genera, that of Phloeomys (bark-eating mouse) and Crateromys.

Northern Luzon Slender-Tailed Cloud Rat

The group of giant cloud rats from the genus Phloeomys is comprised of two species. First is the giant cloud rat from northern Luzon, Phloeomys pallidus, locally known as bu-ot. It is the largest of the genus, which can weigh up to two and a half pounds, and is considered the largest rat in the world. Noted for its slender tail and a dark brown mask around the eyes this cloud rat can be found in northern and central Luzon specifically in primary and lowland forests of Benguet, Kalinga-Apayao, and from the Bataan/ Zambales region as verified by a team of researchers headed by Dr. Perry Ong from the University of the Philippines. This particular species is showcased at the Minnesota Zoo and Bronx Zoo where biologists are observing its reproductive and feeding behavior in captivity. Classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (or IUCN) although locally abundant, hunting and habitat degradation is the primary cause of population decline of these endemic species.

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My family-run, home-based travel agency’s name is TROJANA World Travel. I love butterflies, so I named the agency after the magnificent birdwing butterfly, the Trogonoptera trojana, found only in Palawan and nowhere else in the world.

After ten years of existence, I have noticed that my agency’s name still has a poor recall among my regular passengers, consolidators, and airline staff. Likewise, in Palawan, when you mention the name Trojana, it does not ring a bell at all even to the locals despite this butterfly being in the midst of their existence for hundreds of years. Only a handful of people, like those who live in the forest areas, know the Trojana very well—although when I ask them if they have heard of the birdwing, they would give me a cautious look and choose to remain mum. But if you nudge them a little more, start being comical, or sound curious but seemingly uninterested, or maybe take their photos for a souvenir shot, they will soon finally start to share and show some specimens of their favorite butterfly catch. Catching Trojana butterflies is a source of livelihood for these mountain folks. They have been trained by butterfly traders on how to easily catch them in the wild, and how to preserve the fragile specimens with chemicals and neatly wrap them in wax paper ready for turnover. They have also been taught to keep silent about their trade.

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Several newspapers yesterday featured photos of exotic birds intercepted by authorities in Davao City. The Philippine Daily Inquirer showed photos of a cageful of sulfur crested cockatoos and one black palm cockatoo, while Manila Standard Today and The Daily Tribune featured photos of rainbow lorikeets (scanned photo from Manila Standard below, please correct me if I’m wrong on the bird ID). There was no full story accompanying the photos, but the captions said that the birds are scheduled to be put to sleep as a precautionary measure against bird flu. The country remains to be one of the bird flu-free countries in Asia, the papers add.

rainbow-lorikeets-mst-07-10-07.jpg

image scanned from Manila Standard Today, Front Page, July 10, 2007

It’s a good thing, of course, that the country remains free of bird flu, and that the authorities are apparently implementing measures to keep it that way, including being on the watch for smuggled birds. It’s a relief all around, and plus points for the diligent authorities.

However, since this is a biodiversity blog, let’s try to see if from the birds’ point of view, shall we? The birds, who were just minding their own business, were captured from the forest and smuggled into another country, only to be killed because they might be carriers of a deadly disease (They were obviously captured from the wild and not bred in captivity, because if they were they would have come with the proper papers and bred in the proper conditions, thereby eliminating the fear that they were contaminated with the bird flu virus). Now whoever smuggled them in surely lost money and would have to recoup by bringing in more birds the next time, maybe when the bird flu alert has gone down and the wildlife monitoring has relaxed. Into the forest the trappers will go once again, capturing birds, depleting precious populations, putting together a shipment which may or may not end up being scheduled for termination.

On the other hand, if not for the bird flu scare, those birds would probably have slipped through the authorities and ended up for sale in Cartimar or by a roadside somewhere. “Animal lovers” would coo at them and buy them, take them home and keep them in cages their entire lives. The birds would have escaped getting killed, but would have spent life in captivity.

Something is wrong with this picture.

 

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Admittedly, being an environmentalist can make a killjoy out of you. In the same way that I can’t understand my vegetarian friends and sometimes make fun of them (“But cows are vegetarian, you should be able to eat them, right?”), my friends sometimes can’t really relate to how I refused to eat at McDonald’s for months because I heard that they refused to minimize their styrofoam use (courtesy of that email circulated by Gary Granada), or how I’d rather plan a nature trip to Batanes or Bohol than go on a shopping trip to Bangkok. Just the other day my sister, an Air Force pilot who’s currently stationed in Palawan, sent me an SMS telling me that my mother – my mother – has been repeatedly asking her to bring back a myna from Palawan. Bring back as in smuggle, you see. Smuggle back a threatened species that’s been captured from the forests and keep it caged in our backyard, in hopes that it would speak. Sheesh. “Ang kulit. Kausapin mo nga” (She’s so persistent. You talk to her), my sister told me. So now the next time I go home to Bulacan I have to sit my mother down and explain to her just how the practice of capturing birds from the wild to serve as pets is ecologically destructive, inhumane, illegal, and totally not amusing, especially to her environmentalist daughter.

Another instance of environmental killjoy happened to me last month, during a trip to Siquijor with similarly environmental-leaning friends. Driving around the island, the roadside was lined in some places by trees, clusters of healthy-looking trees that admittedly looked quite pretty. I pointed them out to my companions, except that one of them was not impressed.

“Mahogany naman,” she huffed.

“Oh. Really?” I said, crestfallen, looking back at the lovely trees.

Now why would my friend, a staunch conservation worker, not be pleased to see trees?

mahogany.jpg

Because she knew what kind of trees they were. Mahogany is a tree species that is not indigenous to the country, which makes it ecologically unsuitable to be planted in these soils. However, it is a fast-growing and commercially viable species, which would explain why it’s a popular choice in tree-planting or reforestation activities. In the late 80s and 90s, thousands of hectares of denuded forests were planted with mahogany and other exotic fast-growing species, such as gmelina and eucalyptus. There are formerly-denuded areas that are now sporting greenery courtesy of these tree-planting efforts, but a closer look would reveal that these are basically just tree farms, not forests. They offer wood, but not ecological services.

 

“Since exotic species are planted beyond their native range, they often lack the fruits, flowers, or insects required by local wildlife. With the inhibited growth of native plants, many native/endemic animals are displaced.

Fast growing exotic species are also poor substitutes to our native/indigenous species whose timbers are highly valued. The establishment of monocultures of fast-growing species does little to discourage harvesting timber from the old-growth forests.”
– Ruth Condeno, How to bring back Philippine Forests

It makes perfect sense, actually. If you really want to restore our denuded forests, you have to bring back the trees that were there in the first place, not introduce an entirely different type that might mess around with the ecological balance you were trying to restore. There have been studies and campaigns pointing out the counter-productive effects of planting exotic trees in our denuded forests, but sadly, even today a lot of well-meaning tree-planting efforts still use species like mahogany or gmelina, ignoring native varieties such as lauan, yakal, guijo and apitong.

It can be a lonely, frustrating journey, this being an environmentalist thing. But we’re not out to be killjoys, really. It’s really just about taking a closer look at things, being able to look beyond the short-term and adopt a more long-term, sustainable viewpoint. Do me a favor: the next time somebody tells you of a tree-planting campaign, don’t just nod politely and say “That’s nice.” Be a challenger and ask what trees they’re planting.

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Social gatherings can be minefields of awkwardness for a Filipino birder because such occasions give rise to queries like “So what do you do on your spare time?” The trapped Filipino birder throws caution to the wind when he opts to respond: “That’s nice of you to ask. I look for forest birds.” To this, the inevitable response from a non-birding crowd is: “Oh.” Puzzled silence ensues.

Compare that to the reception an open-water diver gets when she says that she looks for sharks, sea turtles and the like: an awe-struck, “Oh, how exciting!” Sharks? Gasps from the audience. Sea turtles? The crowd goes wild.

I’ve since come to grips with the facts: scuba is just way more glamorous than birdwatching. It must be those body-hugging wetsuits. There’s no comparison. A generation of kids grew up dreaming to be Jacques-Yves Cousteau and get to explore the mysterious depths of the oceans. No one grew up wanting to be a famous birdwatcher like…like… My point exactly.

Sometimes, I get a reply to the effect of: “My neighbor has a talking myna. It’s hysterical. It knows all the swear words! You should see it.” If the person I am talking to is amiable enough, I try to steer the topic of conversation towards something that doesn’t involve bird cages and life-long captivity.

Once or twice, though, I get something along the likes of: “You’re a birdwatcher, do you see a lot of colorful birds?”

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