Flight of the Philippine cockatoo

A red-vented cockatoo at the Wildlife Rescue Center in Quezon City.

With a once-thriving population over the Philippine archipelago, the population of the red-vented cockatoo has drastically decreased in the 1990s due to persistent poaching and the massive destruction of their habitats.

With slightly over 1,200 cockatoo individuals left in the wild, they remain on top of the list of endemic species threatened with extinction.

A coastal forest near the Malampaya Sound Protected Landscape and Seascape in the northwestern part of the Palawan. Coastal forests are known habitats of the Philippine red-vented cockatoo.

Roughly around 70 percent of the remaining population of the red-vented cockatoo, or the Philippine cockatoo, is in Palawan province. The rest are spread out in small concentrations on Polillo Island, in Quezon province, and in Sulu and possibly, in Tawi-Tawi in Mindanao.

Known for their ability to mimic humans, the Philippine cockatoo can talk, sing and even dance, making these amazing parrots a prized possession among pet lovers.

Sadly, poaching, coupled with habitat loss, are driving the species to the brink of extinction.

Can they talk, sing and dance or more aptly fly their way away from extinction?

Vanishing species

There are 21 known parrot species in the world, including one that is known to exist only in the Philippines, the nation’s pride, the Philippine cockatoo, which is vanishing from the face of the Earth.

Known as katala, agay, kalabukay or abukay, the Philippine cockatoo continues to face grave threats from poaching, habitat loss and other destructive human activities that have likewise compromised other iconic species like the Philippine tamaraw, or the dwarf buffalo of Mindoro, and the monkey-eating Philippine eagle.

Saving the ‘katala’

Fortunately, the katala’s population remains stable in some areas where adequate protection is provided by the people in the community.

In 1998, a group of conservation advocates under the Katala Foundation started a program to help save this rare species from extinction.

At that time, its population has already gone down drastically due to poaching and massive habitat loss.

“There were only 25 to 30 of them left on  Rasa [Island] when we started the program,” said Indira Lacerna-Widmann, executive director of Katala Foundation.

Cockatoo stronghold

Speaking during a series of webinar, dubbed “Imagining a Just and Green Recovery: An Online Conversation,” on June 2, Lacerna-Widmann said roughly 1,230 cockatoos are left in the wild, with viable populations in four to six  municipalities in the province of Palawan, considered as the country’s last ecological frontier and the stronghold of the Philippine cockatoo.

Palawan remains as the stronghold of the Philippine cockatoo, where the campaign to save the species from being extinct remain strong.

In fact, every June 14 to 18, the people of Dumaran celebrate the “Kalabukay Festival” to promote the conservation of the forests and the last remaining populations of the kalabukay, or katala.

Conservation program

Lacerna-Widmann’s presentation highlighted the community-based approach to environmental protection and conservation with special focus on the Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Program.

Assistant Secretary Ricardo Calderon, concurrent director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Program is an institutional partnership between the DENR and the Katala Foundation, which he credited for its successful conservation program.

“We have an existing memorandum of agreement with the Katala Foundation,” Calderon said in a telephone interview on June 9.

Strong partnership

He said the strength of the partnership is anchored on the Katala Foundation’s implementation of the program.

The foundation, he said, is also based in Palawan, and therefore, has a better understanding of the problems and solutions needed to be learned in saving the species from extinction.

“The conservation program is good, and they are in place as far as the communities are concerned.  They also have a lot of institutional partners focusing on Philippine cockatoo.  They have international [partners] that help provide expertise on conservation,” he said.

Talented bird

According to Calderon, the dramatic decline in the population of katala may be attributed to the rampant poaching of unique birds which are highly in demand in the pet market.

“Birds like the talking mynah or common hill mynah, which, like the katala, are very talented.  They can mimic humans. They can talk, they can sing and dance.  That is why they are in demand in the black market before,” Calderon said.

He shared that when he was assigned in Palawan in the 1990s he witnessed how the smuggling of native birds out of the island became a serious concern for the DENR.

Performers not by choice

Calderon cautioned, however, that the unique birds might as well be singing and dancing in the wild, rather than in birdcage “because they belong in the wild.”

“Talking, singing and dancing are for people.  These birds are better appreciated when they are out there in their natural habitat, where they are free,” he explained.

In 1994, Calderon recalled that the DENR learned how even the locals use their indigenous knowledge to smuggle the bird out of the island-province, perhaps to some foreign lands, where they are highly in demand.

“These birds are being put to sleep when being smuggled.  They [smugglers] dose them [the birds] with water, so the birds would sleep before putting them to a container.  That way, they won’t make any noise, allowing the smuggling unchecked,” he said.

Sadly, like most wild animals, the katalas lose their instinct and ability to fend for themselves once they become accustomed around humans.

Thus, even when rescued, rehabilitation no longer works for them to be able to learn how to feed themselves and avoid predators, so they could be release back into the wild.

Seed disperser

Calderon said the katala, like most birds, have important ecosystem functions.  Nature’s farmers, birds help disperse seeds that allow forest vegetation to flourish.

As a seed disperser, a lowland forest specialist as Lacerna-Widmann described them, Calderon said the katala is special because of its ability to crack fruits and seeds open with its powerful beak, allowing them to disperse the fruits’ seeds faster and more efficiently.

“If you notice their beak, they can crack the seed open, thereby allowing the seed to germinate faster, so they are a good seed disperser,” Calderon, also a forestry expert, explained.

Feeding, breeding areas

Lacerna-Widmann said at the webinar that the biggest threat to the existence of the katala in Palawan remains the same—but with added weight to the destructive human activities in coastal areas and lowland forests—where the birds feed, play, and more importantly, breed.

They feed on at least 60 fruit-bearing trees, including the famous  malunggay, or moringa, Lacerna-Widmann said.

“They nest in cavities of high trees.  In most cases, trees like apitong and manggis are highly valued timber species that are also threatened,” Lacerna Widmann said.

From January to June or July, depending on the weather, the katala start to breed.

“In each nest, there are two to four eggs, but a pair can only have two hatchling survivors.  If we see four chicks in a nest, we are very happy already,” she said. This explains why it takes so many years to see the bird’s number grow in a particular habitat.

Working with communities

Katala Foundation have four project sites—Rasa Island in Narra, Palawan, the pilot site of the program; Dumaran and Rizal also in Palawan; Polillo Island in Quezon; and in Pandanan in Balabac, also in Palawan, where the foundation work with communities to protect and conserve not only the species but their habitats as well.

The strategies for conservation include protection, identification, and management of conservation sites, habitat restoration, conservation education, community involvement, rescue, translocation, conservation breeding and, eventually, reintroduction to the wild.

During the breeding season, the katala are thriving in coastal or mangrove and beach forests.

Sadly, these areas, along with lowland forests, are also the areas where humans do the most damage—exploiting natural resources, such as fishing and gathering wood for charcoal, gathering food from nature, doing slash-and-burn agriculture, establishing mono-crop plantations, massive conversion of forest for residential, commercial and industrial use—all leading to habitat loss and, eventually, species extinction.

Caring for common home

In working with communities to conserve the katala and their habitats, Lacerna-Widmann cited paragraph 137 of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si, or  “The care of our common home” or “Integral ecology.”

“Everything is interrelated and today’s problems call for a unison capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis—one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions,” she read.

Hence, she said the strategy is anchored on the “ecosystemic and participatory approach.”

“When you take care of the cockatoo, you also care for the forest.  You are also assured of water supply all year round.  You also have the mangrove, the nesting and feeding ground of cockatoo.  There are various ecosystem services provided by mangroves. River ecosystem, where precious lives depend on, and agriculture.

“These are a clear, very successful tool, developed together with the communities to simply explain to make the people aware of the bigger connections of protecting the Philippine cockatoo,” she said.

Economic benefit

More importantly, while it is not evident, protecting the cockatoo and its habitat, she said, makes good economic sense

She cited a study on the added value to the ecosystem services due to conservation on Rasa Island over a 30-year period.

For coastal forest, $5,161,434.78; mangroves $10,903,043.48; fisheries $494,239.13 and others: $379,610.87.

Besides, the katala has brought a sense of pride to Palawan as the stronghold of the famous parrot that can mimic humans.

But with the continuing threat to their existence in Palawan, supposedly the country’s last ecological frontier, can this amazing creature eventually, talk, sing, and dance their way far away from extinction?

Hopefully, the current and future generations will see the katala fly not only on Palawan but on every island and islets known.

Image credits: Gaudencio de la Cruz/DENR -SCIS, Gregg Yan


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