Pursuing the Philippine Hornbill through Jungle, Swamp and Kidnapper

The southern Mindanao region of the Philippines is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with as many as 200 endemic species of the country’s 614 total. It is also inordinately dangerous to birders, particularly in the Sulu area, where murderous Islamists, having degenerated into kidnap gangs, hold sway.

At least two birdwatchers enthusiastic enough to challenge them for a look at some of the Philippines’ rarest birds have been held for nearly three years. But one of those who dares the kidnappers is Marine Col. Romulo Quemado, an officer seeking to fill out what birdwatchers call the life list with a look at the hugely rare, exquisite, glossy black-feathered Sulu Hornbill.

Stationed as battalion commander in the most dangerous island of the archipelago, he is armed with top-quality binoculars, spotters, zoom lenses, cameras, and a tripod. A minority of enthusiasts cocooned in safer places envy him, coveting the chance to photograph endangered birds rarely seen in the country’s shrinking forests. That he is in the military is a great advantage for having his flanks guarded while scanning the thick mangroves, forest and sky over pristine islands.

Other birdwatchers without a battalion to back them up have become prey to the vicious rounds of kidnappings. Two taxidermists, one from the Netherlands and the other from Switzerland, were taken captive in February 2012 and have yet to be freed. They had gone to the island of Tawi-Tawi on the southern tip closer to Malaysia, to see the hornbill.

To have gone that far and taken so much risk, they were counted among a handful of hardcore birders who had set their eyes on this species, considered extremely rare in the world of ornithology and almost extinct. Not even Col. Quemado has had that luck, though he has tried, tracing the steps of the two – Ewold Horn and Lorenzo Vinciguerra – whose fates remain unknown at the hands of a Sulu rebel gang called Lucky 9.

The two are among a dozen victims, five of them foreigners, held hostage in rebel strongholds in Sulu’s capital Jolo, where Abu Sayyaf, once linked with Al-Qaeda, has degenerated into banditry. Leaders either killed or captured in a military campaign have left behind a younger generation of mere gangs, who have developed an intricate network of kidnapping adventures as if it were a growing industry. In mid-October, for instance, a wealthy German couple taken off Malaysia six months ago were released on reported payment of PHP250 million, an enterprise supposedly coordinated between the Philippine and German governments although both sides have denied it.

Attempts to free the two birdwatchers were in the offing last year, with the military suspecting they were being used as human shields to prevent army attacks on rebel lairs. News of their circumstances has since fizzled, nearly three years since they had set out to achieve the birdwatcher’s ultimate dream.

They were the last to have seen and recorded the Sulu Hornbills, numbering fewer than 20 pairs and found in only one of Sulu’s frontier islands, according to research surveys in the past decade.

What went wrong, said Quemado, was that they had relied on just a single guide, a few escorts and the bravado of a normal backpacking trip – how long it would take, what equipment to bring, what clothes to wear, but failing to see the political contours that define the islands, which are blacklisted in several foreign embassies’ travel advisories.

‘They didn’t look at the culture, which is important to everything that we do in these parts," said the officer. ‘That single event affected Tawi-Tawi," the island on which the rare birds were nestled. Tawi-Tawi, whose emerald waters give a vision of paradise, was hoping to revive tourism to ride on the back of neighboring Malaysia’s successful eco-tourism. Those hopes have been dashed.

At the outset of undertaking his bird-watching trip in Tawi-Tawi early this year, Quemado himself went straight to the powerful governor, who provided him with a security team and a speedboat that took him across a channel. Then he hiked for 10 km through a dense, steep forest, hoping to catch sight of one of the elusive hornbills.

Getting the governor on his side had been as simple as showing him photos taken of birds from Sulu, gorgeous, close-up shots of many he had seen throughout several, largely uninhabited islands: Stork-billed kingfishers, bronze cuckoos, purple-throated sunbirds, mangrove blue flycatchers, green pigeons, and other raptors and water birds as well. He capped his point by having transformed his marine base camp into a nature park open to the local folks of Sulu who were awed by stunning wonders of their heritage, unknown to them throughout decades of violence.

According to Joel Baysa, assistant superintendent of protected areas in Zamboanga City, the gateway to the Sulu islands, birdwatchers could come only as far as this city for a bird festival that is slowly gaining interest. Though the numbers are small, he took it with pride that visiting birders have almost doubled from a minuscule 104 in 2008 to 185 this year.

The city itself has had a spectacular attraction from among birds: recently the biggest recorded population of Great Egrets made a fishpond area a nesting ground, not far from a poor coastal neighborhood that was the sight of a failed siege by Muslim rebels late last year.

Keeping the abundant white egrets company are herons, stilts, moorhens, sandpipers, and redshanks. And far up a watershed on the outskirts, in a virgin forest of more than 10,000 hectares, birders would take their time waiting for Silvery Kingfishers to perch on a rock, or an Orange-Flamed Woodpecker doing its thing in the trees.

There has always been the temptation to explore the wild islands, to be on the right spot where Col. Quemado had been during his two years of duty in Sulu. His only regret was to have missed the Sulu Hornbills. He had been told there were three of them.

But two days before he had climbed the forest, one of them had been shot and eaten by a farmer, forcing the other hornbills to flee. Col. Quemado may be out of luck. But he will be back, trying aagain.

Criselda Yabes is an avid birdwatcher in addition to being a journalist.