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Hunting, land conversion woes threaten bird sanctuary

By Anna Valmero
INQUIRER.net
First Posted 17:13:00 01/21/2010


Duck hunter moving closer to his target
CANDABA, Pampanga, Philippines—Thousands of migratory birds flock to Candaba swamps in Pampanga every year to seek shelter and breeding grounds. But the prevalence of hunting and massive land conversion has led to the continuous decline in the number of feathered visitors in the area.

Members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources counted 13,160 freshwater birds on January 17 as part of the annual Asian Waterbird Census.

The bird census is done in over 100 countries and data is collated to monitor bird populations and the status of wetlands along flyways or the migratory path followed by wintering birds between September and April.

The 13,160 birds counted this year was slightly higher than last year's total of 12,000 birds—but the bird species decreased from 41 last year to 39 this month, said WBCP president Mike Lu.

Lu noted that among the bird species that have not been seen in Candaba this year include black-winged stilts, sandpipers and some species of plovers, which are known to roost on mudflats.


Garganeys (a species of migratory wild ducks) takes to the air

Lu added that the bird count this year included some 2,000 birds sighted in a new site in Barangay Perlas in Candaba. The migratory birds of Candaba are usually sighted in three sites in the town.

Factors contributing to the decreasing bird population in Candaba marshes include hunting, conversion of fishponds and swamps to fruit plantations, introduction of exotic lotus plants in ponds and the earlier planting schedules of rice and crops, said Lu.

Falling prey to hunters

Between September and April, wintering birds visit Candaba and other wetlands in the country to escape the severe cold and scarcity of food in their home. Bird hunters take advantage of this time to visit Candaba and hunt migratory ducks, herons and egrets, said Lu.

In November, Lu quoted WBCP members as saying they had seen and took photos of a bird hunter, clad in camouflage suit, who fired several gunshots to ducks wading in one of the ponds declared as bird sanctuaries by the local government since 2004. This means hunting and poaching of birds is banned in the area.

Also during the bird census to a site in Barangay Paralaya, one of the sites visited by the migratory birds, Lu and other volunteers saw piles of bird feathers hundreds of feet away from a flock of egrets. When the group investigated, a farmer reported that two hunters killed two great egrets and had them for dinner.

“On our way to the site in Paralaya, we saw a field full of egrets estimated at about 1,800. Approaching the area we discovered big pile of egret feathers and a bonfire where the hunters supposedly cooked them. This is clearly a threat to the birds,” said Lu.

“When we asked the farmers near the area, the hunters possibly came from outside because the locals here do not hunt the birds as per the local ordinance and they know better that egrets are beneficial because they eat the worms and pests to their crops and their droppings add nutrients to the soil,” added Lu.

Over time, the continuous hunting spree in Candaba made the birds afraid of humans, said WBCP member Anna Marie Gonzales.

“One indicator that there is harassment of the birds is that they fly immediately when they see humans. Before it was easier to do bird watching because we can observe the birds in closer distance unlike now that the birds are very far, they seem more skittish and afraid of humans,” said Gonzales.

The birder added that farmers who are using strong firecrackers to drive the birds away from their saplings should just shoo them away because the sound of firecrackers can “traumatize the birds.”

Meanwhile, most of the 30,000-hectare original marshlands and swamps in Candaba were converted to rice fields and only about 100 hectares of swamps remain today, said ornithologist and WBCP co-founder Arne Jensen.

With most of the fishponds and mudflats converted to plantations this time of the year, both the migratory and resident birds have less feeding and breeding grounds, Jensen said.

Lotus plants planted on the ponds also serve as athreat to the birds as they compete for nutrients with the natural freshwater vegetation and which seemed to have driven away the insects that the birds feed on, said Lu.

Continuous struggle

As with other conservation initiatives, protection of the wetlands in Candaba is a continuing struggle, Leny Manalo, chief of staff of the Candaba local government unit said.

“About 18 years ago, there were no more birds here. It was only after years of rehabilitating the area that the birds started coming back and it was declared a bird sanctuary. Then the hunters and poachers from other places also came back. And we will not stop until we hunt them down, we are serious about this matter,” Manalo said.

Manalo admitted that the local government has yet to find a way to find a suitable combination of an ecosystem where both resident and migratory birds can thrive.

Today, only ponds and rice fields serve as the roosting area for the migratory birds such as the garganeys, Philippine ducks, tufted ducks, cattle and great egrets, black crowned night herons and whiskered terns.

Due to the early planting schedules to offset farm losses from last year's typhoons, mudflats, which serve as breeding and feeding area for some birds, are planted with rice and watermelons, he said.

Only a handful of waders like the Kentish and Asian golden plovers—which used to abound in the mudflats in Candaba at this time of the year—were recorded, and some species such as the black-winged stilts, were not found, according to the bird census data from DENR and WBCP.

“Waders need mudflats and right now, we don't really have mudflats due to the early planting schedule. But two months ago when the farmlands have not yet been cultivated, there were a lot of waders in the area as seen by two visiting members of the British Parliament,” said Manalo.

A week before the bird census, WBCP members were able to take photos of rare birds in Candaba such as the great bittern, mallard, white shouldered starling and lapwing. These country records, along with the thousands of birds that seek refuge in the area, serve as inspiration for Candaba to intensify its conservation efforts and to be a model bird watching site in the country, said Manalo.

“The presence of migrating birds in the country signifies that our wetlands and forests can support both wildlife and human needs. That means we have clean water to drink and food to eat. As much as the birds depend on us, so do we depend on them for survival,” said Manalo.