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World's wetland saviors visit Candaba

By Tonette Orejas
Inquirer
Last updated 08:55pm (Mla time) 10/08/2006

CANDABA, Pampanga -- A 102-hectare private fishpond, declared a protected haven for migratory birds here, became the starting point of a two-day meeting by at least 40 wetlands conservationists from 20 countries in Asia on Sunday.

Arayat

The participants are country representatives to the Asian Waterbirds Census, held usually every January since 1987, according to Dr. Taej Mundkur, coordinator of the Wetlands International (WI) in South Asia, the organizer of the meeting.

This is the group's first meeting in the Philippines, said Carlo Custodio, chief of the ecosystem management specialist section of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The meeting aims to establish "a more coordinated census next year, [and] get a snapshot of the distribution [of the birds]," Mundkur told the Inquirer before setting out for the bird-watching event.

The census has drawn 10,000 volunteers and more are needed not only to count the birds but also promote the conservation of wetlands as habitat for birds and water source for people.

Mundkur said January is a good month to tally the birds because they're more stable in their borrowed habitat after crossing continents.

Michael Lu, chair of the Wild Birds Club of the Philippines, said globetrotting fowls start coming to Candaba in October but typhoon Milenyo, which battered Luzon two weeks ago, might have destroyed many nests. Egrets and terns were seen here on Sunday. The birds' destination is a small part of the 32,000-hectare Candaba Swamp in Barangay Vizal San Pablo. The ponds have been left undeveloped by the family of Mayor Jerry Pelayo to give the birds a breeding place and winter refuge.

Custodio said the Candaba experience was a "showcase" that local governments could indeed be an active instrument in wetland conservation efforts.

Candaba Swamp is considered one of the three important wetlands in the country, aside from Olango Island in Cebu and Liguasan Marsh in Mindanao.

Lu said the January 2006 census at the two Vizal San Pablo ponds counted over 11,000 fowl, a few of them rarely seen here.

The conservation effort comes with a heavy price, said Pelayo.

Had he harvested the tilapia in the ponds, he would have netted sales of some P1 million.

"No regret though, because it's helping the environment and it is home now for the birds," he said.

Mundkur said in most countries, "wetlands are under grave threat."

He said that was because of what people do with wetlands, and also because of global climate change and sea level rise that are contributing to drought.

Agricultural activities, urban settlement expansion and industries' growth degrade the wetlands that are a natural catch basin for rainwater.

"There has to be local action for global benefit," Mundkur said, adding that he hoped conservation efforts would continue to grow as a movement.

As for the avian flu that has struck Asia, Mundkur said WI is "still trying to understand the real link between migratory fowls and the deadly avian strain H5N1."

Mundkur said ducks and geese are "natural reservoirs of the flu but not the highly pathogenic strain."

"But vast majority of testing showed that wild birds were negative of the virus," he said.

Phil Straw of the Australian Wader (shore birds) Studies Group said the challenge for governments remains the same: restore the wetlands and use these in a sustainable way.

"That means learning to balance the needs of people and wetland beings in a wise way," he said.