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Alabado: Bird Watching: Another ecotourism industry potential

By Roberto P. Alabado III
Planning Perspectives, Sun Star Davao
Sunday, November 23, 2014

WITH the rich flora and fauna that we have in Mindanao, we overlook
possibilities that endemic species of birds, mammals, insects, fishes
and plants in our region may be a key ingredient in our drive to attract foreign tourists to visit our region.

Let us focus on the bird watching industry. Yes, bird watching is an ecotourism industry that we have long neglected. In fact, bird watching is one of the fastest growing activities in the world. Huh? You say. Yes dude, I know that there are just a few Filipinos engaged in this activity but abroad, this is considered an important eco-friendly tourist activity.

In the Western world, the rich and middle class are hungry to experience new eco-adventures, as well as ndertaking
environment-friendly leisure activities. Bird watching is now growing at the fast pace because it combines travel, hiking, mountain climbing, nature trail walks with observing unique wildlife. Avid bird watchers are also engaged in keeping a lifetime record of the number of species that they have observed in the wild. Of the more than 600 bird species that can be found in the Philippines, about 200 of these are endemic species or found only here. This number presents a very attractive travel proposal for birdwatchers all over the world.

Here in Davao, I am the only local (aside from biologists) as far as I know who is actively trying to learn this activity. Our very small group, the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines-Davao Chapter, is like a United Nations where I am the sole representative of Pinoys. According to my friend Pete, a number of birdwatchers come down just to see endemic birds like Whiskered Flowerpecker, Apo Mynah and Philippine Eagle since many endemic species can only be found here in Mindanao especially in Mt. Apo and Mt. Kitanglad. Yes people, bird enthusiasts from Manila and other countries visit Davao with the sole mission of seeing its endemic bird species in the wild.

I would pardon your ignorance if you say that bird watching is easy because all you have to do is visit Crocodile Park or at the Philippine Eagle Foundation to see all these caged birds. Bird watching is much much more than involves observing and recording birds in the wild. We have trekked inside forests of the Mt. Apo National Park, and
roamed the vast fishponds of Malalag just to find birds in their natural habitat. Next in our list are the marshlands of Agusan and forests of Mt. Hamiguitan.

If bird watching is really part of eco-tourism activities, then why
don't we have bird watching tours in our area?  Good question, there are bird watching tours happening in the area but these are organized from Manila.  Such a sad situation when we are supposedly a bird watching hotspot because we host several sites where the Philippine Eagle can be seen soaring in the wild. Too bad for our local travel agencies and local government units because bird watching can be a lucrative international tourist attraction if proper attention is given. I suppose this may be due to the misconception of some tourism industry players that eco-tourism is about ziplines, nice western-style accommodations inside transplanted forests and seeing caged birds and animals. Ecotourism will always be about communing with nature and enjoying its wild and natural state, learning how to take care of nature and local culture by experiencing it first-hand, and contributing to the local community's economy through direct benefits.

Bird watching industry is still at its infantile stage here in our region.

We need local bird watching guides especially from our local communities and this takes some time to train them. Bird guides need to be knowledgeable on the ethics of bird watching like not feeding birds just to attract them closer.  They should also be able to identify these birds in their English and scientific names for the benefit of foreign birdwatchers. Most of all, they should know the habits and habitats of specific bird species to increase the chances of seeing these in the wild.

While most birdwatchers come fully prepared like mountaineers but bird watching tours also cater to novices who also would like to try this ecotourism activity. This means we need shops that can provide or rent out the right equipment to them (very similar to dive shop tours). These comprise only of a good pair of 8x40 binoculars (my current pair of Cebu-made binoculars just costs around P4,000) and a good bird book showing species that will be found in the selected ecosystem (many bird species can be found only in specific ecosystems, elevations and
Do birdwatchers really need luxurious accommodations? Well maybe some of the really rich tourists but most of them would like to really stay close to the habitats of their target species because trekking to forests starts around dawn and some birds like owls go out only at night. In upland areas, this will boost the community-based tourism we
are pushing. Rural communities can play hosts to bird watchers by providing home stays. As long as there is a comfortable bed, clean toilets and shower rooms and healthy food, eco-tourists will be willing to pay for such accommodations. They will welcome this chance to interact with the locals and experience genuine Filipino hospitality.
One concern that greatly disturbs me is the apparent lack of enforcement of laws against hunting and trapping of wildlife. Trekking up the mountains, we met hunters and trappers, we have seen their bird traps and we have seen the results of their illegal activities. Is DENR really doing its job in protecting wildlife and the forests of the Mt.
Apo National Park? I hope that DENR RED Fragada will do something about this before we lose our precious wildlife.
Local government units have yet to discover economic benefits that can be derived from tourists observing wildlife. Are hunters/trappers paying the local government units for permits to hunt/trap? Of course not, it is illegal. Do they pay local guides to help them hunt/trap wildlife?
Yes, making locals accomplices to the crime. Are hunting/trapping wild birds sustainable for the local economy? No, dead birds provide no community income.
The community and LGU should be educated that wildlife, if left alive and wild, can provide better income than dead or caged wildlife.  This will be very similar to a study in the Pacific where the value of a live shark was assessed to provide the local economy with thousands of dollars in income from dive tourism than the few dollars derived from
the sale of their fins.
Bird watching as a local ecotourism activity has the potential of attracting foreign tourists who want to see and experience the unique culture and environment that we have. It is a matter of protecting, enhancing and preserving our forests from the coastlines up to the mountains so our endemic wildlife will flourish.