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In the Philippines, forests have become denuded due to logging and mining concessions, while coastal areas have been polluted and destroyed due to navigational accidents and destructive fishing methods. Fisheries resources have been plummeting and recovery has been deemed to be unsuccessful as fisher folks continue to fish endlessly. Fish stocks have difficulty in recovering, and as a result, catch composition have shifted. Thus, in light of the recent occurrences of fish stock depletion, many communities have realized that exploiting environmental resources is no longer sustainable. With this realization, an alternative livelihood such as tourism is very important.

Tourism is highly valued in the Philippines. The country is endowed with vast coastal areas with a coastline summing up to 17,460 km. It is known for having one of the most ecologically rich coastal resources in terms of diversity and endemicity. (BFAR 2003, http://www.haribon.org).

Biggest fish in the World

The whale shark, Rhincodon typus (Rhiniodon typus), the largest fish in the world circumnavigates in subtropical to tropical climates (Figure 1). It is of high importance in fisheries and in industries because of its liver oil. This slow swimming and harmless shark is a filter feeder that depends on plankton and krill (www.fishbase.org). It swims to the Philippines to feed and mate with its kind.

 

Figure 1. The whale shark – the largest fish in the world is not a whale but a shark (www.fishbase.org).

Figure 1. The whale shark – the largest fish in the world is not a whale but a shark (www.fishbase.org).

Whale Shark Capital of the Philippines

The whale shark, just like in other countries in Asia has been captured by commercial fishers. However, in the small town of Donsol in Sorsogon province, the gentle giant or locally known as the butanding has become one of the most loved animals. Donsol locals have started to protect it rather than capturing it. In 1998, with the assistance of the World Wildlife Fund – Philippines and the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, the town has instituted the protection of the shark through ecotourism (www.donsol.gov.ph, http://www.wwf.org.ph).

Since these fish are passive and slow swimming, whale shark interactions has been made as the tourist attraction in Donsol. Selected fishermen have been educated and trained on how to handle and behave around whale sharks and on safety protocols for tourists as well. The fishermen which were highly dependent on fishing, now has an alternative livelihood by serving as Butanding Interaction Officers from the months of November to May. This form of ecotourism has not only been significant in protecting whale shark populations in Donsol and in the Philippines as a whole, but served as good information, education, communication (IEC) campaign not only to the townsfolk but to all the tourists that have come there as well (www.donsol.gov.ph, http://www.wwf.org.ph).

Other means aside from Whale Sharks

Swimming with the whale sharks has been ranked as the Best Animal Encounter in Asia as stated in the Time Magazine in 2004 (en.wikipedia.org). Because of this popularity and the frequency of the whale sharks venturing in the Donsol, the locals have come up with other ways of improving their tourism services. Aside from establishing more resorts and accommodations, other tourist attractions were added to make more revenues for the town. Additional attractions that were set up as packages aside from the butanding interactions were firefly and bird watching and diving in Ticao Pass (www.donsol.gov.ph).

Bird watching is very popular in the Philippines, since many areas in the country have been named as Important Bird Areas by BirdLife International (www.haribon.org.ph). Donsol, even if not named as an IBA still has numerous bird species that could fascinate a beginner or an avid bird watcher. Firefly populations have been dwindling in the whole world due to development. However the fireflies in Donsol river is so many that one who watches them might think that mangrove trees are burning because of them. The firefly watching is a night activity that starts with a boat ride under the stars from the beach area of a tourist resort to the river. The Philippines is famous for its coral reefs. Ticao Pass which can be accessed through Donsol is ventured by advanced divers for its strong currents and manta rays and thresher sharks (www.donsol.gov.ph).

Community-based Ecotourism and CRM

Donsol has come a long way from protecting an endangered species to providing locals alternative means of livelihood. They have begun to learn the value of their ecosystems and their resources and thus have been very adamant when it comes to protecting these resources. Hopefully, more coastal communities in the Philippines take the example of the community involvement if not in ecotourism but in coastal resource management. Hopefully, other communities begin to realize the importance of habitats and resources and not just think practically, or commonly succumb to the ‘tragedy of commons’.

References

BFAR. 2003. Fisheries Statistics Profile. http://www.bfar.gov.ph/FishProf.asp

Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2007.FishBase. http:// http://www.fishbase.org, ver (04/2007).

Haribon. 2005. Ang Paraisong Pinaka… a showcase of superlatives. http://www.haribon.org.ph/?q=node/view/216.

Municipality of Donsol, Province of Sorsogon, Philippines. http://www.donsol.gov.ph

Wikipedia. 2007. Donsol. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donsol,_Sorsogon.

World Wildlife Fund for Nature – Philippines. 2004. Community-Based Ecotourism and Coastal Resources Management Project in Donsol, Sorsogon. http://www.wwf.org.ph/about.php?pg=wwd&sub1=00011

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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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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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