Conservation efforts must go on despite the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the Philippines whose biodiversity makes it not only one of the richest, but also one of the most vulnerable in the world.
One of only 17 megadiverse countries worldwide, the Philippines is rich in natural resources and home to a variety of endemic species that are threatened by human habitation, making it also a top biodiversity hotspot.
“We must act now despite the global pandemic,” said Grace Diamante, executive director of Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Inc. (MBCFI), during a virtual advocacy event conducted recently by the Manila House Private Members Club.
She cited statistics which are deemed unprecedented in human history, with 32 percent of the world’s forest destroyed, 83 percent of freshwater species declining, and 23 percent of land areas becoming unproductive due to land degradation.
“Wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must, and we will,” she added.
Diamante was joined by Malampaya Foundation, Inc. (MFI) executive director Karen Agabin, MFI marine biologist and conservation manager Pacifico Beldia II, and Western Philippines University Professor Dr. Lota Creencia in discussing terrestrial and marine conservation efforts in Palawan, Mindoro, and the Verde Island Passage.
Since 2013, MFI has helped establish and manage over 335,000 hectares of marine-protected areas (MPAs) and marine management zones with communities, local government units, and national agencies. MPAs that are effectively managed encourage marine life to flourish and provide for the needs of both the ecosystem and fishermen.
The MBCFI, on the other hand, seeks to conserve the unique and threatened environment, biodiversity, and natural resources of Mindoro Island, which is recognized as one of the global biodiversity conservation priority areas, particularly in terms of the number of endemic species, diversity of habitats, and degrees of threats.
Epicenter of marine biodiversity
The Philippines is part of the six-million-square-meter Coral Triangle, which is the underwater equivalent of the Amazon in terms of marine flora and fauna. Of the six countries in the Coral Triangle, the Philippines has the greatest number of species per unit area according to marine science studies from 2005 to 2013.
“The marine ecosystem is among the most productive in the world that cannot be matched by engineering or technical solutions in providing various direct and indirect ecosystems services such as food, materials, medicine, shoreline protection, tourism benefits, cultural value, and even oxygen. More than 50 percent of our oxygen comes from the ocean,” Agabin said.
There are reported sightings of returning endangered species in MPAs that have been effectively managed after five years, like the Napoleon wrasse in Coron, she said. “Black-tipped sharks and dolphins are also returning to areas that are well-protected.”
As part of its marine rehabilitation work, MFI and its partners are restocking protected reefs within effectively-managed MPAs with over-extracted shell species like the abalone, trochus, and giant clam species, some of which are classified as endangered and locally-extinct.
Most notable is the return of the Philippines’ giant clam Tridacna gigas, declared locally-extinct in the 80s. Over 3,000 giant clam shells have been restocked since 2019.
Megadiversity and Mindoro
MBCFI is working with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Tamaraw Conservation Program, and their Rangers and Wardens to conserve the Tamaraw or Mindoro dwarf buffalo, of which an estimated 480 are left in the world. The Tamaraw or Bubalus mindorensis is essential in maintaining ecological balance in the mountain ranges of Mindoro such as Mts. Iglit-Baco, while holding cultural significance among the Mangyan tribes.
Other conservation efforts in Mindoro include the completion of MBCFI’s propagation of the endangered Philippine Teak at Ilin Island, Occidental Mindoro in 2019, 163 hectares of woodlot areas established, documentation of 54 fauna and discovery of one flora, and the ongoing construction of the Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Center in Puerto Galera.
MBCFI also seeks to work with partners in the local government, national agencies, and communities for the massive reforestation of Mindoro Island.
Nature imbalances and climate change
Environmental degradation not only poses a threat to flora and fauna but can also lead to increasing poverty with greater exposure to risks of climate change such as typhoons and droughts.
Irresponsible fishing practices and marine pollution led to the 90 percent decline in fish-catch rates from 1950 to 2000. MBCFI has expressed concern over the effects of rampant pollution as well as the increasing introduction of invasive plant and animal species.
The introduction of tilapia fingerlings into a lake in a protected area may be deemed a food solution, but it could also create an imbalance in the lake’s ecosystem, if the tilapia thrives at the expense of existing species, said Diamante. A more sustainable way to do this would be in a man-made body of water since it would also protect our biodiversity, she added.
Securing the future
MBCFI and MFI hope that aside from their partner communities in the Verde Island Passage, Mindoro and Palawan, more Filipinos will support and help fund their cause for ecological conservation and sustainability to counter the effects of climate change as well as increase productivity to reduce poverty. “Our survival and prosperity are dependent on biodiversity. Investing in conservation is investing in our future,” Agabin said.