The Republic of the Philippines ranks among the 17 most mega-biodiverse nations on earth, with huge numbers of endemic species. Among birds, for example, 40 percent of all species found there are endemic — 226 out of 569 species.
Five Bleeding-heart dove species are endemic to the Philippines, with three classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Massive deforestation, which has been going on for decades, is the primary threat to these birds.
The Negros Bleeding-heart dove (Gallicolumba keayi) is the focus of a decade-long conservation initiative by the Bristol Zoological Society (BZS), UK. The NGO is using multiple conservation strategies, including captive breeding, but is most focused on local engagement, working to lift people out of poverty to reduce forest pressures.
The Mindoro Bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba platenae), with a population in the low hundreds, is a focus of the Haribon Foundation (BirdLife International’s Philippines partner). The group is focused on education and community empowerment, plus “rainforestation” — the restoration of forests using native species of trees.
The 7,100 islands of the Philippine Republic, scattered across the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, teem with life. The entire nation is a recognized biodiversity hotspot — rated among the 17 most mega-biodiverse countries in the world — with rainforests, volcanic mountain ranges and tropical waters known for species found nowhere else on the planet.
The archipelago’s isolation for millions of years, and its wide variety of habitats has contributed to speciation across the island chain’s 300,000 square kilometers (115,831 square miles) of land area.
Species such as the Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), one of the largest in the world, the Sulu hornbill (Anthracoceros montani), of which fewer than 30 are thought to still exist, and the Philippine Mouse deer (Tragulus nigricans), which stands just seven inches tall, live in forests across the archipelago.
A staggering 40 percent of all bird species found in this island nation are endemic — 226 out of 569 species. Compare that to the level of avian endemism in the United States, which stands at just 7.5 percent, even though the US is more than thirty times the size of the Philippines.
BirdLife International has identified ten Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) in the Philippines — EBAs being “the most important places for habitat-based conservation of birds” worldwide. Together those ten EBAs encompass almost the whole of the archipelago.
But these species-rich habitats, along with the unique animals that rely on them for survival, are at risk due to a legacy of extreme deforestation that is many decades old: only a fraction of primary Philippines forest is left.
A rare bird gets rarer
Among the most endangered animals are the elusive, shy, ground-dwelling Bleeding-heart doves, named for the colorful red or orange plumage that looks like an open wound blossoming on their white breasts.
All five Bleeding-heart dove species are endemic to the Philippines. Three, found on just a handful of islands, are classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. They’ve also been singled out by the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program which lists them in the top 100 “Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered” bird species.
Favoring closed canopy lowland forest, and foraging on the forest-floor, Bleeding-hearts are particularly hard hit when the little forest that remains to them is disturbed or cut down.
“Habitat loss from small scale logging, mining and human encroachment (agriculture and residential) are [the] main threats” to the species, revealed Juan Carlos Gonzalez, the Director and Curator for Birds at the Museum of Natural History, University of the Philippines at Los Baños. The birds are also hunted for consumption, trapped accidentally alongside other target species, and captured for sale in the pet trade. This is despite protection under Philippine law for all endangered species, with penalties ranging from fines to several years imprisonment.
For one species, the Sulu Bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba menagei) the chance for survival is slim. Fewer than 50 individuals are thought to remain on the island of Tawitawi. Even though there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of the species since 1891, reports from the 1990s offer some hope that a small population hangs on.
It’s not only the extreme rarity of G. menagei that makes a comprehensive population assessment difficult. Accessing its most likely habitat to do a thorough survey is hampered by the “risk of bandits and insurgency,” Gonzalez said.
Friends of the Negros Bleeding-heart
For other Bleeding-heart species, the outlook is perilous but more hopeful. Gallicolumba keayi, which inhabits tiny remnant forest patches on the south end of the island of Negros, has become the focus of a decade-long conservation initiative.
In 2005, the Bristol Zoological Society (BZS), UK, narrowed its conservation focus from all five dove species to just the Negros Bleeding-heart, because “we knew that without a significant increase in efforts we could lose the species,” Neil Maddison told Mongabay. He is the head of BZS Conservation Programs.
It’s not only G. keayi that stands to benefit from the NGO’s work. Other Critically Endangered and Endangered species such as the Visayan Warty pig (Sus cebifrons), Philippine Spotted deer (Rusa alfredi), Rufous-headed hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus waldeni), and Visayan hornbill (Penelopides panini) are also in desperate need of intact forest habitat on Negros. All are threatened by extreme deforestation due to a more than century-long flourishing of the sugar industry there — just 4 percent of the forest remains intact.
The Negros Bleeding-heart has a blood-red vertical stripe at the center of its white breast, which contrasts with the iridescent green and purple of the head, neck and upper parts of the wings. This coat of many colors gives way to chestnut brown on the tail and lower wing parts. Only 70-400 G. keayi are thought to exist on Negros and the neighboring island of Panay.
BZS is just one of several conservation groups to successfully establish a captive breeding population for the Negros doves, a program which could one day provide birds for release back into the wild — so long as there is still some wild left.
To that end, BZS works with local partner organization PENAGMANAKI, taking a broad and collaborative approach to conserving and restoring the forests in the volcanic Cuernos de Negros mountain range.
“Through research, we have identified key locations [and communities] for intervention,” Maddison said. A key strategy for positive change is “engagement of local people.”
He cites slash-and-burn agriculture as the direct cause of forest loss in the region, but notes that this approach to farming is inextricably linked with social factors. “Population growth exacerbates the [slash-and-burn] problem, as does poverty which gives limited options for local people,” he explained.
For this reason BZS is “looking to bring more organizations into the project, such as experts in family health and gender equality, as we know that the decisions that young women make can have a significant impact on [reducing] poverty,” Maddison said. Fewer mouths to feed means less pressure on dwindling forests and less likelihood of endangered animals ending up on the dinner table or being sold for the pet trade.
At present, the Negros Bleeding-heart still falls victim to snares set on the forest floor, used by communities hunting for food. While BZS has worked to eradicate snares from the project area, Maddison reveals that the NGO “encountered snares in their hundreds” on a walk across the Cuernos de Negros when they ventured beyond project boundaries.
BZS is coupling habitat conservation and forest restoration with community-based biodiversity education and monitoring, and is also introducing “new ideas and concepts on farming/cash-generating activities so that people can benefit, rather than suffer, from wildlife conservation,” Maddison told Mongabay.
One major success: a local municipality has officially designated a forest area as a “critical watershed and critical wildlife habitat area”, a move that BZS sees as an important acknowledgement of the value this land holds for both people and biodiversity.
Increased law enforcement has also been a key project component. “It is illegal to cut down the forest in the Philippines, but lack of capacity of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources means that in reality the forest is unprotected,” explained Maddison.
The BZS head remains optimistic. During March of this year there were confirmed sightings of the Negros Bleeding-heart in the project area during surveys, and plans to extend the project to a further three target areas are moving ahead.
“We know the [birds] are still present, and if we can protect the forest, and address local hunting (mainly snares) the species should survive, but we do need to finalize a model whereby keeping the forest intact, or replanting… gives local benefit,” Maddison said.
Saving the Bleeding-heart, one island at a time
On the island of Mindoro, farther to the north, the Mindoro Bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba platenae) is in a similarly precarious state, classified as Critically Endangered with a decreasing population estimated to be in the low hundreds.
The Haribon Foundation (BirdLife International’s Philippines partner), has been working for the past 15 years to conserve the species in one of the largest remaining patches of forest on the island. The forest, located on Mount Siburan in Siblayan on the west side of the island, is classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife.
The Mindoro Bleeding-heart is Haribon’s flagship species for conservation work within the IBA — an area that is home to other highly threatened bird species including the Black-hooded coucal (Centropus steerii) and the Mindoro hornbill (Penelopides mindorensis), as well as a Critically Endangered dwarf buffalo, the Tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis).
As on Negros, engaging with local communities is paramount to saving threatened habitats and species. “Haribon is guided by a principle that, ‘communities are the best stewards of their resources,’” David Quimpo told Mongabay. However, the Haribon wildlife researcher conceded that altering community mindsets and behaviors is also the NGO’s biggest challenge in their work.
“Education, governance and community empowerment are some of Haribon’s strategies to conserve Mt. Siburan’s biodiversity,” said Quimpo, with the organization assisting local government in developing a forest land use plan, whereby different areas are identified for different uses.
Haribon also ensures that broader social factors are taken into account, by providing “technical guidance in development planning, awareness raising and decision-making with women and youth, since they form a big part of the community.”
Forest rehabilitation is being undertaken with corporate partners, and “[b]iodiversity information has been channeled into environmental education initiatives as well as legislation prohibiting hunting in the area,” where G. platenae is found, said Quimpo.
Another promising development: A large penal colony adjacent to the IBA has embraced the Mindoro Bleeding-heart as a key species worth conserving, and launched a forest protection and restoration initiative on colony grounds.
Quimpo sees further scientific studies of the Mindoro Bleeding-heart, along with increased forest protection and law enforcement, as critical to conserving the species. “If forest destruction and hunting continues, this species might be completely gone in the next few years,” he said.
The outlook is a little more promising for two other Bleeding-heart dove species, although they are still of conservation concern. The Luzon Bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba luzonica), found on the island of the same name, is Near Threatened, while the Mindanao Bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba crinigera), present on a number of islands including Mindanao, is classified as Vulnerable by IUCN.
Although these species are still relatively widespread, Haribon is working in collaboration with the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), as well as local government units to protect the animals from the illegal wildlife trade — the Luzon Bleeding-heart is listed under CITES — and to prevent further habitat destruction.
“Rainforestation” seen as the way forward
Conserving and, crucially, restoring forests across the Philippines is vital if threatened species including the Bleeding-heart doves are to recover.
To this end, Haribon, BZS, and numerous other academic, government, NGO, and private sector partners have joined together to launch “rainforestation” projects across the country — an effort conducted under the umbrella of the Rain Forest Restoration Initiative (RFRI). Rainforestation uses native tree species to restore deforested lands to their former state.
“[T]he difference between rainforestaton and reforestation lies in the choice of trees [species] to be planted,” explained Paciencia Milan, CEO of the Foundation for the Philippine Environment and an emeritus professor at Visayas State University. “In the past, most of the reforestation efforts focused on the use of exotic or introduced [tree] species based on their performance and ease in germination. The original flora or forest cover of the area has never been considered.”
“Our long term goal is for DENR to realize the importance of restoring our forest using native tree species, as our native trees support our wildlife,” said Milan. Rainforestation projects have another benefit: they require a steady supply of trees, which means the establishment of native tree species nurseries — a source of income for local communities, which could further reduce pressure on forests.
Although the status of the five species of Philippine Bleeding-hearts, along with many other species, remains critical, Gonzalez sees reasons for hope. The situation “has gotten better, through many improvements,” he said, ranging from more stringent laws to more active citizen science (with local and foreign birders now reporting on bird distribution), as well as the “[r]ecognition [by] government agencies that Bleeding-hearts are an ideal flagship species for conservation.”
Awareness of, and enthusiasm for, bird diversity is growing in the Philippines, with an annual bird festival (established in 2005) that is building in popularity. Bleeding-hearts have found fame by being featured on the logos at two of these festivals, as well as on the logo of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.
The country’s extraordinary biodiversity continues to surprise scientists, with new species discovered at an incredible rate. A study conducted over the last 15 years has found 28 new species of mammal on Luzon Island alone. With untold undiscovered species still to be identified, developing effective conservation strategies takes on even greater urgency.
For the Negros Bleeding-heart at least, Maddison thinks that conservation success is achievable. “For sustainable action, we need to be delivering benefits to local people for new ways of living. This requires time, effort and money,” he said.
“Saving the forest and species is easy if we are engaged with the local people.” And, Maddison concludes, the key to that engagement: the local people must “gain from conservation.”
BirdLife International (2016) IUCN Red List for birds
BirdLife International (2016) Country profile: Philippines. Available from: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/country/philippines
BirdLife International (2016) Important Bird and Biodiversity Area factsheet: Mount Siburan
Brown, R. M., Siler, C. D., Oliveros, C. H. et al. (2013) Evolutionary Processes of Diversification in a Model Island Archipelago. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 44:411–35