Ecotourism and biodiversity conservation
Our country’s biodiversity is a unique natural capital for tourism. Many of our ecotourism sites have rare or uncommon plants and animals which form part of the attractions that draw visitors to our islands. Some of these are globally threatened while other species are so rare and can be found only within the Philippine archipelago.
While are country’s coastline is known for our warm, clear water and sandy beaches, our coral reefs and the diverse marine life within had attracted scuba divers from other parts of the world. With more than 480 species of hard corals found in our waters, it is not surprising that our coral reefs have provided much fascination for both domestic and foreign recreational divers.
When the effects of destructive fishing methods such as blast fishing, muro-ami and the use of cyanide to capture tropical fish for the aquarium trade, are witnessed by scuba divers who visited these sites, they were usually the first to call the attention of the authorities. Upland, bird watchers have also raised concern with the destruction of forest habitats due to logging and kaingin or slash and burn farming.
The coral reefs of Mabini, Tingloy and Bauan, Batangas are their main attractions and not their rocky beaches. While marine protected areas (MPAs) were primarily established to sustain fisheries, these sites enjoyed luxuriant coral growth, abundance of fish and diverse marine life that also attracted divers and snorkelers. The same is true for Apo Is. in Negros Oriental, Apo Reef in Sablayan, Mindoro Occ. and our Tubbataha Reefs National Marine Park.
Many of our island destinations are also known for the endemic wildlife. Take the Philippine tarsier as an example which is undeniably a tourism icon for Bohol. No tour of the island will be complete without seeing a live tarsier albeit in captivity. It is therefore very understandable that Boholanons would not want any harm to fall on the world’s smallest primate.
The world’s largest fish, the gentle whale shark had brought prominence to Donsol, Sorsogon, Oslob in Cebu and Sogod Bay, in Southern Leyte. Were it not for the butanding, these and other places would probably not have enjoyed the influx of visitors and the local communities may not have derived socio-economic benefits from tourism.
In the island of San Salvador, Masinloc, Zambales is one of the earliest marine sanctuaries in Luzon. The reef has luxuriant coral growth and is home to the threatened giant clams, Tridacna gigas. The shallow sea grass bed of Yaha Islet is home to several species of seahorses. In the past, local fishermen used to catch the seahorse, dried them and sold them to a Chinese trader (supposedly for its medicinal value) for a mere P10.00 per seahorse. When some of the fishermen and family members were trained to be Reef Ranger snorkeling guides and started earning from tourism, they realized that the seahorse is far more valuable alive and tourists are able to see them in the natural environment. They did not have to get the seahorse, all they had to do was look for them and point it out to tourists. As long as they had seahorses, tourists will come to snorkel and observe them in the wild. Eventually, these snorkeling guides stopped the catching of the seahorse because they understood that the seahorse was one of their unique wildlife attractions and thus they cannot allow the depletion of their seahorse population. In time the fishermen also recognized the need to protect the seagrass ecosystem because it is the habitat of the seahorse which will eventually disappear if the seagrass is lost.
Further to the north, in the town of Sta. Cruz, Zambales is Hermana Menor island. The marine sanctuary is extensive, has excellent live coral cover, abundance of fish and endangered giant clams that make snorkeling an exceptionally fun and fascinating experience. Thus the local snorkeling guides actively take part in monitoring and protecting their MPA because they understand its importance extends beyond fisheries to tourism.
Dahican Beach in Mati
Hatching turtles in Dahican
In Mati City, Davao Oriental is a sandy beach that serves as nesting site for marine turtles. Occasionally, sea cow or dugong and whale sharks are seen in the clear blue waters of Dahican beach. The local surfers and snorkeling guides known as Amihan sa Dahican, take an active part in protecting their environment. Led by George “Jun” Plaza, they have established a turtle hatchery. Aside from keeping the beach free from non-biodegradable debris, they also take the time and effort to orient visitors on the turtle life cycle and the need to care for the marine environment. They also see to it that the dugong and whale sharks that visit the shallow waters of Dahican beach are not caught nor harmed.
The endangered helmet shell (Casis cornuta) is the unique wildlife attraction in Buntod Reef, Masbate City. The reef is also an MPA, has a low sandbar and several stands of mangrove. This is where one can still observe helmet shells (also commonly called elephant’s ear) crawling in the shallow portions of the fish sanctuary. The Samahang Mangingisda ng Puro-Sinalikway (SAMAPUSI) take care of their MPA and many of their members are also snorkeling guides. They also enjoy strong support in protecting their fish sanctuary from the City of Masbate.
Many of the island residents of Palaui Is. Protected Landscape and Seascape, in Sta. Ana, Cagayan enjoy the benefits of community-based tourism. Most are hiking, snorkeling or birding guides, while others are involved in catering, operating the nature village campsite, weaving souvenir items. Some are massage therapists in the island spa. They are also aware that their natural attractions, the primary and secondary forests, the mangroves, rocky cliffs and beaches are habitats for birds. During the Amihan months the water is usually cold for snorkeling but the island being in the migratory flyway, turns into a birding destination, with its abundance of resident and migratory birds as well as few globally threatened species.
Hoopoe in Palaui Island
Samar Island Natural Park with its extensive primary forest thriving on the third largest island of the Philippines, is endowed with a rich diversity of flora and fauna. In a bird inventory conducted in 2002 to 2003 in Paranas, one of the towns within the park, out of 147 recorded species, 36 species were endemic, 26 species were threatened and 11 were new records for Samar island. The avian inventory was conducted in only a very small portion of the SINP and the results are very encouraging. It implies that Samar is a an exciting place for birding because of the presence of birds that can be found only in our archipelago as well as species that may be island endemic or even birds that had not yet been observed in Samar and Leyte. One such attraction is the endemic Samar tarictic hornbill. Some 24 farmers from the towns of Calbiga, Paranas, San Jose de Bauan and Taft were trained through the joint efforts of DOT and DENR region 8. The Buhay Ibon birding guides of SINP realize the livelihood opportunities from wildlife tourism and the need to protect the birds and their forest.
Dahican Beach in Mati
Hatching turtles in Dahican
Throughout the Philippine archipelago are many other natural areas that are rich in biodiversity. Most of these will have communities that depend on their natural resources for livelihood, usually by farming, fishing or harvesting forest products. In areas where nature and wildlife are the primary attractions, ecotourism creates a non-extractive and non-destructive form of livelihood for the host community. They learn that the ecosystems and wildlife they have are their natural capital that should be cared for if they are to continually have tourism. When local residents derive socio-economic benefits from tourism, habitats are preserved, wildlife is protected and biodiversity continues to flourish.