PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Posted 12:57:00 04/30/2010
Filed Under: Environmental Issues, Animals,
SAN VICENTE – A Chinese egret pauses in
its hunt as a group of fishermen strides across the vast mudflats
of Olango Island in the Philippines, carrying off baskets of its
favorite crab snack.
Spring beckons and great flocks of waterfowl
are laying on the last layers of fat before the long-haul flight
back to mainland Asia, but sightings of the yellow-beaked, green-legged
bird are becoming less frequent, experts say.
Wild Bird Club of the Philippines member Nilo Arribas, a frequent
Olango visitor, fears the worst for the species after observing
the egret flocks dwindle in recent years.
"Rare species of birds can easily disappear
in this site without being recorded or reported," he told
For the tall and graceful wading bird that mainly
winters in Olango and two nearby islands, habitat loss is the
main threat as tidal flats and estuaries in its northern breeding
sites are turned into fish ponds, farms or factories.
Just under 3,500 Chinese egrets are believed left, qualifying
it for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's
"Red List". Trade in its plumes had nearly led to its
extinction in the late 19th century.
The IUCN says the birds now breed in protected
sites, mainly small islands off the Russian Fareast, North and
South Korea, and northern China.
To the south, the nature reserve on the southern
tip of the rocky Olango outcrop off the port of Cebu is a vital
winter habitat for the egret and dozens of other birds.
Reginaldo Bueno, who supervises the 1,030-hectare
(2,545-acre) expanse of mudflats, mangrove forests and seagrass
beds, says it is among the world's most important wetland sites.
More than half the 77 species of migratory birds
that use the East Asian-Australasian flyway – including
the Eurasian curlew which has 'near-threatened' status, the Asiatic
dowitcher and black-tailed godwit – arrive in September
and leave by April.
Both Arribas and Bueno have watched a disturbing
decline in bird visitors to the island in recent years.
The number of birds stopping off there in winter
dropped to 12,000 last year, from 16,000 in 2008, according to
Human interference appears to be the main culprit.
Even though Olango has no fresh water and no
local economy to speak of, the last government census revealed
human residents now outnumber the visiting birds three to one.
Overworked park wardens have in the past year
arrested poachers who use a deadly chemical, cyanide, to stun
fish. Some mangrove trees have also been illegally cut for firewood,
Residents are banned from collecting crabs and
seashells in the reserve. However they still gather them in the
seagrass just outside the reserve, then cut inside and across
the intertidal flats to get to their homes in San Vicente village,
scattering the feeding birds.
On the outskirts of the reserve the locals collect
starfish, sea urchins, and other marine creatures by the thousands,
which they preserve using embalming fluid, paint in gaudy colors
and sell to foreign markets.
"Our livelihood all comes from the sea
and everything gets collected here," said one resident, Nimfa
Pugoy, 48, a mother of eight
However neighbor Giovanni Tanio, 24, said catches
"We are collecting less compared to 10
years ago," Tanio said as he spread out starfish on a tarpaulin
to dry in his yard.
Filipinas Sotto, head of the marine biology
program at nearby Cebu city's University of San Carlos, said the
Cebu region around Olango was no stranger to environmental degradation
involving small island ecosystems.
Most of Cebu's forests have been denuded, pushing
the black shama, a robin-like bird found only in Cebu, close to
"They thought it had gone extinct, but
when they found one the government decided to preserve a 100-hectare
(247-acre) patch of forest where it now lives," she said.
The fate of one species of sea snake on another
small island north of Olango serves as a warning, Sotto added
– it disappeared in the 1960s after being hunted for its
skin, prized by Japanese for its supposed medicinal properties.