Saving Our Endangered Heritage

Feature Story

What do Philippine eagle, Philippine tarsier and waling-waling have in common? They are on the verge of extinction, unless we all do our share to save them, and our environment

Text and Photos By Henrylito D. Tacio

Philippine eagle

We regret losing something when it is already gone, so goes a familiar saying. And that what might happen to the Philippine eagle, the country’s bird icon. Ecologists say that when the last eagle dies, it shall be the sign of the worst yet to come: The death of our environment.

Philippine eagleThe Philippine eagle is second only to the Madagascar sea eagle in rarity. In size, it beats the American bald eagle; it is the world’s second largest – after the Harpy eagle of Central and South America.

In the past, Philippine eagles abound in the forests of Mount Apo and other parts of Mindanao. They can also be seen flying over in the forests of Sierra Madre in Luzon and Samar and Leyte in the Visayas.

Today, Philippine eagles inhabit those places but their number has dwindled. In fact, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has declared the Philippine eagle as an endangered species.

Less than 400 pairs of Philippine eagles can be found in the country and about half of them are living in the forests of Mindanao. The Philippine Eagle Center in Davao City houses more than a dozen pairs.

“The Philippine eagle is the largest predator we have,” says Dr. Dennis Joseph I. Salvador, the executive director of the Philippine Eagle Center Foundation. “By using the Philippine eagle as the focal point of conservation, we are, in the process, saving wildlife and their habitat.”

The Philippine Eagle Center is located in a far-flung area in Malagos of Calinan District in Davao City. It takes almost an hour to travel from the heart of the city to the center where you get to encounter Philippine eagles placed in cages.

Efforts to save the Philippine eagle was started way back 1965 by Jesus A. Alvarez, then director of the autonomous Parks and Wildlife Office, and Dioscoro S. Rabor, another founding father of Philippine conservation efforts.

From 1969 to 1972, America’s famed aviator Charles Lindbergh spearheaded a drive to save the bird, which he called as the “noblest flier.” Within this time frame, several helpful laws were passed.

Primarily a research facility, the Philippine Eagle Center is nestled at the rolling foothills of Mount Apo, the country’s highest peak. More than two dozen of Philippine eagles have been raised as part of foundation’s breeding program. Most of them are being induced to breed in captivity. Pag-asa is one of its noted attractions; it made the headline around the world as the first tropical eagle conceived through artificial insemination. Pag-asa is the Tagalog word for “hope.”

Philippine tarsier“Pag-asa connotes hope for the continued survival of the Philippine eagle, hope that if people get together for the cause of the eagle, it shall not be doomed to die,” says Salvador, who was named one of the outstanding young men in 2000 for leadership in wildlife conservation.

Philippine tarsier

Philippine tarsier, which served as the model of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, “E.T.,” is endemic to the country. Although they are more associated with Bohol, tarsiers can also be found in some parts of Davao region, particularly those forested areas near the seas.

Known in the science world as Tarsius syrichta, tarsier derived its name from its elongated tarsus or ankle bone. It is a tiny animal, measuring about 85 to 160 millimeters in height, which makes it difficult to spot. The mass for males is between 80 and 160 grams, usually lighter for females.

“The world’s smallest monkey” is an often-heard slogan. Actually, tarsier is not a monkey. In truth, its classification is somewhat problematic. Some scientists consider tarsiers to be a taxonomic suborder among the primates. But because they are closely related to lemurs, lorises, and bush babies, tarsiers are classified by others with the prosimians to which these animals belong.

In the 1960s, Philippine tarsiers used to abound, particularly in Bohol. There were so many that many tarsiers were run over by passing cars. People recalled that masses of tarsiers used to cross the roads at night, doing their slow hop-crawl on the ground.

Today, such is not the case anymore. They are on the verge of extinction. The Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Inc. (PTFI) is spearheading a campaign to save the tarsiers. It has built a sanctuary just 14 kilometers away from Tagbilaran City.

During the time of the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos, the Philippine tarsier was declared as “a specially protected faunal species of the Philippines.” Presidential Proclamation No. 1030 prohibits “the hunting, killing, wounding, taking away or possession of the Philippine tarsier” and activities that would destroy its habitats.

The 1966 International Union Center for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Animals classifies the Philippine tarsier under the “near-threatened category.”

The UN Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed the Philippine tarsier under Appendix II, which means trade of the species and subspecies “is strictly regulated.”

Waling-waling“Both listings mean that the species is not yet threatened with extinction but may become so if appropriate conservation measures and trade regulations are not carried out,” explained Dr. Wilfredo S. Pollisco who was then the director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau when interviewed by this author.


The exotic waling-waling, which used to abound in the forests of Mount Apo.

“The waling-waling’s beauty adorns our treetops, especially in Davao, Cotabato, and Zamboanga where it is endemic. But there are threats to its survival, as the flowers that grow and thrive in the wild are harvested for commercial and decorative purposes, and their habitat is destroyed by deforestation,” said Senator Loren Legarda who pushed for making the orchid the country’s second flower icon (after sampaguita).

Waling-waling “is one of the finest orchid species endemic to the Philippines, desired by orchid growers and breeders alike for its showy and attractive flowers and ability to impart its vigor and floral characteristics to its progeny,” wrote Dr. Helen Valmayor in her book, Orchidiana Philippiniana.

The waling-waling, named in “allusion to a moth in flight,” was discovered on Mindanao in 1882. It used to grow on tree trunks in the rainforests of Davao, Sultan Kudarat and other parts of the island. It is worshipped as diwata (fairy) by the native Bagobos.

Unfortunately, the exotic orchid is almost on the brink of extinction. “The waling-waling is almost extinct in the wild,” deplored Dr. Domingo Madulid, one of the country’s noted botanists. “Rarer varieties of this plant can only be found in expensive nurseries.”

Recent surveys show that the walingwaling can be found in abundance no longer in the Philippines but in other countries, particularly Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Hawaii.

It is the best orchid variety of the country, Madulid said. But most Filipinos didn’t know that it could be one of the biggest sources of dollars for the country. In the 1950s, the “systematic plunder” of wild plants, including orchids, started.

Madulid said that long before the country was sending maids to Singapore and Hong Kong, upland farmers had been despoiling the forests and selling rare orchid varieties, such as waling-waling, abroad.

For almost a century, waling-waling disappeared in the Davao gardens. But thanks to Charita Pentespina, it has “returned” to its native home. Then a neophyte orchidist, Puentespina successfully pioneered in mass producing the waling-waling through embryo culture in 1985.

Philippine eagle in a cageDuring the 48th Araw ng Dabaw, the first waling-waling seedlings in compots (community pots) were sold to the public, which in no time generated interest among hobbyists and commercial orchid growers.

Since then, the waling-waling has become a fixture in almost every garden in Davao. “The return of the walingwaling to every home garden in Davao and elsewhere in the country is one thing,” one noted author wrote. “It is another thing to see it bloom in its habitat at the foothills of Mount Apo.”

Yes, waling-waling is endemic to the country. “Our national symbols are vital to our identity as Filipinos,” Legarda pointed out. “As we discover more about ourselves, we must also update the symbols that represent us. I believe that initiatives to do so increase the engagement of everyday Filipinos with the symbols of our nation, and aid in our nation-building process.”

Extinction is forever

“Of all the global problems that confront us, species extinction is one that is moving the most rapidly and the one that will have the most serious consequences,” contends Dr. Peter Raven, a well-known American biologist.

Unlike other global ecological problems, Dr. Raven stressed, the crisis is completely irreversible. “Extinction is forever,” deplores the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

With more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines has one of the most unique and diverse wildlife species in the world.

“A few decades ago, the wildlife of the Philippines was notable for its abundance; now, it is notable for its variety; if present trend of destruction continues, Philippine wildlife will be notable for its absence,” said Dr. Lee Talbot who said those words when he was the director of Southeast Asia Project on Wildlife Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

The vanishing status of Philippine eagle, Philippine tarsier and waling-waling is a wake-up call for Filipinos.

“It is about time that we Filipinos should stop making ourselves intentionally blind to the real status of our wildlife resources,” deplored Dr. Dioscoro Rabor, a noted Filipino wildlife expert. “We should face the fact that our country is no longer rich in forests and consequently, of wildlife which used to be a normal component of our forests.”

In the 1990s, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines warned against an ecological debacle in the country should deforestation continued unabated. No one listened; it was business as usual.

Motorcycle logging
Motorcycle logging

“Most of the (Philippines’) once rich forest are gone,” reported the Sustainable Forest Management published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “Forest recovery, through natural and artificial means, never coped with the destruction rate.”

Where have all our forests gone? “A people without children would facea hopeless future,” American President Theodore Roosevelt said centuries ago. “A country without trees is almost as helpless.”

In a span of 15 years – from 1990 to 2005 – the Philippines lost roughly a third of its remaining forest cover, a lawmaker pointed out.

Bad news for Philippine eagle. A pair of the critically endangered bird needs at least 7,000 to 13,000 hectares of forest as a nesting territory, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. “The forest is its only habitat,” Salvador claims. “Without the forest, the species cannot survive over the long term.”

Cutting trees for lumber
Cutting trees for lumber

The dwindling of Philippine forests has posed a grave and significant threat to the survival of Philippine tarsiers because this results in the destruction of their natural habitat. “It stays at the edges and right inside dense vegetation of different types, including inside patches of dipterocarp forests and secondary forests, preferably among dense bushes and low under-growths,” the environmental group Haribon Foundation reports.

Deforestation is also the cause why waling-waling is on the brink. “It is very difficult to make a census of killed or destroyed species of forest trees, epiphytes and other plants on ground,” the Haribon says. “But anyone who happens to be in cutting areas in the country will be frightened and scandalized by the sight of various plants killed and trees felled.”


Taking out waling-waling from their natural habitat is another reason. “Many unscrupulous commercial plant collectors and some garden fanciers here and abroad, blinded by greed, lust for profit or sheer personal satisfaction, are not bothered by the delicate existence of plants they collect from the wild,” the Haribon laments.

In an attempt to save, protect and regulate the trade of country’s wild flowers and plants, the government passed Republic Act 3983, which “prescribe conditions under which (wild flowers and plants) may be collected, kept, sold, exported, and for other purposes.”

While the country is moving toward the conservation of its endemic plants, many environmentalists believe it is too slow. “But with the full support of both the government and the public, we can be optimistic that significant result can be achieved,” the Haribon says.

Meanwhile, deforestation should be unbated now – before it is too late. Heherson T. Alvarez, former head of environment department and a senator, pointed this out. “We have laid to waste millions of hectares of forest land, as though heedless of the tragic examples of the countries of Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, where large areas have become barren, if not desertified,” he said. “If we have not, in fact, reached this state, we are almost at the point of irreversibility.”

Dr. Ernesto Guiang, who has been trained in forest ecology and forestry economics and business management, echoed the same concern. “We are now at the eleventh hour,” he said. “We have to pay attention to the handwriting on the wall with respect to our forests.”

“Of all the global problems that confront us, species extinction is one that is moving the most rapidly and the one that will have the most serious consequences”

July 2017 Health and Lifestyle

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