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The Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Central Luzon (DENR-CL) announced in October the arrest of four alleged wildlife poachers, who were caught with 6,200 wrinkle-lipped bats (Chaerephon plicatus) they took from Bahay Paniki Cave inside the Biak-na-Bato National Park (BNBNP) in San Miguel, Bulacan, one of the oldest protected areas (PAs) in the country.
Most of the confiscated bats were already dead, although the around live 100 bats were immediately released back into the wild after the confiscation.
The wrinkle-lipped bat is classified as a vulnerable species under DENR Administrative Order 2019-09, or the Updated List of Threatened Philippine Fauna and their Categories.
Bats are considered keystone species because of the important ecosystem services they provide, including seed dispersal for fruit bats and pest control for insect-feeding bats.
Bats are ecosystem indicators. Their presence in an area means the ecosystem is healthy as they are part of the food chain, and are prey to wild animals, whether they are tree-dwelling or cave-dwelling bats.
The existence of a healthy population of fruit bats ensures the expansion of natural forest, while the presence of insect bats helps protect the human population from threats of pests like dengue-carrying mosquitoes.
Bats’ populations, however, are threatened by habitat loss and hunting for their meat.
In the Philippines, they are being consumed as “exotic” food oras bar chow in rural areas, such as in Biak-na-Bato.
Like its bats, the BNBNP is a park of great importance.
According to DENR-CL, the more than 2,000-hectare historic BNBNP was established by then-President Manuel Quezon through Proclamation 223 in November 1937.
In the same year, it became a Game Refuge and Bird Sanctuary as mandated by Proclamation 3915.
A DENR study states that the park is home to 177 animal species, including the endemic kalaw, or Philippine hornbill, the spotted wild boar, Philippine deer, giant cloud rat, Philippine macaque, monitor lizards and swiftlets.
Unique plants, insects and caves
Biak-na-Bato National Park is one of the remaining areas in the country, representing one of the three types of habitat originally occupying only a small portion, of karst limestone forest.
Trees and plants in the area are highly restricted. They are unique species that provide habitat for a set of butterflies and insects.
As said in the DENR study, the forest at Biak-na-Bato provides shelter to endangered wildlife, such as Philippine deer and wild pigs, assorted birds, and of course, the all-important bats.
The BNBNP is studded with numerous cave formations that are home to tens of thousands of bats.
Some of its identified caves are: the Aguinaldo, Cuarto-cuarto, Bahay Paniki, Palanguyan, Tanapan, Sinuluan, Santaol, Suklib kabayo, Victoria, Kwebang Dapo, Punta Soro-soro and the Kwebang mata.
Of these, only a few caves have been classified and assessed, while the rest have yet to be explored by experts for scientific studies.
The management of the BNBNP sees these caves as tourist attractions.
The Bahay Paniki, for one, is where thousands of bats can be seen continuously flying in a circle formation at the upper level of the cave.
Meanwhile, the Cuarto-cuarto is known for its stalagmites and stalactites that form a compartment or small rooms.
On the other hand, the Madlum Cave, Aguinaldo Cave and the other caves can offer visitors an experience and feel of historical events led by Emilio Aguinaldo, the first President of the Philippine republic.
Besides the caves, the streams and the Balaong River’s crystal clear water is very ideal for swimming and fishing.
The BNBNP is suited for mountain hiking, picnicking and even for scientific study and research.
A well-known ecotourism site in Bulacan, it has facilities that can accommodate visitors who used to frequent the park before it was closed to the public due to the pandemic.
It has a pavilion, which is popular for wedding and prenuptial photo and video sessions.
Biak-na-Bato is a national shrine, having played a significant role in the country’s history.
It is the place where Aguinaldo and other revolutionaries established headquarters from June 1897 to November 1897 in their fight against the Spaniards.
The “Constitution Provincial de la Republic de Filipinas” was adopted and signed in the cave by the revolutionary leaders, leading to the establishment of the first constitutional republic in the Philippines, known as the Biak-na-Bato Republic.
The place was also the last stand before a truce agreement between Aguinaldo’s revolutionary committee and the Spanish colonial government was signed, marking the end of active hostilities, and the exile to Hong Kong of Aguinaldo and the other revolutionary leaders.
While the BNBNP is an area set aside for conservation, Proclamation 401, signed by then-President Corazon C. Aquino in April 11, 1989, excluded certain areas from the operation of Proclamation 223. It included a 952-hectare portion that was declared as a mineral reservation.
Several portions of the park were also set aside from the operation of the BNBNP because of their historical significance.
It included two lots (Lot A-1 and Lot A-2), which were both designated as a national park, a 938-hectare portion (Lot C) and 480-hectare (Lot D), which have been declared as watershed reservations.
Emelita Lingat, the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer of Bulacan who is also the concurrent Protected Area Superintendent of the BNBNP, said the park is currently a subject of various biodiversity programs, including the ongoing assessment and monitoring.
“We also have ongoing programs for protected area suitability assessment as required under the Nipas [National Integrated Protected Areas System], and biodiversity monitoring system to guide the PAMB [Protected Area Management Board] and LGU [local government unit],” Lingat told the BusinessMirror via Zoom on December 7.
At the same time, she said they are also implementing the Landscape and Wildlife Indicator Forest and Biodiversity Protection System in the area, which is important in protecting the BNBNP’s threatened biodiversity.
Wildlife, treasure hunting
Speaking mostly in Filipino, Lingat said the BNBNP is threatened by destructive human activities, such as wildlife hunting—particularly bats—and treasure hunting.
“Especially during these time of the pandemic, wherein the people lost their livelihood, the community resorts to wildlife hunting [and] treasure hunting,” she lamented.
According to Lingat, the BNBNP’s protection remains wanting, with only 18 personnel working to protect the more than 2,000-hectare PA.
Don Guevarra, DENR Regional Public Affairs Office 3 chief, said as part of the DENR’s continuing information, education and communication campaign, environment and education lectures targeted barangays in Biak-Na-Bato to highlight wildlife protection.
“We conducted a lecture after the arrest of the four [wildlife poacher] suspects. We immediately intensified our campaign and went to barangays, talked to officials and their health workers and tanod [village guards], and discussed the importance of protecting our wildlife,” Guevarra said.
He said while some people are well aware of the importance of protecting the BNBNP’s wildlife, some are still unaware that hunting is prohibited by law, or are simply taking their chances.
Guevarra said they believe that bat hunters were engaged in wildlife trading as manifested in the huge volume of bats confiscated by authorities recently.
“After our awareness campaign, we will continue with behavioral-change campaign. We expect communities around the BNBNP to be our partners in protecting our biodiversity,” he said.
Lingat and Guevarra said the DENR is partnering with communities to become their partners in various environmental programs like the National Greening Program and ecotourism in order to help fight wildlife hunting, such as of the all-important bats in Biak-na-Bato.