Early-morning travels along the stretch of the Manila-Cavite Expressway reveal a small patch of green near the shores of the Manila Bay. Around it, a variety of birds is seen hovering over the shallow waters. Up close, one can see some birds in the mud, feeding on insects and small seashells that abound in the area.
The patch of green is actually a mangrove forest that covers two adjoining islands, which composed the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA), a protected area and the only bird sanctuary and nature reserve in Metro Manila that gained international recognition as a wetland of international importance. Before its declaration as a Ramsar Site for Wetlands of International Importance in 2013, close to 5,000 migratory birds, an important ecosystem indicator, were recorded in the area by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and its partners.
The Ramsar Convention, or the convention on Wetlands of International Importance, is the intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The convention was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and came into force in 1975.
This year the number of migratory birds, as well as the number of other species in the area, continues to drop, which can be attributed to some factors, but mainly, because of environmental degradation and developments at the Manila Bay.
Threatened by the ills of urbanization and unbridled development, LPPCHEA is making a last stand for the trees, the birds and the bees and other species that are threatened by extinction in an urban setting.
The DENR-Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) considers LPPCHEA an important coastal ecosystem and a priority conservation site in Metro Manila. Established as a protected area in 2007 by Presidential Proclamation 1412, under Republic Act 7586, or the National Integrated Protected Area System Act, LPPCHEA covers around 175 hectares of wetland ecosystem.
It consists of two islands, Freedom Island and Long Island, both teeming with mangroves with ponds and lagoons, mudflats, salt marshes and mixed beach forest.
BMB Director Theresa Mundita Lim said LPPCHEA is an important wetland, which needs to be protected and conserved.
“It is a good showcase on how we can balance urbanization with biodiversity conservation for wetland ecosystems,” she said.
LPPCHEA, the adjoining islands and the lush mangrove forests and mudflats around it collectively formed a natural defense against sea-level rise or storm surge, protecting coastal barangays in Las Piñas and Parañaque.
Both a watering hole and habitat for native birds, and a migration site for transient avifauna, Lim said LPPCHEA is one of six wetlands in the Philippines that made it to the list of the Ramsar Site for Wetlands of International Importance.
It was declared so in 2013 in recognition of the “critical role LPPCHEA plays in the survival of threatened, restricted-range and congregatory bird species.”
According to the DENR-BMB, the declaration of LPPCHEA as a critical habitat was based on the findings that it harbors a diverse species of birds both migratory and resident.
“At least 5,000 heads of birds were counted [in the area] in 2004. Most significant is the presence of at least 1 percent of greenshank and 10 percent of the black-winged stilt [birds] population within the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.”
Around 82 bird species can be found in LPPCHEA, 41 of which are migratory, the DENR-BMB said. Among these birds are the little egrets and black-crowned night herons, which bird watchers commonly see in the area.
Of the endemic birds in LPPCHEA, the Philippine duck that was listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) could be seen in the northernmost pond of the Freedom Island. LPPCHEA is the only known breeding area of the ducks in the National Capital Region (NCR), the DENR-BMB said.
It is also home to the Philippine bulbul and the colasisi. A total of 11 mangrove species grow in the area. These are the bungalon, bakauan babae, bakauan bato (or bangkau in Cebuano), pototan, kolasi, pagatpat, banalo, tabigi and saging-saging. The other five Ramsar Sites in the Philippines are the Naujan Lake National Park, Puerto Princesa Subterrranean River National Park, Tubattaha Reefs Natural Park, Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary and the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary.
Because of the wide variety of endemic and migratory birds that flock in LPPCHEA, it has become popular for bird watching, particularly for those living in Metro Manila.
It allows visitors to be one with nature and enjoy the beauty of a healthy environment while watching the sunset at the Manila Bay.
More important, it offers visitors a respite from the stressful city life without the hassles of long drives or trips outside Metro Manila. A trek to the Freedom Island allows visitors to be wowed by the variety of mangrove species, as well.
The small adjoining islands are covered by thick mangrove forests, and perhaps are among the very few remaining patches of green in Metro Manila today. Its mudflats and marshes can also be a laboratory for scientific research and study of marine biology—and, sadly, including the effects of pollution. As such, LPPCHEA is being developed by the DENR-NCR, in partnership with local government units and other stakeholders, to boost its ecotourism potential.
Dwindling bird population
However, observers are alarmed by the dwindling population of birds in LPPCHEA, as well as the number of migratory birds visiting the protected area every year, as revealed by the annual bird count conducted by the DENR-BMB and the its partners. This year, the DENR-NCR and Haribon Foundation noted that the dwindling number of birds has become a trend. This year, in one bird species alone, Haribon Foundation’s David Quimpo said the downtrend is becoming apparent.
“Before, thousands of black-winged stilts can be found during migration period. In the last two years, we counted less than a hundred,”Quimpo said in Filipino.
He also noticed that from around 70 to 100 species of birds which used to roost and feed at the LPPCHEA during the migration period, the number of species in the last two years has also gone down to less than 50.
Water, solid-waste pollution
Quimpo said various factors, including pollution, might have started to impact on LPPCHEA.
“[Land] development and pollution—these are factors that might have contributed to the degradation of LPPCHEA,” Quimpo said.
Every year, during September, the DENR joins the International Coastal Cleanup Day operation at LPPCHEA, wherein truckloads of solid-waste materials are hauled from the shores. Contaminated water that flows from rivers also kills marine life in the area from which the birds feed on.
According to the BMB’s Lim, the decrease in bird counts has to be analyzed in terms of trend.
All-important ecosystem function
The annual migration of birds to warmer parts of the globe, such as between August and April in the case of the Philippines, helps maintain a healthy ecosystem. While birds help control pests, they also leave behind bird poop, dispersing seeds that later on would grow and cover lands with vegetation, generally nourishing the ecosystem.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), on World Migratory Bird Day on May 12 and 13, 2012, said migratory birds serve key functions in the interconnected systems that keep nature healthy, including pollination and seed dispersal of crops for human and livestock consumption; pest regulation; and as an aesthetic source of pride for cultures across the globe.”
Not too late
Lim said there are factors affecting migratory birds’ behavior. “These birds may have transferred to other areas where food is sufficient and where they are less disturbed to roost,” she said.
“If there is a gradual decrease through the years, then a habitat degradation or a constant disturbance maybe taking place. In the case of LPPCHEA, the case is not yet irreversible.”