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Science-based ecotourism: What the Philippines can learn from Malaysia

By MADS BAJARIAS April 24, 2015 9:17pm

The Cape Rachado lighthouse, a mecca for birdwatchers

Environmental protection can also be good for business. Here's why the Philippines should follow Malaysia's example and take advantage of a booming birdwatching industry to give tourism and eco-awareness a much-needed shot in the arm.

Just last March, some 4,000 visitors descended on the Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve on the southwestern coast of Malaysia in Tanjung Tuan, Melaka, to take part in RaptorWatch 2015, an annual event organized by Malaysian Nature Society and its partners to mark the seasonal passage of migratory birds of prey in the region.

From just "a single tent and a hundred participants" in 2000, Malaysia's RaptorWatch has grown in popularity and brought in thousands of curious tourists, wildlife photographers, conservationists and birdwatchers from across the globe to Malaysia, said Andrew J. Sebastian, head of the Communications Division of MNS, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

The road to the iconic Cape Rachado lighthouse in the forest reserve is lined with booths from MNS, other environmental groups and MNS partners, offering conservation-related wares and services, from shirt-painting for kids to guided beach walks and birdwatching tour packages.

Among the crowd are families, students, tourists, curious onlookers, and on the lighthouse compound, dozens of MNS volunteers whose task is to count the migrating raptors flying over the Malacca Strait from Sumatra, Indonesia, and to explain, by way of maps, the journey that the raptors undertake in their annual migration.

Malaysia's RaptorWatch is now so popular that some hotels, resorts, tour operators and local tourism offices are including it in their tour packages for guests.

Beach walks for kids—and kids at heart.

The Epic Journey of Four Hawks

While the majority of the crowd on the Cape Rachado lighthouse compound observe the skies for raptors and take photographs, a small group of MNS volunteers explain the findings of a satellite tracking study of migrating hawks in the 2012-2013 season.

In the autumn of 2012, researchers from Japan's Keio University and their colleagues attached transmitters to four Crested Honey Buzzards (Pernis ptilorhynchus), a species of migratory hawk, to track in real time their progress as they embark on their seasonal migration in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, an avian flight corridor that encompasses an area of about 84 million square kilometers and includes 22 nations.

This was what Project Hachikuma found: The four honey buzzards, codenamed Yama, Ken, Nao and Kuro, started their long-haul voyage on September 2012, flying from Japan, to China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia (one entered Cambodia before flying to Peninsular Malaysia) and Sumatra.

From Sumatra, Ken flew over the Java Sea to Borneo and then crossed the Celebes Sea to winter in Sulawesi. Nao, Kuro and Yama flew to Java from Sumatra, then to Bali, Lombok and Flores Island. Nao wintered in Flores Island, Kuro in East Timor, while Yama crossed the Flores Sea to spend the winter in Sulawesi. It took about 12 weeks for them to safely reach their wintering grounds.

A Crested Honey Buzzard.

Interestingly, an earlier project that also tracked Crested Honey Buzzards between 2003 and 2009, showed the subjects going through the same big "C" route from Japan, except that upon reaching Sumatra, two headed northeast to Borneo and the Philippines, and spent the winter in Mindanao and Palawan.

In the spring of 2013, the four honey buzzards started to make their way back to their breeding grounds. Ken, was the first to safely reach Japan, on March 17, about six months after his departure. He had traveled an estimated 21,000 kilometers, flying over at least eight countries.

Yama successfully completed his migration on May 23. Nao, for an unknown reason, stopped in South Korea on the return leg rather than return to Japan. Kuro's fate is unknown because his tracking device abruptly stopped sending data while somewhere in Thailand on his return journey.

Ken and Yama both returned to the same spots where they were released, in Aomori and Yamagata, respectively. Writing in the project website, project manager Hiroyoshi Higuchi said about Ken's pinpoint accuracy, "If I try to express that accuracy in the words of human language, I would say he came back to the exact same block and house number."

Yama, when his transmitter was removed after his arrival in Japan, weighed just a kilogram, indicating the endurance-race-like conditions that raptors go through during migration.

Birds face a plethora of dangers and hazards during their seasonal passage, including hunting, destruction of their wintering and breeding grounds, pesticide poisoning and lack of food. A study in the Journal of Animal Ecology of migratory raptors that winter in sub-Saharan Africa and summer in Europe show that raptors were six times more likely to die while migrating than when they were staying put.

The RaptorWatch booth.

Tanjung Tuan: Science-based Ecotourism at Work

Much remains to be learned about seasonal raptor migration. For instance, how do birds find their way? What triggers the migratory behavior? To learn more about this phenomenon, researchers need to observe them firsthand, and one of the key sites for observing them along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway is the Cape Rachado lighthouse in Tanjung Tuan.

About 150 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur and and 240 kilometers north of Singapore, Cape Rachado is a spit of land that juts out to the Malacca Strait. As early as the 16th century, great military powers have recognized the importance of the cape as a natural vantage point overlooking the strait, where ships laden with spices and other cargo sailed.

In 1890, when Malacca was under the sway of the British Empire, the original lighthouse on Cape Rachado was built, making it possibly the oldest lighthouse in Malaysia.

Today, the lighthouse's strategic value is to the global race for ecotourism. Forty kilometers southwest of the lighthouse is Pulau Rupat in Sumatra, Indonesia, making this spot the shortest crossing point between Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia. Since migrating birds of prey generally avoid wide expanses of water, they tend to seek the narrowest crossing points between land masses. This makes Tanjung Tuan an ideal spot to observe raptors and promote ecotourism.

This year, from February 14 to March 29, MNS counted more than 48,000 raptors streaming in from Sumatra into Tanjung Tuan. The five most common migratory raptors observed at Tanjung Tuan are Crested Honey Buzzard, Grey-faced Buzzard (Butastur indicus), Black Baza (Aviceda leuphotes), Chinese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter soloensis) and Japanese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter gularis).

Events like RaptorWatch increase awareness about the natural world and help in protecting Malaysia's natural heritage, said Henry Goh, president of MNS at the opening of RaptorWatch 2015. RaptorWatch helping draw attention to the Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve, which is a sanctuary for many non-avian animals such as squirrels, macaque monkeys, civet cats and dusky leaf monkeys.

A Dusky Leaf Monkey.

RaptorWatch also allows MNS and its partners to promote other conservation-related projects, such as MY Garden Birdwatch, which encourages residents to count the birds in their backyards or public parks and submit their sightings to MNS, which gathers the reports into a national database.

Buoyed by the popularity of RaptorWatch and Malaysia's booming birdwatching industry, Tourism Malaysia is actively promoting birding as a niche market.

Could the Philippines have its own version of Tanjung Tuan someday?

Compared to Malaysia and other countries in Southeast Asia, raptor migration research in the Philippines is just starting, according to Alex Tiongco of the Raptor Study Group of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines. However, the knowledge growth has "been phenomenal" in the past few years, stated Tiongco.

For instance, thanks to the Raptor Study Group's efforts, we can safely assume that among the most common migratory raptors in the Philippines are Chinese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter soloensis), Grey-faced Buzzard (Butastur indicus), Crested Honey Buzzard, Western Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), said Tiongco.

The group has also identified key crossing points for raptors in the country, although more research is needed, he said.

"In the past three years of serious field research, the group has discovered three major crossing points: Cape San Agustin in Davao Oriental, Barangay Cross in Sarangani and Pagudpud in Ilocos Norte. These areas have the potential to become the Philippines' version of Tanjung Tuan," he said.

— TJD, GMA News

The author was a guest of the Malaysian Nature Society. The Crested Honey Buzzard photo is courtesy of Leslie Fung; all other photos courtesy of Lu-Ann Fuentes