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Airport authorities, bird advocates in collision course over sanctuary

September 24, 2012 2:48pm
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The skies seem big enough for both planes and birds, but apparently not around airports. 

Manila International Airport Authority general manager Jose Angel Honrado said they have recorded some 50 bird strikes in the skies around the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) this year. 

None have caused any crashes or major damage to planes, but enough of a scare to cause Honrado to join a chorus against birds, particularly migratory birds stopping over in a green pocket of wilderness near the airport, a government-protected bird sanctuary in Manila Bay.

"It is almost impossible to recover the carcass of the birds, but based on observations, talagang yung mga ibon na nakatira diyan sa sanctuary sa may Las Piñas-Parañaque area are the main causes and the main source of the bird strikes within the MIAA area of responsibility," he said.

Philippine Airlines president Ramon Ang has called for the removal of the sanctuary, while Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez supports a study to determine the fate of the sanctuary, also known as the Las Piñas-Parañaque coastal lagoon or Freedom Island. The natural stopover for migratory birds was proclaimed the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area by then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009. 

The removal of the sanctuary would require the repeal of the Arroyo proclamation by President Aquino, who has not indicated a position on the matter. 

Honrado warns that the issue is not bird protection but public safety. "I'm not an expert on species of birds, but the mere fact na nandoon nga ‘yung sanctuary sa tabi namin talagang it causes a big problem. Are we going to wait until may maaksidente diyan?" he said.

Aerial photo shows Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and
Ecotourism Area. Airport authorities say migratory birds stopping
here pose a threat to planes. Birders argue that
the species here fly too low to collide with planes.
(Photo by Ivan Sarenas)

Asked about airports in more progressive countries that are not making moves to remove nearby bird sanctuaries, Honrado said, "I'm not an expert on bird behavior, but I'm sure birds will have different characteristics in different countries."

80 bird species in sanctuary

The lagoon, a wetland habitat with the only remaining mangroves in Metro Manila, is a favorite spot for birdwatchers, as it is home to about 80 bird species, and around 5,000 individual birds.

The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines has come to the defense of the sanctuary, insisting that the migratory birds there do not pose as much of a threat as domesticated pigeons and native birds that reside even nearer the airport. 

"When the birds stop in the sanctuary, they fly low before landing, avoiding the flight path of planes," said the club's president Mike Lu. "Hindi natin puwedeng sabihin na lahat ng ibon patayin, tanggalin ang sanctuary. Kailangan natin i-study nang mabuti kung anong species itong involved na ito."

Lu and his colleagues, including a Danish resident of Manila, Arne Jensen, an ornithologist who used to advise Danish airport authorities on bird strikes, are convinced that none of the bird strikes involve birds from the sanctuary. 
Lu explained that the August 29 bird strike in Tacloban involved Philippine ducks and not migratory species. He added that in another incident last January, a bird strike involved resident birds, not the migratory ones from the sanctuary.
"Lahat ‘yun ay cattle egrets, or mga tagak na nasa rice fields, which we never recorded in Freedom Island, kasi freshwater birds ito," he said.
Reclamation project

Aside from airport safety issues, the bird sanctuary is in danger of being destroyed by a P14-billion reclamation project.
Former Las Piñas Rep. Cynthia Villar, who opposes the project, pointed out that the bird sanctuary and the airport have been there for years, but the danger posed by bird strikes have only become an issue recently.
"Suddenly ngayon they are saying this because they are going to reclaim Manila Bay kasi na sa Supreme Court kami ngayon. Ni-refer kami sa Court of Appeals, Nag-file ako ng petition for writ of kalikasan to stop the Manila Bay reclamation," she had said.
Honrado said the MIAA is not concerned with the development, but with the bird strikes that occur within the area of responsibility of NAIA.
Villar said some 315,000 residents of Las Piñas signed a petition for writ of kalikasan to stop the Manila Bay reclamation, which she said will cause heavy flooding in their area, as it will affect the mangrove area that protects them from typhoon surges.
"Pag sinara nila ‘yan, eh di sa amin babaha. Ang mangyayari, ang Manila Bay ang lupa, at kami sa Las Piñas, kami ang tubig which is contrary to the law of nature... Ngayon babaliktarin nila. Kami ang titigilan ng tubig. Parañaque, Las Piñas, Bacoor. So we are against this," she said. — Carmela G. Lapeña/KBK/HS, GMA News