LIBERTAD, Antique—Not only have poachers trespassed on the lush forests of northwestern Panay to cut down rare agarwood trees and collect their precious resin, they are also hunting critically endangered animals, like the Visayan Warty Pig, according to wildlife field researchers.
In months-long trips, the research team in the Northwest Panay Peninsula Natural Park (NPPNP) uncovered more signs of wildlife poaching, illegal tree cutting and other offenses—sawn tree stumps, trees toppled or chopped, metal traps, missing monitor cameras, two deserted camps, bullet shells, and a clearing once thick with upland rice.
Conservationists are worried that the heightened criminal activities and the apparent absence of law enforcement in the protected area, one of the country’s remaining primary lowland rainforests, may irreparably set back their goals to protect it.
In a post on its Facebook account, the NPPNP office said its rangers “continuously guard … against illegal doers” and it “discourage[s] any unlawful activities within the park” which are penalized under Republic Act No. 11038 or the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 2018, and other forest-related laws.
The NPPNP, described as a “hidden jewel of Panay,” is home to endemic flora and fauna, including the rare Visayan Warty Pig (Sus Cebifrons), Negros Bleeding Heart pigeon (Gallicolumba keayi), Walden’s Hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus waldeni), Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides panini), Philippine Spotted Deer (Rusa alfredi), agarwood tree (Aquilaria malaccensis), and Venus Slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum henissanum).
Its watersheds are still relatively intact and vital to farming communities and their water supply, including one leading to the top resort island of Boracay in Malay.
The natural park was proclaimed a protected area by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on April 18, 2002.
Cases of intensifying wildlife offenses and abuses in the NPPNP were reported by field researchers and their guides as part of a project funded by a British government grant under the Darwin Initiative and jointly undertaken by the Philippine Initiative for Conservation of Environment (PhilinCon) and the Bristol Zoological Society.
“While some residents have been identified as hunters and poachers, … the drivers of hunting and poaching are a complex issue to address,” Rebecca Tandug-Barrios, PhilinCon chair, told CoverStory.ph. “Despite the heavy campaigns to stop these activities against the endangered wildlife, the need to empower the communities and to provide alternative solutions to poaching must be immediately done.”
Surveys of species
Wildlife population surveys were also conducted by the field team, especially on the Visayan Warty Pig and macaques, in 19 expeditions and 13 revisits to the NPPNP during the first year, according to their report last March 30.
Footage from 16 camera traps showed “many signs” of the animal species, including leopard cats, civet cats and Red Jungle fowls, in their habitat. The signs included visual images, sounds of movement and flight, rooting, tracks, nesting and tree rubbing.
Some areas reached by the team were described as “the most pristine … because of the impenetrable terrain and untouched forests.”
A total of 763 cases of illegal activities, including wildlife and agarwood poaching, have been recorded, or more than two cases a day. In 17 routine patrols conducted in areas whose coordinates were provided by the field surveyors, forest rangers discovered and dismantled 416 traps meant for the Visayan Warty Pig, macaques, civet cats, leopard cats, monitor lizard and Red Jungle fowls. They seized a “holen,” or a homemade plastic tube gun with marble bullets.
Illegal tree girdling and cutting were seen in a village in Libertad and in three villages in Nabas, Aklan. The fallen trees were mostly narra, kamagong, tabaw and the critically endangered lawaan—hardwood species that are in high demand in furniture making, and building and boat construction. The names of the villages were withheld as requested by the project officers, citing security concerns.
The team listed 113 cases of poaching of agarwood, locally called “lapnisan,” whose resin is a high-value ingredient for luxury perfume (see CoverStory.ph report “The stink of agarwood trafficking in Panay”); 10 cases of illegal tree cutting for boat hulls; and clearing of forest land to expand or prepare growing areas for coconut, ginger, taro and other root crops.
Scores of young and mature agarwood trees were cut, their wounds infected with fungus to enable the extraction of the dark fragrant resin used in producing expensive perfumes. These were found in Libertad.
Widespread harvesting of agarwood was also observed in two villages in Nabas.
Last December, the team stumbled upon a poachers’ camp in Buruanga, about two kilometers from a wildlife research station in Sibaliw. It also found ground prints from combat shoes and a sawn narra tree in one village and a kaingin farm in another.
Twelve-gauge shotgun and 22-cal. bullet shells were scattered in the forest.
According to the team, six camera traps were missing in three barangays in Libertad and believed to have been taken by the agarwood poachers; one other device was destroyed.
Although the camera traps were meant to study wildlife, “the recent surge of agarwood poaching in the park made the equipment vulnerable to stealing … to remove evidence of illegal activities,” according to the report.
Responding to the request of CoverStory.ph for comments, Protected Area Superintendent (PASu) Jonne L. Adaniel said surveillance and monitoring activities were in progress. But he could not provide information on law enforcement operations without clearance from the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB).
“Certainly, we have ongoing actions on the reported illegal activities,” he said in a text message.
Adaniel serves as chief operating officer of the PAMB, which manages and administers the NPPNP. The board, chaired by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) regional director, is composed of the governors of Antique and Aklan, mayors and barangay chairs of the towns covered by the NPPNP, as well as representatives of nongovernment and people’s organizations.
Six forest rangers are currently employed as wildlife enforcement officers under the PASu and conduct regular patrols twice a month in the natural park. They may appear as mere moving dots in the park’s expanse of 12,000 hectares, but they are mandated to take action on any sign of illegal activity.
According to the field team’s report, they were able to “minimize” illegal wildlife harvesting, tree cutting and slash-and-burn farming. Copies of the report were sent to the PASu and PAMB for legal action.
“We have asked PAMB and the DENR to look into the crisis of hunting in the NPPNP,” PhilinCon chair Tandug-Barrios said. “Our organization will always be working faithfully with them on conservation. The lives of our precious wildlife depend on us.”
“While we are collecting these multiple data, we cannot simply ignore these ‘state-of-emergency conditions’ on illegal prevalence,” she said. “Some proactive measures have to be taken up by all stakeholders.”
Tandug-Barrios added: “Our investment on conservation must move beyond this biodiversity asset and threat map, explore synergies, forward multiple objectives, and tradeoffs as practical tools to ‘what to do next’ in our conservation decisions.”