Philippine Wildlife in Peril
Naturalists should be regarded among the heroes of the world. They are the ones who bring light to the world of Mother Nature and all of her wonders. They are the ones who bring to our attention the beauty of our earth’s flora, fauna and our natural monuments. Some enlighten us of the plight of disappearing plant life, our endangered animal kingdom and the destruction of the natural shrines that took eons to create, but just mere minutes to devastate.
On several trips to Asia and specifically to the Philippine Islands, I was amazed at the multitude and diversity of wildlife that exists there. From diving in the pristine waters of Anilao, in the Batangas region of the Philippines to more recent time watching baby Olive Ridley sea turtles hatching along a sandy shore in San Juan, the surfing capital of the Philippines. Taking part in watching these amazing creatures climb their way through two feet of sand, sticking their heads out for the first time from what had been their nest for the past two months was an incredible experience. Helping them reach the sea where they will spend the rest of their lives was altogether an emotional and satisfying feeling.
The cover photo, above, is of a Java sparrow (Lonchura oryzivora), which is also known as the Java finch, Java rice sparrow or Java rice bird. In Japan, this small passerine bird is called “sakura buncho.” This is a popular cage bird that breeds in Java, Bali and Bawean in Indonesia. Due to its popularity as a pet, it has been introduced into many other countries including the Philippines.
Above, a Cattle egret in the northern Philippines barangay of Pias.
Now, by no means am I a naturalist, and although I have always wanted to be any of those professions that ended with an “ist” like geologist, anthropologist, paleontologist, conservationist and naturalist, I decided however to pursue a career in a completely different field. Am I qualified to write about nature, let alone a complicated one about the diverse nature of the Philippines? Perhaps not, considering my lack of education in that field. But I am a photographer, I do love the Philippines and it’s wonderous nature, and I love to travel and write about things that interest me. And I don’t think that all that much has been written about the wildlife of the Philippines. Besides, I would bet that you cannot name one famous Philippine naturalist. Oh sure, they exist, but so little has been written about them that few people know that they exist.
Above, the Pacific Swallow, a common resident in the Philippines
Oh sure, anyone can name famous naturalists like Americans John Muir and John James Audubon. Names like Charles Darwin will also come to mind. Remember Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the French explorer, conservationist, filmmaker and researcher who studied the sea and all forms of sea life? And let’s not forget Sir David Attenborough, the British legend of natural history documentary programs. The late Steve Irwin, the famed Crocodile Hunter, tops the list of modern-day naturalists. What about the iconic photographer of nature Ansel Adams who helped bring to light the wonders of America’s national parks? Lest we forget the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh who became a naturalist in his later life. Lindbergh worked diligently to help the Philippines understand the diversity of its nature and helped to conserve it, especially the Philippine Eagle that was once called the Monkey-Eating Eagle. But then I have to ask the question again, who is the most famous naturalist of the Philippines?
Above, the Philippine Eagle, once known as the Monkey-Eating Eagle
Perhaps the earliest official naturalist in the Philippines was a French-born Spaniard who came to the Philippines in 1792 as a botanist on the Malaspina Expedition. This venture began in 1788 when Alessandro Malaspina, a Spanish naval officer, petitioned King Charles III who was a staunch promoter of the sciences in Spain, to provide funding for a scientific expedition that would travel to all of Spain’s possessions in Asia and the Americas.
Luis Née was selected to accompany the expedition due to his background in botany and his keen knowledge of medicinal plants. The journey would take five years and included Mexico, the Marianas Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Chile, Argentina as well as the Philippines, where he landed at Sorsogon Bay, the southern part of the Luzon, in March 1792. Née left the expedition there and began to explore the interior of Luzon alone, making his way eventually to Manila where three months later he reunited with the expedition. During his stay in the Philippines Née was able to collect and catalog some 2,400 specimens. His journal is thought to be the first comprehensive record of the natural history, agriculture, and native customs of the Philippines.
Below, the beautiful Sharp-Billed Oriole or Philippine Oriole (Oriolus acrorhyncus) on a colored and illustrated chromolithograph made by Cassell and Company in about 1870 for Thomas Rymer Jones, Professor of Natural History and Comparative Anatomy in King’s College, London.
As a boy in the 1960s, I read about famed aviator Charles Lindbergh who had begun traveling extensively worldwide as a conservationist. Lindbergh, as we all know, made that famous first solo flight in 1927, non-stop, across the Atlantic Ocean from New York, landing in Paris’ Le Bourget Airport. In the years following his famous flight and the subsequent kidnapping of his son, Lindbergh drew attention to his opinions on politics, Nazism and racial issues. Only later did he take on a new role as a spokesperson for worldwide conservation of the world’s natural environment, its resources and people. A New York Times article wrote:
“Profoundly convinced that civilization is imperiled by modern man’s reckless disregard for important wildlife species, for primitive peoples, for irreplaceable timberlands and for unique marine life, he (Lindbergh) is spending a substantial part of his time and energies as a conservationist.”
In the early 1960s, Lindbergh visited the Philippines several times and began an effort with then President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos in a campaign to protect the endangered Philippine eagle and the tamaraw, a rare dwarf Philippine buffalo which currently has a population of only about 200. He was also instrumental in establishing protections for the Tasaday people, and just before he died in 1974, Lindbergh wrote the foreword for a book about the Tasaday tribe in the Philippines. Unfortunately, this so-called “stone age” tribe of the Philippines was really just an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Manuel Elizalde, a crony of dictator Marcos. Elizalde, the son of a wealthy family of early Spanish lineage, was the head PANAMIN, the Philippine government agency assigned to protect the interests of cultural minorities.
Despite the Tasaday debacle and Lindbergh’s view on race, he did much to bring to light the ever-expanding plight of the magnificent Philippine Eagle which at the time was derogatorily called the Monkey Eating Eagle. In a 1978 presidential proclamation, its name was changed to Philippine Eagle, and in 1995 this raptor, being among the rarest and most powerful birds in the world, was declared a Philippine national emblem.
In 1896, one of the first Europeans that studied the Philippine Eagle was the English explorer and naturalist John Whitehead. Whitehead, a professional collector of bird specimens, observed the mighty eagle in its natural habitat, and collaborated with his guide, a Filipino named Juan, who collected a specimen. They prepared the skin of the eagle and sent it to William Robert Ogilvie-Grant in London, who described the species but not after it was displayed in a local restaurant.
So, what about the native people of the Philippines and their association with plants and animals? Much has been written about the numerous tribes of the Philippines and their understanding of the plants that live around them. But little has been written about their closeness to the animals that share their world. Filipinos, as with many other Asian countries, have a reputation as a third-world economic country of eating just about anything that moves. Conservation efforts are typically non-government funded and most have only recently begun to emerge.
Above, a Pacific Swallow rests on a bamboo stump. They are similar to Barn Swallows and make their mud nests in half-saucer shapes along buildings and bridges.
It seems to me that only now is conservation being taught in schools in the Philippines. So much effort is taken just to teach the fundamentals of education such as reading, writing, and arithmetic that little resources are left for the other disciplines like science, nature and the environment. That is not to say that the educational system in the Philippines is bad. On the contrary, it is very good, however, it is focused on the basic principles of education. Since the biggest Philippine export is its people, the education system must be working. But clearly, efforts to teach about the environment and the natural wonders of the islands are imperative since many of these resources are rapidly being depleted.
Above and below, the Collared Kingfisher, a common and very beautiful bird in the Philippines.
Recently I asked my niece, Wendy Gacayan, who lives in the Philippines, who she thought was a famous naturalist of the Philippines. And although she could not name any from the distant history of these 7,000 islands, she did name one from the recent times– Maia Tañedo.
Ms. Tañedo is a teacher and a very experienced birdwatcher who co-authored the book A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of the Philippines. For more than a decade, she has been guiding bird watching tours in the Philippines as well as teaching her students about the importance of their environment. Maia Tañedo is a member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.
Three other naturalists who collaborated with Ms. Tañedo in the book, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of the Philippines, are Robert “Rob” Hutchinson, Adrian Constantino and Trinket Constantino.
Rob Hutchinson of Derbyshire, United Kingdom has spent nearly his entire life birding around the world. His bird watching travels have taken him throughout Asia, India, China, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia, West Papua and the Philippines. Rob organizes bird watching tours throughout Asia and along with co-authoring the book, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of the Philippines, he has published numerous articles, scientific papers and photographs on Asia. In 2005 Rob formed Birdtour Asia of which he organizes bird watching tours throughout Asia. More on Birdtour Asia can be found here: http://www.birdtourasia.com/
The husband and wife team of Adrian and Trinket Constantino round out the authors of the book A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of the Philippines. The two enthusiastic bird watchers contribute also to numerous bird watching sites and help organize bird walks for the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines. Their easy-to-use identification guide to the 280 bird species most commonly seen in the Philippines is perfect for residents and visitors alike.
Another great book to help you identify the birds of the Philippines is titled, A Photographic Guide to Birds of the Philippines. It was written by Nigel Hicks and the late Tim Fisher.
Nigel Hicks is based at Teignmouth, in south Devon, conveniently close to Exeter, Torbay and Plymouth. He works not just throughout southwest England, but all over the UK, and also internationally. Many of his photography projects and commissions have taken him all over the world, from the Himalayas to the Philippines, to Iceland to Patagonia, while others have seen him photographing close to home, in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset.
Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer, specializing in commercial photography, travel photography, landscape photography, nature photography, and architectural and interiors photography. He is qualified as a Fellow with the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP), the top qualification for this leading UK professional photography body. He shoots for the National Geographic Image Collection, the highly prestigious photography arm of the USA’s National Geographic Society.
Tim Fisher (!947-2010)
Obituary from Birdwatch.ph
“All birdwatchers and professional ornithologists who have had the smallest contact with the Philippines in the last 25 years or so know the name Tim Fisher. For most of them he was their first—sometimes their only—link to the country, and it is with a sense of shock as well as immense sadness that we come to realize that he is no longer around to help and guide us, so sudden and so unexpected was his passing on 13 September after a short illness.
Tim was born in Hereford, England, and was interested in birds from the age of eight; he actively watched birds from then until his untimely death. He was educated at Merchant Taylors School and then studied for a degree in Applied Biology and Biochemistry at Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire. Later he qualified as a chartered accountant with Price Waterhouse in London.
In birdwatching circles, Tim became ‘Mr. Philippines’. When he first arrived there, he was the sole birdwatcher and was often frustrated because there was no-one to go birding with. Over the next quarter of a century he acquired a huge field knowledge of the birds of this frustrating and complex country. This knowledge he freely imparted to others and put to good use as he developed his skills in arranging and leading bird tours there. Almost every birdwatcher who visited the Philippines in that period did so with Tim’s help. Ultimately, he visited almost every corner of the country, although it seems he never reached the Sulu archipelago’s Tawi Tawi group. His explorations led to much of the current knowledge of the endemic avifauna and where best to see them. Sadly, he was not very good with documentation and thus it was very fortunate that he was a co-author of the first modern field guide to the birds of the Philippines (Kennedy et al. 2000). His extensive field knowledge was used to create the comprehensive plumage and voice descriptions in the guide. Another achievement was his involvement in the discovery of the Bukidnon Woodcock Scolopax bukidnonensis, both when it was heard and seen on Mount Kitanglad, Bukidnon Province, Mindanao, in February 1993 and also when a specimen was taken on Mt. Kitanglad in January 1995 (Harrap & Fisher 1994, Kennedy et al. 2001).
Tim will be remembered very fondly by all those guided by him, the many visiting solo birdwatchers he helped, all those he introduced to birdwatching, those he employed and all those who shared a cheerful and convivial beer with him. Tim, from us all, thanks!”
Above, the Brown Shrike, a common visitor to the Philippines from mid-September to May.
In the Philippines there are over 560 species of birds, of which more than 170 are endemic to the islands. Most of the bird species in the Philippines are annual visitors who rely on virgin forests, untouched wetlands and pristine beaches in order to survive. Unregulated as well as so-called regulated forest and fishery management has resulted in a drastic depletion of many bird species. Clear cutting of forest land earlier in the last century for sugar plantations and the awarding of timber concessions by the Marcos regime has had a devastating effect not just on birds but on other animals as well.
Above, a Warbler waits atop a leafy branch for an insect meal in Pias.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported in 2012 that in the Philippines, 84 species of birds are threatened with extinction of which 62 are endemic to the Philippines. Clearly, the Philippines is an environmental disaster and despite the works of a handful of naturalists, without government support, the future looks bleak for the country’s environment and its wildlife.
Above, the Philippine Woodpecker hunts for insects in the bark of a tree in Pias.
Several grassroots organizations have been established in recent years in the Philippines as more and more people become aware of the plight of the environment. One such club is the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines which was established in July 2003 to “promote bird watching as a hobby and the responsible enjoyment of nature.” The club was launched by a small group of amateur birdwatchers from the Metro Manila area. Since that time the group has grown into an internet-based community that shares information of observations, bird populations and bird watching related activities. The group includes not only amateur bird and outdoor enthusiasts but professional scientists as well.
You can find out more about this group at: http://www.birdwatch.ph/index.html
Above, a female Pied Triller sits high in the tall tops of a bamboo forest in Pias. While below, she has joined her mate as they survey the forest of the Pias foothills.
Above, one of seven Mountain Leaf Warbler species found in the Philippines.
Recently I met the amazing Tamayo family while I was staying in San Juan, La Union in the Philippines. The Tamayo family founded Coastal Underwater Resources Management Action (CURMA), a group dedicated to the preservation of the Olive Ridley sea turtle that nests along the shore of San Juan, the surfing capital of the Philippines and the 2019 host of the surfing competition in the Southeast Asia (SEA) games.
For the Tamayo family, getting into the sea turtle rescue effort was almost by accident. It happened one night when Mrs. Marissa Tamayo and her daughter Sachi were walking along the beach in San Juan near the place that would eventually be their home. As the two strolled along the moonlit sandy beach, they happened up more than a dozen newly hatched Olive Ridley sea turtles as they began their treacherous march to the sea. In the Philippines, sea turtles are called “Pawikans” and they are among the endangered species. Not long afterward Marissa’s husband, Toby, a former professor, environmentalist and beekeeper, started CURMA in 2009, the entire family became instrumental in this remarkable environmental program.
Carlos Tamayo, the son of Marissa and Toby, now lives in Bacnotan, a little north of San Juan and is the coordinator of the group. He and the family have dedicated themselves to ensuring that the Olive Ridley has an opportunity to survive by having volunteers gather freshly laid eggs for removal to a protected site where they will hatch in safety.
In an interview, Carlos said, “What we have observed is that since 1986-2009, the coastal areas of La Union has been a nesting ground and these pawikans come at night time during their laying season – from October-February to seek safer grounds for their eggs, which takes between 40-70 days to hatch.”
“Turtle nesting in this part of La Union has increased this past year and we are very happy with the strong support from the local government. The turtles play a big part in maintaining the ocean’s ecosystem and the ocean is the main tourist attraction in this province. We must continue working together in caring for the sea and its inhabitants. Our present and future depend on it.”
Above, baby Olive Ridley sea turtles hatching at the San Juan CURMA facility.
To date, CURMA and its volunteers have released more than 16,000 turtle hatchlings, which sounds like a lot but when you consider that less than 5 percent will reach adulthood, that number isn’t that high. And with the La Union beaches becoming a major site for female sea turtle nesting during hatching season that runs between September and March, this area needs protection. With the popularity of San Juan as a surfing destination and fast becoming a major tourist area in general, more needs to be done to ensure that these special sea creatures have plenty of space in which to lay their eggs and begin to thrive.
Carlos goes on to say, “The challenge is that La Union can now sometimes be too noisy and too bright. Turtles that hatch on San Juan beach have started to lay eggs further north. We’ve also found a lot of turtles dead, (with) a lot of plastic inside their bodies.”
Above, Carlos Tamayo shows students a video about a recent CURMA sea turtle release in San Juan.
You can find out more at: sifcare.org/curma or at: fb.com/projectcurma
Above, a massive Leatherback Turtle, one of five species of sea turtles that can be found in the Philippines.
The islands of the Philippines, some 7,641 in all, has a population of approximately 100,981,437 people. On these islands, which are in most cases separated by a few miles, there are over 200 species of mammals of which 135 are endemic to the Philippines.
Above, a sketch of a Philippine deer drawn in 1826 by Hamilton Smith, courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library. The Philippine deer, endemic to the Philippines, occurs in the islands of Luzon, Polillo and Catanduanes, Mindoro, Samar, and Leyte. Reports are that it is possibly extinct in Biliran, Bohol, and Marinduque, as well as on Dinagat and Siargao Islands. The small deer was introduced to neighboring islands as a source for recreational hunting and within the Philippines, its population has been significantly reduced.
One of Charles Lindbergh’s pet projects in the Philippines was to highlight the declining population of the Tamaraw, a dwarf buffalo belonging to the Bovidae family of species. Also called the Mindoro dwarf buffalo, it is endemic to the island of Mindoro and the only bovine endemic to the Philippines. At one time, this relative of the water buffalo is said to have been in great numbers on the island of Luzon. However, current estimates are less than 200 living throughout the Philippine archipelago.
The carabao, as this water buffalo is known in the Philippines, is a domestic beast of burden used throughout the islands for agricultural work, especially in rice planting and harvesting. Although these animals are not native to the Philippines, having been imported from China and India long ago, they are nonetheless a very remarkable creature. They are a true gentle giant as proven by the ease in which they have been domesticated. They are among my favorite animals.
Carabaos are perfectly suited for hot and humid tropical climates. They enjoy cooling themselves during the heat of the day, by lying in creeks, rivers, and watering holes. They love taking refreshing mud baths, then allowing the mud to cake all over their bodies to protect themselves from annoying insects. The carabao eats several different types of aquatic plants including the giant reed, bulrush, sedges, the common water hyacinth, and rushes, feeding mainly in the cool of the mornings and evenings. The lifetime of these gentle creatures is about 18 to 20 years and the female carabao can deliver one calf every year.
It is not sure when the original carabao came to the Philippines. In early Spanish reports, they were already there when the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s. The Spaniard would eventually take breeding stock to nearby Guam where the animal did reasonably well, however, their population has been declining most likely due to illegal hunting.
In the early 1900s, carabaos from Cambodia and China, known as the “Shanghai buffaloes” were imported into the Philippines to work in the sugarcane plantations. These imported breeds were much larger and have bigger horns than the original domestic breed.
In 1917, the Philippines began to import Murrah buffaloes from India as were a small scattering of the Niliravi breed. Eventually, the word “carabao” would become the standard name for all types of water buffaloes in the Philippines.
Before the second world war, it was estimated that nearly three million carabaos inhabited the Philippine islands. During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines from 1941–1945, with their indifference to the Filipino economy and culture, slaughtered the carabaos for meat. This act alone prevented the Philippine farmers from growing enough rice to feed their population since the carabaos supplied the labor that the Filipino farmers needed to grow rice and other staples. By the end of the war, it is estimated that the Japanese had been responsible for decimating nearly 70% of the carabaos in the Philippines!
Contrary to the malevolent African water buffalo, the Philippine variety is very docile and gentle.
Along with supplying the instruments of farm labor and even transportation, the hides of carabao has been historically used in a variety of products, including the armor of pre-Spanish colonial Filipino warriors.
By the year 2003, the carabao had begun making a comeback in the Philippines. At that time about 3.2 million carabaos inhabited the Philippines, with the majority belonging to small farmers of limited income and resources where the old payatak or conventional method of rice farming is still the method of choice. These astonishing animals are now widely distributed throughout most of the larger islands of the Philippines.
Above, a mother carabao and her calf wade through a flooded hyacinth field near Bauang, northern Philippines.
Below, a romantic Philippine postcard from 1908 showing a carabao with massive horns.
Now let’s talk about one of the primary resources and staples of the Philippines – seafood. On islands surrounded by the sea, there is an abundance of seafood, and the Philippines is no different. Here in these tropical waters, you will find an amazing array of fish, crabs, prawns, eels, shellfish and sea urchins. You may also see a few if you are doing any swimming, snorkeling or diving but many varieties of fish and sea wildlife can also be seen at the wet markets where they are offered for sale.
Above, colorful parrotfish being offered at a wet market in Palawan.
It is reported that in the Philippines there about 2,824 marine fish species, and anywhere from 33 to 110 are endemic to these islands, and anything that is endemic is listed as endangered. In the recent history of Philippine fishery, the practice of using dynamite to stun reef fish was used to harvest them. This absurd practice is now illegal, but the damage done to precious coral reefs will never be amended. This harmful practice did not just destroy corals, but it also destroyed the very home and feeding grounds for countless fish and sea life that will never come back.
Above and below, the very strange Needlefish near the Hundred Islands in Pangasinan.
Above, a mass of Spotted Sicklefish, fresh from the morning’s catch at the wet market in Palawan.
Wet markets, as fish markets are called in the Philippines, showcase a variety of what the surrounding oceans offer. At times, it is astonishing what fishermen come back with after a fishing excursion. Sometimes you have to wonder if there is anything left in the ocean when you see the vast amounts that are brought back. Other times you wonder in amazement at the extraordinary species that you see offered for sale at these markets. You wonder how Mother Nature can sustain it all, then you realize that perhaps she cannot.
Above, a large Lyertail grouper offered for sale in a Palawan wet market.
It is quite difficult to understand how we as human beings can so rapidly deplete our natural resources. We seem to live for the moment and engage ourselves in the here and now rather than the future and sustaining our natural resources so that there will be a natural balance in our ecosystems. But that’s easy to say when you live in a country where just about everything you could want is at your fingertips. A warm bed, a refrigerator full of food, a solid roof over your head, and steady employment. However, as you look at the world as a whole, and when you travel the world, you will see that in some countries, it is difficult to simply survive day-to-day. Conserving what little you have is of little consequence when you face a major challenge just to survive.
In many small fishing villages throughout the Philippines, fishermen get up before the sunrise and head out to the open sea in their flimsy boats. Some spend the day in the blazing hot sun only to return with a meager catch, depleted by overfishing. Large factory ships from China and Japan are a major reason for the depletion of the Philippine fishery, primarily due to those countries historically ignoring international fishing regulations and specifically because the Philippines simply does not have the resources to enforce these laws.
To understand the island’s fishermen, you have to go back to the original settlers who brought with them meager foodstuffs like goats, pigs, and chickens. To sustain themselves, they took what the land gave them, or what the seas provided. Perhaps, these were the original naturalists who had to know of the currents, the winds, the tides, and the weather. They had to know when and where to catch their next meal.
Above, a feast for the fisherman’s family? Probably not since this sailfish will be sold to a middleman or fish broker in San Fernando who will, in turn, sell it, piece-by-piece to individual shoppers at the wet market or to local restaurants. The fisherman will only see a small portion of the final selling price.
Modern-day fishermen are perhaps the most knowledgeable naturalists who spend so much time on the open waters, observing the sea life and understanding what it will take to catch the next meal. These brave men are not the weekend recreational fishermen but those that must go out each day, or not if the seasonal weather is too bad, to use their skills and perhaps just a little luck to make a catch of the day. There are thousands of these brave people who, in general, are not the irresponsible Chinese and Japanese who ply these tropical waters in their massive factory ships and deplete the natural resources of the Philippines.
Above, nothing goes to waste, not even the magnificent tail fins of the swordfish.
Above, the magnificent Scarlet Mormon (Papilio rumanzovia Eschscholtz 1821) female, Pias, La Union.
Scarlett Mormon butterflies are part of the 32 species that make up the swallowtail and milkweed class of butterflies that are endemic to these islands. They are one of the most beautiful butterflies and can be found in lightly wooded areas. I photographed the one above as it fluttered around the lush garden of my sister-in-law who lives in the town of Pias, just east of San Fernando, La Union. It is not an easy butterfly to capture with your camera because it is constantly flickering from one flower to another.
I have heard, but have never seen, that when this butterfly in its caterpillar stage it is as equally beautiful as in the adult stage. Apparently, the caterpillar mimics a small green snake that can display a red appendage that looks very much like the tongue of a snake!
Above, the Grass Cross Spider of the species Argiope catenulata, who spins an unusual web where the primary web is nearly invisible, but very sticky, while a zigzag-shaped secondary web, with a hollow center, crosses the larger, outer web. After the web is spun, the spider aligns two of its front legs and two of its back legs along the zigzag web to form an “X” as it hides in the center waiting for the next meal. The zigzag pattern of the web is called stabilimenta which reflects UV light which apparently plays a role in attracting prey to the web.
In general, the more than 25,000 kinds of insects and spiders make up a huge portion of the wildlife in the Philippines. The year-round warm climate and high humidity contribute to the country’s insect populations and diversity. It is estimated that nearly 70% of the recorded insects in the Philippines are endemic to that country.
Along with the diversity of insects comes the danger that some of them pose to humans. The bites of both ants and spiders are not particularly pleasant, however, there really is no known spider in the Philippines that is poisonous. That being said, the vast majority are venomous, which is how the arachnid paralyzes their prey. The spider’s venom is devastating to its prey but to humans, it is probably less painful than the bite of a horsefly. However, many spiders can cause what is termed as “medically significant effects” to humans. Typically, this is caused by those nasty “widow” spiders – the Redback Spider and the widely-spread Brown Widow.
Above, the Wolf Spider inconspicuously waiting for a meal on a bamboo branch in Bacnotan.
In the Philippines, there are 19 species of spiders that range from very small to those the size of a large human hand. One of the pastimes in the villages, especially among rural Filipino children is spider fighting. Spiders, typically female orb-weavers, are caught, then kept in a small box like a matchbox. Then two spiders are placed on each end of a thin stick or branch. With a little prodding the spiders, with no other choice but to meet, move toward the center of the stick until they meet each other and begin to tussle. Spider fights usually end when one spider falls off the stick or is lethally injected by the other spider.
Above, although similar to the domestic chicken of the Philippines the Red Junglefowl is found in the lowland and mountain forests and loves to roost high up in trees. It is said to be the progenitor of the modern, domesticated chicken going back perhaps some 7,000 to 10,000 years. Originally, this was a theory of evolutionist Charles Darwin and was recently confirmed by DNA that the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) was the earliest ancestor in this long line of genealogy. Nowadays, there are more chickens in the Philippines than Filipinos. When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines, they found the native people cooking the still popular chicken adobo and began to refer to this method of cooking as “adobo de los naturales” (“adobo of the native peoples”).
In the Philippines however, dining on chicken is now the primary reason to raise these game birds. But more on that later. An interesting story is told of the Greek general Themistocles who in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. was on his way to oppose invading Persian forces. The Athenian general stopped for a moment to watch two roosters fighting. Watching this cockfight, he called over his troops and said, “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.”
Above, the male fighting rooster of the Philippines.
No one is really sure how cockfighting got started in the Philippines, it was already in full swing when Magellan and his conquistadors arrived in the islands and observed natives breeding and fighting their roosters. Of course, the history of raising fighting fowl really goes back some 6,000 years. And with the typical rooster not being particularly fond of competition from another rooster, and the Filipino love of sport, albeit with a measure of gambling, it was inevitable that this blood sport became popular in the Philippines.
Even the great National here, José Rizal, stated at one time that the average Filipino loves his rooster more than he does his children.
Above, a cockpit in La Union where a man of simple means can pay a small entrance fee and end the day taking home a huge payday thanks to his trained (and lucky) rooster who has won the top prize money. Throughout much of the Philippines, farmers and even businessmen raise roosters for fighting. No longer are the birds the native Red Junglefowl but a fastidious mix of several breeds where a prize bird can sell for as much as five thousand dollars.
Ironically, it is America who has supplied the greatest number of game fowl to the Philippine cockfighting activity. The breeds that are typically used are the Miner Blues, Hatch, Claret, Black, Round Head or White Hackel breeds. These breeds have great strength and stamina and a no giving up mentality.
So why do I mention anything at all about this cruel and barbaric sport that provides questionable amusement? For one, you just have to remember what the martyred José Rizal said about the fondness that Filipinos, mostly the males, have for their roosters. Then you have to ask yourself, if Filipinos have such a great love for domesticated fowl, why can’t they have that same feeling toward the natural wildlife of their country? Maybe they do, but simply take it for granted that these precious resources will always be there.
Above the Emerald Tree Skink can be seen just about anywhere in the Philippines where there are tall, bare trees. They eat insects and they are harmless to humans. But are they a reptile or amphibian?
First, let’s talk a little bit about the reptiles and amphibians of the Philippines, which is considered both a “megadiversity country” as well as a “global biodiversity conservation hotspot.” But what does that even mean? Well, for one, being a megadiverse country means that that country contains a majority of the Earth’s species as well as a high number of species that are endemic to that country. A global biodiversity conservation hotspot is a region with a significant amount of biodiversity that is threatened by human habitation. The Philippines share these somewhat unbecoming titles with only one other country – Madagascar. Both countries are rich in biodiversity, and much of it being very unique, and being on the brink of extinction.
Above, an introduced albino Burmese Python
The Philippines is home to over 245 species of endemic reptiles and nearly 100 endemic amphibian species. In Luzon alone, this vast herpetology region contains more than 150 species including frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, snakes, lizards, turtles, terrapins, tortoises, and crocodilians. Luzon has 106 native reptile species of which 76 are unique to this island.
Some of the most deadly, poisonous snakes in the world live in the Philippines. My brother-in-law one time killed a deadly Northern Philippine Cobra just a few feet from his house. They love to hunt the rice fields and to raid the chicken coups! Aside from the Northern version, there is also a Southeastern Cobra and the Equatorial Spitting Cobra; the latter can spit a stream of venom at a target 10 feet away. But the real title goes to the largest venomous snake in the world, the Philippine King Cobra. This massive snake, with its enlarged, spreading hood that extends from the snake’s head, can reach lengths up to 16 feet!
Along with deadly cobras, the Philippines also has bright-colored, lance-headed pit vipers that live in trees in much of the Philippines. Here too, you can find many species of coral snakes. These poisonous, multi-striped snakes are supposed to be somewhat docile, but I am not sure that I would want to test that theory. There are other similar banded snakes that are not poisonous but just in case, remember this rhyme: Red on black, friend of Jack, red on yellow, kill a fellow.
The last group of poisonous snakes in the Philippines are the sea snakes, some of the most, if not the most, poisonous snakes in the world. They typically live their entire lives in the water around mangrove swamps and coral reefs where they search for food. As air breathers, these snakes, known as kraits, need to come up for air about every eight hours or so. They are a shy and non-aggressive snake that typically avoids human interaction, however, with the high toxicity of their poison, it is another snake that I would prefer to observe at a good distance.
In 2007, while diving with my nephews near Poro Point in the northern Philippines, I watched, at a very safe distance, a banded sea krait as it hunted among the shallows of a coral reef.
Above, Lake Taal and the Taal Volcano, the unusual volcano that sits inside a lake that sits inside a volcano. In 2019 the volcano erupted and spewed ash for many miles. Inside this lake lives the very rare Taal sea snake which is the only sea snake that lives in freshwater. Somewhere in the distant past, this area must have been connected to the sea.
Above, the endemic Philippine Iguana was once plentiful throughout much of the Philippines except the island of Palawan. Captured for food and for the pet trade, it is now an endangered species in the wild.
Let’s get back to the Emerald Tree Skink (Lamprolepis smaragdina) which started this subject on reptiles and amphibians. It is a reptile and not an amphibian and is also known as the Green Tree Skink and the Emerald Green Skink. It is not commonly seen and is currently considered to be a non-threatened species. This colorful creature eats insects and other small animals and has been observed to steal dog food. Sadly, because of its rarity and beautiful coloring, the Emerald Tree Skink is becoming increasingly more popular in the exotic pet trade.
As more and more people become aware of their environment and precious nature of their biodiversity, they are in a sense becoming naturalists. And in becoming aware of their natural environment and venturing out into the places where these natural resources are, to observe rather than destroy, more precious land and resources are becoming protected. And new species are even being discovered like the lizard discovered in 2009 and reported in 2010 by https://phys.org/:
“Biologists on Wednesday reported the spectacular discovery of a species of giant lizard, a reptile as long as a full-grown man is tall. The secretive but brightly colored beast, a monitor lizard, is a close cousin of the Komodo Dragon of Indonesia. But unlike the fearsome dragon, it is not a carnivore, nor does it feast on rotting meat. Instead, it is entirely peaceable and tucks into fruit.
Dubbed Varanus bitatawa, the lizard measures two metres (6.5 feet) in length, according to the account, published by Britain’s Royal Society. It was found in a river valley on northern Luzon Island in the Philippines, surviving the loss of habitat and hunting by local people who use it for food.”
Conservation of Luzon’s vertebrate biodiversity remains an on-going effort, challenged by rapid development, logging, mining and conversion of natural habitats into agricultural lands to provide food for a burgeoning human population.
How many of the lizards have survived is unclear. The species is almost certainly critically endangered and might well have disappeared entirely without ever being catalogued had a large male specimen not been rescued alive from a hunter last June.”
So, how long can the earth support our ever-growing demand for its natural resources? Its impossible to know and even the so-called experts can’t agree on how many species become extinct each year. But clearly, we know that almost 500 species have gone extinct during the latter century, and nearly all were due to humans.
Above, the popularity of sea urchins (uni) as an “exotic” eatable and the unchecked nature of their harvest will clearly create an imbalance in the ocean’s ecology.
The so-called experts have given calculated estimates that are between 2 to 100 million different species. They also guesstimate that between 0.01 and 0.1% of all species may become extinct each year. Seeing the broad range, it really makes you wonder how they came up with these numbers. But let’s say their lowest number of 0.01% of the 2 million species will be come extinct, then that means 200 animal species will become extinct in a year. However, if we can accept that there are 100 million species in the world and that 0.1% will become extinct, then the numbers are staggering: 100,000 species will be gone forever!
Above, Eric Trump, the son of President Donald Trump, with one of his manhood trophies.
So, what can we do to preserve our environment and our natural resources? For one, get out and vote for officials who not only care about our earth but are willing to lead the fight to make sure that the world’s resources and protected. It means that we put people in charge who care about long term sustainability and will lead the rest of the world in the fight against corporate responsibility. It means that we lash out against those wealthy individuals who feel that since they have the money, they also can destroy our environment in an effort to become even wealthier. It means that we denounce those trophy hunters, like Walter Palmer, the dentist from Minnesota who paid $50,000 dollars to kill Cecil, Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, who had wandered off the minuscule reservation that it was forced to live on. And we can condemn the irresponsible sons of Donald Trump who posed so proudly with the dead bodies of rare animals that they had been privileged to murder. Eric and Don, Jr. could set examples for the rest of the world, but instead they post photos of themselves with a lifeless cheetah, and in another photo holding a knife along with the sawed-off, bloody tail of a magnificent elephant, or of them posing next to a crocodile that is hanging from a noose off of a tree. Until our politicians and their privileged children show some leadership skills, we will never stop the inevitable decline in our precious natural wonders.
What can we do as individuals to preserve our resources? We can do a lot more than just electing responsible politicians. We can stop buying products made from rare and endangered or sourced from non-sustainable wildlife. And we can vocally denounce those countries, like Japan and China who could care less about the world’s resources.
Above, a local in rural northern Philippines offers a rare giant clam shell for sale.
Along with avoiding the purchase of products from endangered wildlife and the needless, senseless slaughter of the earths amazing wildlife for trophies, we should also say no to the entire wild pet trade. It is in our hands, all of us, to become naturalists and conservationists, and for that we don’t need a degree from a university to tell us that we can save our precious resources.
Over time the Earth changes, and like humans it evolves. Changes in climate and changes brought about by human intervention have resulted in more than 99 percent of all species that ever lived on Earth are estimated to have died out. This amounts to over a staggering five billion species that will never be seen again except perhaps in photos, paintings or fossil remains.
Above, along the shoreline of Bacnotan, La Union, a young girl sits atop a pile of ancient giant clam shells. These massive clams existed from the Eocene epoch some 50 million years ago and their relatives can still be found around the Philippine seas. Unfortunately, they can also be found on the illicit black market. Just search the internet for giant clams and you will see what I mean.
Just recently some 125 pieces of fossilized Giant Clams (Tridacna gigas), the largest shell in the Philippines, were confiscated from three men who were reported by a local resident for hoarding these clams at their residence. At the time they were worth about P$36,000,000.00 (US$72,000.00) on the black market. But these are just fossils you say.
But this is not where the giant clams story ends. Every year Chinese boats are caught in Philippine waters with their hulls filled, yes filled, with giant clams. And no, not the long dead fossilized versions but those that were alive until they were illegally plucked from waters protected under the Philippines! And what can be done? You condemn the Chinese for their deplorable actions! You refuse to accept that being bullied by a nation with no morals and no regard for the environment and you become a naturalist and a conservationist! But for the millions of illegally harvested Giant Clams, you mourn their loss because they will not be coming back.
Are there times when humans mean good but are actually being harmful to nature? That may very well be the case in what was once a small fishing village in Oslob, Cebu. At one time the poor fishermen in this city barely got by with their meager catch. During rough weather they could not go out into the formidable ocean and for days on end, their families did without. Then one day the fishermen began to notice that several Whale Sharks were swimming about the small Oslob bay, searching for tiny shrimp and plankton. It didn’t take long before word got out and soon documentary crews and tourists began to descend on the small fishing village. Eventually someone got the idea that perhaps the poor fishing village could make money on this phenomenon and that set the wheels into motion. Now, thousands of eco-tourists arrive at Oslob each day for an opportunity to see these magnificent giant fish, and swim right next to them!
But you would think that that is the end of a happy outcome to a nice story. I guess that would depend on who you talk to since this is really about a controversial subject – humans feeding wildlife. Because you see, the same fishermen who once hunted these giant creatures, now give them a daily handout of shrimp in order for them to come back each day and entertain the throngs who come here, pay their money and get an experience of a lifetime. Some have equated this to feeding animals in a zoo; they no longer have the ability to forage on their own and must depend on daily handouts. However, in the case of the Oslob Whale Sharks, that is only partially true. They do come back every day but are feed small amounts until a limited time. And since this small handout only constitutes a small percentage of their dietary needs, when the humans stop feeding them, the Whale Sharks leave to forage on their own.
This is no longer the dawn of man and his willful extermination of the Earths precious natural resources. Some think it is actually the nightfall of man, due to the rapid advance of global warming and the swift decline of native species of both plants and animals. And it seems apparent that with the denial of global warming we are taking far too long to make corrections that would reverse the trend.
So, again, I ask again, “Who is a famous Philippine naturalist?” The answer just might be: everyone of us!
All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography and Nida Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use or for signed, high-resolution copies.
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