The Dangers of Philippine Birdwatching

On Feb. 1, on the isolated backwater Philippine island of Tawi-Tawi, two European men went hunting for some of the world’s rarest birds. Their passion as birdwatchers got them captured by five gunmen who took them hostage and destroyed their cameras, which contained proof of what only a few people in the world have ever seen.

Some 5,000 Filipino soldiers have been searching the region for the two, 52-year-old Elwold Hom of Holland and Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 47, of Switzerland. The army believes they are somewhere within 2,000 hectares of jungle on Tawi-Tawi. Meantime the kidnapers – or people posing as the kidnapers – have demanded that the police and army pull out of the area, a haven for Islamic separatists. Others suspect the kidnapers could be common bandits who sell their prey to Islamist rebels.

The story thus has several different facets– of the inability of the government to impose law and order on a region with a reputation for kidnaping, piracy and conflict, of the possibility that the Moro National Liberation Front or Abu Sayyaf captured the two as a part of their campaign to drive the government out of Mindanao – or of the foolhardy bravery of birdwatchers the world over who are willing to risk life and limb for their so-called life lists of observed birds.

In the case of Elwold Hom and Lorenzo Vinciguerra, it is the latter that matters. They are among avid birdwatchers who come to the Philippines against the odds, although they appear to be the first to have been captured. The 200 members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines are very cautious straying into regions known for having been the site of battles and rebel strongholds.

Their Filipino guide and photographer, Ivan Sarenas, a noted birdwatcher in his own right and a member of the Wild Bird Club, escaped by leaping from the outrigger and swimming to safety where local fishermen rescued him.

“They wanted to see the world’s rarest hornbills before they grow old,” Sarenas said. He is one of two people previously known to have photographed the Sulu Hornbills, luminous black birds that can only be found on the island and are believed to be the last of their kind left on earth.

There are thought to be about 20 pairs of the hornbills left, according to a survey made about 10 years ago. The birds have been exterminated in Sulu, a chain of islands near Borneo – according to the ‘red list’ of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Sulu and Tawi-Tawi supposedly are the only two places on earth to find the hornbills and the stunning Bleeding Heart pigeon as well, which has not been seen or collected since the early 1990s.

Paradoxically, it is these dangerous regions that make areas of the Philippines some of the best birdwatching areas anywhere. It is where less dedicated individuals would never dare set foot. The abduction of the birdwatchers has raised the number of foreigners kidnapped in the region since the beginning of 2011 to 10.

Five, an Australian, two Malaysian traders, an Indian married to a Filipina and a Japanese male, are still in captivity along with three abducted Filipinos. The abductors of the Australian, 53-year-old Warren Rodwell, are demanding US$2 million for his release.

Such spots actually enhance the chances of survival of rare birds rather than in other open or populated habitats, a place where they are likely to be hunted, poached, captured, displaced from excessive logging and mining, and for reasons that tell the country’s culture of destruction and lack of awareness for the wildlife.

The Mindanao south, of which Tawi-Tawi and Sulu are a part, is host to many of the estimated 200 endemic birds in the country, more than a third out of its total 614 species, comparably bigger than other countries in Southeast Asia. The most famous of its birds is the Philippine Eagle, a magnificent bird that is one of the three largest eagles on earth. It is also known as the Monkey-Eating Eagle because of its hunting prowess. Others in the region include the Cinnamon Ibon, the Red-Eared Parrotfinch, the Black-Headed Tailorbird.

But with the loss of habitat left unchecked, the Philippines has become the zone other migratory birds avoid, judging from the falling numbers of their species over the years – migrants from the Eurasian mainland and some from Siberia.

Anna Gonzales, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, offered a striking theory as to why conflict areas are safer for the birds.

“Perhaps the armed rebels will not use their bullets on the birds,” she said. Offbeat as that may sound, it lends some reason as to why the treasures of the Philippine wildlife are forcing the best of the naturalist adventurers to take risks.

In many parts of the gun-happy country, it is common to shoot whatever moves, a predatory human predilection carried over from the colonial years and currently ingrained as a disturbing habit in regard to the life of the birds, other conservationists say. In schools, Filipinos were generally taught about the prominent wildlife elsewhere but not of their own. This and poverty have worsened the fate of the Philippine birds.

The Philippine Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act calls for a state policy to guard the wildlife species and their habitats for ecological balance and biodiversity, but little of that has been shown in action. One example is the wetlands of Manila Bay, of which one part had been declared a conservation area for bird-watching and biodiversity until recently, when a ‘master plan’ to reclaim 600 hectares of the bay stretching to both north and south surfaced. Environmentalists, growing in small numbers, are hoping to stop it with protests.

There’s much more of the country’s 7,000 islands to see for birding, but it is largely a struggle for enthusiasts. It means going far and deep into the thickets of the forests, with birds fleeing and hiding out of sight in the open space for fear of being caught or hunted. At best birds frequently seen in the cities are the Eurasian Sparrows, commonly known as the ‘mice with wings’ that are garbage scavengers.

Ornithologists say the Philippines remains ‘under-birded,’ meaning there is more potential to be studied, that birds like hornbills, woodpeckers, and others could be broken down into sub-species endemic to the country.

“Has it been ingrained in the birds that the Philippines is a dangerous place?” asked Michael Lu, a businessman and founding member of the bird club. “You can go anywhere in this country and you will see habitat destruction.” He has plenty examples to cite, including a former paper mill zone where hunters and trespassers used to kill hornbills, filling up sacks with the dead to be consumed as food or sold in markets.

Criselda Yabes is a Philippine journalist and avid birdwatcher. She can be reached at cdyabes@yahoo.com.