Establishing strict protection zones for threatened wildlife

In Photo: A flock of migratory birds flying over the Cabusao Wetland Critical Habitat.

Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu announced last month that a 750-hectare portion of Boracay Island would be declared as a “critical habitat.” He cited the threat of tourism activities to the already dwindling population of several species of tree-dwelling fruit bats, cave-dwelling insect bats and to several nesting marine turtles on the island as the reason for the conservation measure.

He said these species need to be protected against unsustainable tourism activities on the island that caused their population to dwindle over the decades.

“We shall establish the Boracay Island Critical Habitat [BICH] to protect and conserve the forests and coastal marine areas in barangays Balabag and Yapak, which serve as habitat of colonies of the flying foxes, the nesting grounds of marine turtles and the nascent corals sprouting in the reef,” he told reporters during a news conference in Quezon City on April 10.

DENR Region 10 employees scout for hawksbill sea turtle nests at the Magsaysay Critical Habitat.

Legal instrument

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources’s (DENR) Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) is still ironing out the kinks in the draft administrative order to be signed by Cimatu in order establish a strict protection zone on the island. It would limit destructive activities and the disruption of specific species’s natural way of life and existence.

A DENR Administrative Order (DAO) is the legal instrument that will make the management measure stick under the law, specifically to Republic Act (RA) 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Protection and Conservation Act, that was signed on July 30, 2001, by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and its implementing rules and regulation.

The DAO will determine the area covered by the measure, identify the species that need to be protected, create a management council that will act as the policy-making body and create a fund for its operation.

Crucial to this is the establishment of a baseline data for the species being protected within the specific habitat.

The declaration or designation of a critical habitat will compel all stakeholders, led by the DENR, local government units (LGUs), private companies and community-based groups to come together, craft and implement an effective management plan, to ensure the survival of threatened species.

What is a critical habitat?

Critical habitats are portions of land or water outside protected areas that have known habitats of threatened or endemic species. It is one of several management measures for the protection of animal or plant species that are seriously threatened with extinction.

Article II, Section 25 of RA 9147, provides for the establishment of critical habitats in the Philippines.

It said: “The secretary shall designate critical habitats outside protected areas under Republic Act 7586, where threatened species are found. Such designation shall be made on the basis of the best scientific data taking into consideration species’s endemicity and/or richness, the presence of man-made pressures/threats to the survival of wildlife living in the area, among others.”

It added: “All designated, critical habitats shall be protected, in coordination with the [LGUs] and other concerned groups, from any form of exploitation or destruction which may be detrimental to the survival of the threatened species dependent therein. For such purpose, the secretary may acquire, by purchase, donation or expropriation, lands, or interests therein, including the acquisition of usufruct, establishment of easements or other undertakings appropriate in protecting the critical habitat.”

Conservation measure

DENR officials are confident that the declaration of the BICH will create a conservation measure and a management regime crucial for the survival of the island’s threatened species, just like in other areas that were declared critical habitats.

The question is: how?

DENR-BMB Director Crisanta Marlene Rodriguez, in an interview with the BusinessMirror on April 24, said the effectiveness of a critical habitat depends on the management plan.

“It depends on the management plan or regime that will be put in place,” she added.

Rodriguez, a forester, said conservation measures for areas like Boracay need assessment, saying ‘there is no one-size fits all” when it comes to protection and conservation of threatened ecosystems.

Nevertheless, the official was elated that the DENR-BMB’s proposal is receiving a positive response from various stakeholders, with the local government of Malay even promising to pass an ordinance in support of the proposed BICH.

Strict protection zone

A critical habitat is designed for the protection of specific species that is threatened with extinction. It is giving a sanctuary for threatened species, where exploitation or destructive activities are prohibited.

“A critical habitat is designed for a particular species. It is like you are [providing] a sanctuary for threatened species. It is like a strict protection zone,” said Josefina de Leon, chief of the Wildlife Resources Division of the DENR-BMB.

Interviewed on May 8 at the DENR-BMB office, de Leon added it just so happens that the species being protected under the critical habitat conservation measures are iconic species.

She cited the critical habitat for Rafflesia schadenbergiana, which was established to protect the unique flower species.

De Leon said the declaration of critical habitats have succeeded in providing protection to some of the country’s threatened species.

“The LPPCHEA [Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area] and the Cabusao [in Camarines Sur] are now ecotourism areas. The management regime that we put in place triggered interest not only in the DENR and LGUs but among all the stakeholders,” she told the BusinessMirror.

LGUs at the frontline

Anson Tagtag, chief of the Wildlife Section of the DENR-BMB Wildlife Resources Division, said the declaration of critical habitat is an effective conservation measure, citing the experience of the DENR-BMB.

The primary objective of declaring a critical habitat is to involve the LGU to manage the area, with the DENR playing an oversight role.

“It becomes a community-based, community-driven conservation measure,” he added.

Although Tagtag said a critical habitat is just one of the many management options available under the law which the DENR can use, it is the best option because the protection measure will be focused for the particular species.

He added the creation of a management council and team dedicated to the conservation of the habitat and specific species of interest make it more target-specific and effective.

On the proposed BICH, he said a specific management measure would be drawn by various stakeholders after identifying the threats, the cause and effect, with the hope of achieving the best or desired output once a management plan is executed.

Boracay Island Critical Habitat

The proposed BICH will be the country’s eighth critical habitat by virtue of a DAO.

It covers a total area of 750.96 hectares composed of 119.85 hectares of land and 631.107 hectares of marine areas in barangays Yapak and Balabag.

The proposed area encompasses the largest concentration of forest-over-limestone, where trees and a large population of fruit bats dwell, and several caves and wetlands are found. Also to be protected with the declaration of the BICH are unique beaches like the Puka Shell Beach, several nesting marine turtles (hawksbill and green turtles) species, and several puka shells like spider shell, lambis and dupella snail.

Other marine fauna found on what DENR officials describe as “relatively pristine waters of Puka Shell Beach” are sea stars, sea urchins, butterflyfish, moon wrasses, zigzag wrasses, damselfishes and coral colonies.

The other critical habitats in the Philippines are the following:

Magsaysay Critical Habitat

The Magsaysay Critical Habitat for hawksbill turtle in Magsaysay, Misamis Oriental, in Mindanao was established by virtue of DAO 2016-02 on January 22, 2016.

It is in barangays Kandiis, Damayuhan and San Isidro, in Magsaysay town, that covers a total area of 612.87 hectares.

Among the threats to hawksbill turtle that were identified by the DENR and other stakeholders in the management plan are quarrying, mineral exploration and extraction, as well as logging.

Adams Wildlife Critical Habitat

Considered as Ilocos Norte’s last frontier of dipterocarp forest, the vast forest in the municipality of Adams is the habitat of threatened species, such as the Philippine falconet, Philippine hanging parakeet, Philippine brown deer, Philippine warty pig, as well as jade vines, giant tree ferns and other dipterocarp trees.

On December 9, 2013 recognizing the need to protect and conserve these species and their habitats, the DENR established the Adams Wildlife Critical Habitat (AWCH) through DAO 2013-23.

The AWCH sits in barangays Magnas, San Miguel and Linao, in the municipality of Adams and covers a total land area of 3, 253.26 hectares.

Carmen Critical Habitat

Another known nesting site of marine turtles, the Carmen Critical Habitat (CCH) in five coastal barangays in the municipality of Carmen in the province of Agusan del Norte in Mindanao became a haven for marine turtles on October 8, 2012, with the signing of DAO 2012-08.

The CCH covers a total of 5,756.20 hectares.

The designation of CCH complements the declaration of the Magsaysay Critical Habitat, enhancing the protection of nesting hawksbill and other marine turtles in the territory.

Malasi Critical Habitat

The Malasi Tree Park and Wildlife Sanctuary Critical Habitat, established by virtue of DAO 2012-01 on February 7, 2012, is in Barangay San Antonio, in the municipality of Cabagan in Isabela province.

The tree park and wildlife sanctuary cover a total land area of 178 hectares Philippine wild duck (Anas luzonica) and other waterbird species also thrive in the area.

Malasi is a popular destination for bird watchers because it hosts a good number of waterbirds, including ducks, herons and other migratory birds.

Cabusao Wetland Critical Habitat

Similarly, the Cabusao Wetland Critical Habitat was established to protect the Philippine duck.

Established by virtue of DAO 2011 to 2010 on August 23, 2011, the 26.93-hectare wetland in barangays Pandan and Biong, in the town of Cabusao, Camarines Sur, was identified as a host to a good number of migratory birds, including the Philippine wild duck.

The wetland of Cabusao, a fifth-class municipality, has been identified as an ideal roosting site of the Philippine wild duck, hence, its declaration as a critical habitat.

‘Rafflesia schadenbergiana’ Critical Habitat 

The Rafflesia schadenbergiana Critical Habitat, meanwhile, is a first and perhaps one-of-a-kind critical habitat in the Philippines.

It was established through the mandate of DAO 2011-02 on February 23, 2011, for the protection of one of the world’s largest known species of flower that was discovered in Sitio Kalanganan, Baranagay San Vicente, Baungon, Bukidnon.

The Rafflesia, known as bo-o to the Bagobo and Higaonon tribes of Bukidnon, is considered “critically endangered” under DAO 2007-01. The species was thought to have gone extinct for a long time.

The critical habitat for its protection covers a total land area of only 2 hectares.

Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area

The most popular among declared critical habitats sits at the heart of the country’s National Capital Region. The Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA) was established by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 1412 on April 22, 2007.

Thousands of migratory birds flock the LPPCHEA every year during the migration season. In the Philippines, migratory birds start arriving in September and end in April.

It is the first critical habitat ever to be established under the Wildlife Act, for the protection of migratory birds that found safe haven during migration season along Manila Bay, particularly near two small islands in the boundary of Las Piñas and Parañaque.

The critical habitat covers a total of 175,307 hectares.

Because of its importance, the LPPCHEA was also listed as a Ramsar Site or a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Image Credits: DENR Region 5 Office, DENR Region 10 Office

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Jonathan L. Mayuga is a journalist for more than 15 years. He is a product of the University of the East – Manila. An awardee of the J. G. Burgos Biotech Journalism Awards, BrightLeaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, and Sarihay Environmental Journalism Awards.

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