Authorities ring alarm bells on plight of wild birds in Philippines

Kyodo News

Posted at Dec 11 2015 09:31 PM

MANILA - Authorities and bird enthusiasts in the Philippines continue to raise concern on the plight of wild birds in the country, due to the prevalence of irresponsible hunters and the shrinking size of the birds' natural habitat.

"There are still threats, and it is a cause for concern," Anson Tagtag of the Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources' biodiversity management bureau told Kyodo News.

According to Gina Mapua, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, the actual threats directly come from "people happily shooting here and there," and logging companies and rapid urbanization, which cause forests to shrink.

She laments that these happen despite the country having passed a wildlife resources conservation and protection law in 2001.

Established in 2003 to "promote recreational birdwatching and the responsible enjoyment of nature," Mapua's club has recorded sightings, so far, of 682 species of wild birds, of which 235 are endemic, across the country.

Based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 16 of these species are critically endangered, 21 are endangered, and 52 are vulnerable.

Among the critically endangered, or those considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, are the Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), Cebu Flowerpecker (Dicaeum quadricolor), and Red-vented Cockatoo, or Philippine Cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia).

In August this year, a Philippine eagle named "Pamana" was found dead as the result of a gunshot wound in the southern island of Mindanao. "Pamana" had been released into the wild two months earlier after going through a three-year rehabilitation program at the Philippine Eagle Foundation in the island's Davao City.

Anna Mae Sumaya, curator at the foundation, told Kyodo News there are an estimated 400 pairs of the monkey-eating eagle in the wild across the country. The foundation is also monitoring 34 other birds, the last of which was only hatched on Monday.

"We have a law, but some people, they don't know that shooting wild birds is illegal. So, people with new air guns happily shoot here and there. They shoot for pleasure, they don't really eat (the birds they have killed)," Mapua told Kyodo News in a separate interview.

"How many Philippine eagles could have been killed without our knowledge, those that have not been reported?" she added.

Both Mapua and Sumaya agree there is an apparent lack of education among the public about the value of wildlife resources, as well as about the details of the wildlife law.

"The problem is enforcement and education. And there shouldn't just be a national law, but also local laws. Each local government unit should install its own laws that prohibit these acts because it's easier to enforce in a smaller entity. So, it's important that the local governments support the national," she said.

Aside from hunters, Mapua is also complaining about continuing operations by loggers, as well as the expansion of development to rural areas, seriously threatening the natural habitat of wild birds.

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According to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Center for Biodiversity, the country's estimated forest cover of 28 million hectares (93.3 percent of the country's total landmass) in 1575 was reduced to just 2 percent by 1992 due to unregulated logging and conversion of forests to agricultural land.

A massive forest rehabilitation program launched by the government in 2011 with the aim of planting 1.5 billion trees through 2016 has, according to latest government report, brought the country's forest cover to 7.84 million hectares so far, from its lowest ever 6.84 million hectares in 2010. Forest cover is projected to reach 8.54 million hectares when the program is complete.

In a 2014 report to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Philippines said 4.07 million hectares of forests has been classified as protected terrestrial areas, and that there was an increase in sightings of Philippine eagles in the wild from 2011 to 2013.

However, Mapua said "reforestation and the regreening program is a waste of time" when one can actually just "protect what is there already." She added that the environment bureau is planting non-native species such as mahogany, which, she said, are not ideal for the country's natural ecosystem.

"What's more important is to make the environment hospitable for the wild birds. For example, here in the city, since there are buildings everywhere, why not plant trees, or flowers? Plant Philippine native plants," she added.

Aside from urging the government to strictly enforce the wildlife law, Mapua is encouraging massive education both among the entire citizenry and in schools about wild birds.

One of these educational activities is the Philippine Bird Festival that the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines has organized 10 times already. This year's event, which was held from Wednesday to Friday, drew domestic birdwatchers, conservationists and nature enthusiasts as well as those from Taiwan and Japan, among others.

The environment department's Tagtag said the government is determined to enforce the wildlife law, collaborate with police and local communities toward this end, and even accredit other government agencies to carry out the same mission.

With the recent hatching of Philippine eagle Chick 26, the first in two years and the 26th since 1992, from the Philippine Eagle Foundation's conservation breeding program, Sumaya sees a glimmer of hope, especially because the chick's father is a rehabilitated eagle who was shot years ago.

"This gives us hope, because even if this is in the captive population, our end goal is to supplement the wild population by making future releases (of Philippine eagles)," Sumaya said.

Asked to sum up the relevance of wild birds to people, Mapua said, "Birds in the wild have a lot of ecological functions that benefit human beings. They help us ecologically survive."