Saving the island’s biodiversity is saving Boracay

In Photo: Local and foreign tourists enjoy the world famous Boracay beach in June 2017.

It’s all hands on deck to save the ailing Boracay, an island paradise in the Western Visayas region.

Boracay is the country’s top tourist destination and known is for its white sand beaches and pristine waters.

The island in municipality of Malay, Aklan province, has obviously exceeded its carrying capacity as it continues to draw local and foreign tourists from all over the world.

Besides water pollution, which has affected water quality in some of the beaches, Boracay is also facing a serious threat because of the buildings that mushroom in timberlands, wetlands and beachfront.

This resulted in the degradation of important ecosystems that otherwise would ensure sustainable ecotourism in the island paradise.

Actually, there is more to the white-sand beaches and pristine waters in Boracay which most tourists, and even local communities, failed to appreciate.

Biodiversity experts are now on a mission to save Boracay’s biological diversity and restore the valuable ecosystem services to which it owes much of its ecotourism values, Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’s (DENR) Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said.

Boracay’s forest

The remaining forest over limestone, beach forests and mangroves on Boracay are uniquely distributed across the island in barangays Yapak, Balabag and Manoc-Manoc, according to the DENR-BMB head in a telephone interview on February 27.

The largest remaining patch of limestone forest is found in the northern section of the island in Barangay Yapak. It represents the largest remaining limestone forest in the Negros-Panay Faunal region.

In Barangay Manoc-Manoc, on the eastern side of the island, a huge concentration of mangrove belonging to four different species can be found.

Sonneratia alba, or perepat or mangrove apple, the most adapted mangrove species on the island based on its distribution in the mangrove forest, is the dominant species on the island.

High-value biodiversity sites

The country’s top biodiversity official said Boracay Island has high-value biodiversity sites.

The only colony of flying foxes on Panay Island roosts in the limestone forest of Yapak. Flying fox colony comprise of three species—critically endangered golden-crowned flying fox, large flying fox and the common island flying fox.

Boracay is home to the puka shell, a unique shell to which one of the famous beaches was named after—the Puka Shell Beach. It is adjoining the limestone forest of Barangay Yapak, which is relatively pristine and home to the green sea or marine turtles.

Boracay caves

Boracay also has several caves, which experts say, are special ecosystems within an ecosystem.

According to the DENR-BMB, the only colony of flying foxes on Panay Island roosts in the limestone forest of Yapak.

Three of the five caves on Boracay Island were already classified.

Lapu-Lapu’s Paradise Cave in Barangay Balabag is a Class 1 cave; the Ilig-Ilagan Cave in Sitio Ilig-Ilagan in Barangay Yapak is Class 2; and Crystal Cave also in Sitio Ilig-Ilagan in Barangay Yapak is Class 3.

According to the DENR-BMB’s Cave Classification Manual, Class 1 caves are those with delicate and fragile geological formations, threatened species, archeological and paleontological values, and in extremely hazardous conditions. Among its allowable uses are mapping, photography, educational and scientific purposes.

Class 2 caves have portions, that have hazardous conditions and contain sensitive geological, archeological, cultural, historical and biological values or high-quality ecosystem.

Hazardous caves are “off limits” and only experienced cavers or guided educational tours or visits are allowed.

Class 3 caves are generally safe. They have no known threatened species, archeological, natural history, cultural and historical values. They may be used for economic purposes, such as gathering of guano and edible birds nest collection.

All of Boracay’s classified caves are target for Management Effectiveness under Presidential Development Plan 2017-2022.

The Balabag caves in barangays Balabag, Yapak and the dark side of Paradise Cave in Barangay Balabag remain unclassified.

Each of the classified caves on Boracay Island have unique features.

The Bat Cave is home to the Karstarma philippinarum, a new species of karst-dwelling crab, besides being the dwelling of the four different species of bats that can be found on the island.

The Bat Cave has abundant stalactites and draperies bats, birds, reptiles, crabs, cricket, spider, pseudo scorpions and ants; connects to the sea; pool connected to the sea The Crystal and the dark side of Paradise Cave are also home to bats, crickets, spiders and pseudo scorpions.

Wetland ecosystems

There used to be nine identified wetland areas within the forestland areas of Boracay Island.

However, lately, four of the wetlands were “nowhere to be found” at shown by latest satellite images.

Hotels, resorts and informal settlers have encroached on the wetlands.

Early this month, Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu vowed to recover the “missing” wetlands.

The wetlands are in the forestland areas in barangays Yapak, Balabag and Manoc-Manoc.

According to the DENR, the wetlands on Boracay Island are composed of a complex of marshland, mangrove swamp and lagoon. These wetlands provide important ecosystem functions. Besides being catch basins, they also prevent flooding.

The destruction of the wetlands—which were backfilled for building construction—is being eyed as the reason for flooding that is now being experienced in some parts of Boracay.

Coastal and marine biodiversity

According to the DENR, Boracay is blessed with rich coastal and marine ecosystem—corals, seagrass and mangrove.

Based on its topographic map, coral reef fringes the entire island of Boracay. Seagrass on the other hand, was only observed in Balabag East, Manoc-Manoc East and Balusbos.

It has nine locally managed marine parks or marine-protected areas, which doubles as the designated scuba diving sites.

“Within these marine parks, fishing, collection of corals and other marine products, dropping of anchors, dispensing of motor oil and other pollutants, belching and vandalizing, and scraping of corals are prohibited, while snorkeling and diving are allowed,” Lim said.

Issues and threats

Lim said among the issues that need to be addressed on the island are threats to primary roosting sites of flying foxes which are within the 80-hectare  property of the Boracay Property Holdings Inc. (BPHI).

She bared that the master development plan of BPHI covers its 17-hectare property in the Barangay Yapak in Malay.

The DENR Western Visayas region has earlier proposed the declaration of the flying fox roosting sites, including the adjoining inland and coastal areas, as Critical Habitat.

The initiative, however, did not materialize due to the refusal of the landowners and developers. Instead a memorandum of understanding was entered into by DENR-Western Visayas, BPHI and LGU-Malay.

Moreover, the flying fox habitat has been declared as “No Flying Zone” for helicopters.

Lim noted that strict prohibition of cutting natural grown trees without prior clearance or permit and observance of 200-meter buffer zone from the flying fox roosting site were integrated in the Sangguniang Bayan Resolution.

In March 2008 the DENR in Western Visayas noted that the destruction of the wetlands on Boracay Island is one of the major causes of flooding in the area.

Illegal reclamation

In a February 2008 report, a wetland area in Sitio Mangayad, Barangay Manoc-Manoc, which used to be connected to the Dead Forest, was reported to be illegally reclaimed by the Boracay Crown Regency Hotel and Convention Center without a valid environmental compliance certificate.

A cease and desist order was issued against the property developer, but a civil case was filed by J. Kings and Sons Co. Inc. against a concerned DENR personnel on February 29, 2008.

Besides the destruction of wetland ecosystems, the indiscriminate dumping of household wastes in nearby wetlands flowing into Darkside of Paradise Cave, poaching of bats in Bat Cave and Crystal Cave, and the degradation of speleothems (blackening) due to irresponsible human activities in Crystal Caves were reported by the DENR Western Visayas.

The DENR earlier reported the occurrence of algal blooms due to eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients in the body of water due to runoff from the land, which causes the death of animal life from lack of oxygen) from improper sewer disposal and other organic refuse, something Boracay is now beginning to be associated with.

Lim said there is also a need to address the illegal collection and overharvesting of puka shells in the area. She noted that the shells have very important ecosystem function, and its extinction may cause ecological imbalance and affect the network of coastal and marine ecosystems.

Way forward

The official said the DENR-BMB team is still conducting a comprehensive assessment in the area and will come up with various recommendations to save its unique biodiversity and ecosystems.

“Boracay’s biodiversity has clearly been impacted by unsustainable development. This is already evident in the decline of the population of species in the area, the loss of ecosystem services from healthy wetland ecosystems, the loss of marine habitats and biological resources; the damages in the unique ecological features on the island, like caves and rock formations,” Lim said.

“What we need to assess now is: Are these damages or destruction irreversible or can we still do something to restore them? At this time, I think we need to be hopeful,” she added.

According to Lim, while the DENR-BMB may no longer be able to restore the biodiversity of Boracay to its original state, various stakeholders can all work together to bring it as approximately close as possible “to the point where the island can still provide ecosystem functioning required for limited developmental activities and sustain the native life system which made Boracay, Boracay.”

Image Credits: Lyn Resurreccion

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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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