- Provincial and municipal authorities on the Philippine island of Palawan are drawing up management plans aimed at boosting protection for the Victoria-Anepahan Mountain Range, a key habitat of the Philippine pangolin.
- The 165,000-hectare (408,000-acre) is not a formally protected area, and suffers from deforestation driven by illegal logging, as well as massive poaching and illegal trade of its wildlife, including pangolins.
- The critically endangered Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), found only in Palawan, is one of the most trafficked animals on Earth, with its population declining by up to 95% between 1980 and 2018.
- Critics of the management plan say it will be a bureaucratic waste of resources without efforts to step up enforcement measures to curb the illegal trade of pangolins and other wildlife in the mountain range.
PALAWAN, Philippines — At the heart of the island province of Palawan in the western Philippines, a verdant mountain range larger than Bangkok stands like a natural bulwark. It’s a known refuge of the critically endangered Philippine pangolin, but like the docile anteater, this biodiversity haven is under constant threat from deforestation.
Forest loss in the Victoria-Anepahan Mountain Range (VAMR), which spans 165,000 hectares (408,000 acres), is driven primarily by illegal logging and clearing for farmland, according to recent satellite data from Global Forest Watch (GFW). This trend has continued despite the country’s pandemic lockdown.
“VAMR remains a de facto open access due to the absence of a coherent and actively operating management plan,” Roger Garinga, executive director of the Palawan-based nonprofit IDEAS, which promotes good environmental governance, tells Mongabay. This, he says, is the reason why human activities proliferate in VAMR’s natural forests, home to the Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), known locally as balintong.
Illegal logging still occurs in Palawan despite a ban imposed since 1991. Between 2001 and 2019, the province lost 152,000 hectares (375,600 acres) of tree cover, an area nearly the size of London, according to GFW data. The island has lost 13% of its tree cover since 2000, when 74% of the land, or more than a million hectares (2.47 million acres), was covered in natural forest.
The link between habitat loss and the survival of the Philippine pangolin is the subject of a report published earlier this year by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) and funded by USAID’s Protect Wildlife project. “Habitat destruction, degradation and conversion are issues that did not spare VAMR,” says lead researcher Sabine Schoppe, also the program director of Palawan Pangolin Conservation Project run by the nonprofit Katala Foundation Inc. (KFI).
Poaching of pangolins and wildlife in general, as well as mining, quarrying, logging and rattan collection, were identified as “threats that have a directly negative impact on pangolins in VAMR.” Production of charcoal, gathering of non-timber forest products, and kaingin or slash-and-burn farming, add to the pressure on pangolin and other native wildlife.
“The higher the threat, the lower the pangolin abundance,” Schoppe says in an email to Mongabay. A leading expert on the Philippine pangolin and member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s (IUCN SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group, Schoppe says their correlation analysis shows that “pangolin abundance was lower in the west coast sites as a probable consequence of higher threats compared to the east coast.”
The mountain range straddles 31 barangays, or wards, in Puerto Princesa, the Palawan capital, and the southern provincial towns of Aborlan, Narra and Quezon. The mountain range lies between Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, both conservation areas. But VAMR doesn’t enjoy the same level of protection afforded to those neighboring sites.
“VAMR is the only remaining area in mainland Palawan that needs cohesive and collaborative action in terms of protection, conservation and management,” says John Vincent Fabello, a spokesman for the PCSD.
This lack of protection measures for VAMR has resulted in a decline in the pangolin population, conservationists say. Pangolins, of which there are eight species in Asia and Africa, are the world’s most trafficked mammal, with their scales prized for use in traditional Chinese medicine — despite a lack of proven medicinal value — and their meat considered a delicacy in many regions.
The wild population of the Philippine pangolin is estimated to have declined by 85% to 95% between 1980 and 2018 due to this demand from China and Vietnam. Conservationists say the species “is likely less able to sustain exploitation from illegal hunting and poaching” due to its “restricted range and likely small population size compared with other pangolin species,” according to the IUCN pangolin assessment report released last year
The Philippine pangolin has been on the country’s protected species list since 2004, and on CITES Appendix I since 2017, along with the seven other pangolin species. Theoretically this means there’s a ban on the international trade in the species, but trafficking continues, with around 895,000 pangolins from the various species traded globally in the past two decades.
The IUCN, which lists the Philippine pangolin as critically endangered, has indicated its population could decline by at least 80% over the next two decades, given the current threats.
“There isn’t a lot of data on pangolin populations in the Philippines, and the impact of exploitation of populations, so the assessors took a precautionary approach,” IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group chair Dan Challender tells Mongabay. “This is based on the species being threatened by exploitation, and in particular, overexploitation from hunting and poaching, which evidence indicates is increasingly for illicit, international trade, [in] addition to domestic trade and use.”
Threats to the species are compounded by its limited geographic distribution, human encroachment into its natural habitat, and persistently weak law enforcement. Saving the Philippine pangolin is made extra challenging due to its increasing rarity, and elusive, solitary and nocturnal nature. These roadblocks explain why there’s also a dearth of research on its population densities or abundance, a gap that Schoppe and other wildlife scientists are trying to fill in.
PCSD’s USAID-funded study covered 2,400 hectares (5,930 acres) of survey areas within VAMR and paints a grim outlook for pangolins: from 2018 to 2019, Schoppe’s group spotted only 17 individual pangolin: 11 adults, a mother with her infant, and five juveniles. In all 12 study sites, the chance to see a pangolin was slim: only 0.5 adult specimens per square kilometer. This is lower than the 2.5 adults per square kilometer recorded at six sites that the Katala Foundation surveyed five to six years earlier.
“Whether this implies a decline over time or is related to geographical preferences of the species remains to be assessed,” Schoppe says. The highest number encountered in just one site was five adults. “KFI continues surveys to obtain a better idea of the remaining wild populations.”
What’s most needed now to safeguard the wild pangolin populations is the declaration of protected areas or local conservation areas, conservationists say. But designating ecologically important highland habitats as such isn’t enough without an active forest patrolling system established through a management plan, Schoppe says.
“To implement a functioning wardening scheme, a management scheme needs to be placed and [with] funds available to pay incentives and supplies and materials of the wildlife enforcement officers,” she says. “Law enforcement and awareness raising need to go hand in hand with in-situ [or on-site] conservation measures.”
PCSD, researchers, local governments and nonprofits have been working for nearly five years now on VAMR’s conservation, protection and sustainable management, all with the goal of eventually declaring the area a critical habitat.
They’ve opted for a multijurisdictional approach to coordinate local municipal governments’ “shared responsibility and commitment to protect, conserve and manage the area with corresponding budget allocation,” Fabello says. “This arrangement can migrate to critical habitat or probably PA [protected area] later on, but the process involved in the latter is tedious and the management body is limited only to a national agency.”
Under this arrangement, the local governments responsible will sign a memorandum of agreement on the creation of an independent management and planning council to be chaired by the Palawan governor, Jose Alvarez, and with members including city and town mayors, representatives from PCSD, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), NGOs and researchers.
The council says it will “institute appropriate plans, policies, programs, and strategies to achieve the desired socio-economic development and environmental protection and restoration of VAMR.” An annual contribution of at least 1 million pesos ($20,600) from each of the four local governments involved will be pooled together to fund the management center’s operations.
“[This] MOA [seeks] to ensure shared responsibility and accountability because it defines clear responsibilities and obligations even financially,” Fabello says. “Involving [local governments] is very necessary to strengthen governance.”
Ancestral domains, land recognized under the Philippine law as belonging to Indigenous peoples, make up 136,007 hectares (336,081 acres), or 83% of the entire VAMR. “It is but logical to have the tribes as key players in the management of the ecosystem of the VAMR,” says Garinga from IDEAS, whose group promotes sustainable forest livelihoods. In the past, Indigenous communities backed by environmental groups were at loggerheads with the government over development initiatives that took place in tribal areas without consent.
This time around, civil society and Indigenous peoples will play an active role in managing the forested area, Fabello says. Ancestral domain titles and claims “will be respected and included in the management plan as well as other areas within the VAMR with legal instruments,” he says.
Palawan, touted as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier, hosts 38% of the country’s known wildlife species, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. VAMR alone is home to 20 endemic species, including the Philippine pangolin. “These endemics will receive an extra layer of protection within the purview of VAMR,” Fabello says.
New scheme ‘not needed’
The Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI), while part of the VAMR technical working group, says turning the site into a protected area won’t solve an age-old problem: “The problem in VAMR is plain: no one is enforcing,” executive director Robert Chan tells Mongabay. “We don’t need a new instrument, we don’t need a new mechanism, and we don’t need a new body to protect our remaining forests.”
Chan, an environmental lawyer, says Palawan is already “replete [with] law enforcement” in the form of PCSD, DENR, and the various agencies under the municipal and provincial governments. “We just need all of them to do their job of enforcing forestry laws instead of creating another body to conveniently pass responsibility,” he says.
Despite operating on a shoestring budget of donations, Chan’s group has long been active in anti-logging campaigns throughout Palawan. Philippine law allows citizen’s arrest, and through this PNNI has seized around 30 unregistered chainsaws from loggers in the past three years in VAMR alone.
“If we in civil society can do it independent of any of them and without resorting to any existing MOA, we don’t see why they need to spend so much time, effort and funds on a new body that most likely will engage in much talk, meetings and planning with nary an enforcement operation,” Chan says.
PCSD’s Fabello declined to comment on Chan’s remarks, but says the agreement signing that was supposed to have taken place in the first half of 2020 has been put on hold.
‘Time is running out’
The coronavirus pandemic has left local authorities across the Philippines struggling to shore up health care systems that were straining even before the outbreak.
These include the municipal governments that have committed to the VAMR conservation initiative but have yet to sign the agreement. That’s left pangolin conservationists worried. “We cannot continue to allow poachers and traffickers to operate unchallenged in this key biodiversity area” Emerson Sy, a researcher with the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, tells Mongabay.
“The pandemic resulted in refocusing of priorities and reallocation of resources,” he says. “However, we have to remember that inappropriate exploitation of wildlife is the prime suspect that caused this pandemic.”
Even as lockdown measures limit people’s movements, poaching and the illegal trade have persisted. From January to March this year, authorities seized 20 Philippine pangolins from an alleged trafficker in Palawan; they made three more seizures of smuggled pangolins in Luzon, according to a new TRAFFIC study released in August.
From 2000 to 2019, a documented 7,634 Philippine pangolins were seized from traffickers across the country, the study says. The vast majority, 90%, were seized in the period 2018-2019, indicating a surge of trafficking efforts during the past two years. The report doesn’t distinguish whether the pangolins originated from VAMR or from other populations in northern Palawan.
Among the greatest challenges in curbing pangolin trafficking is the lack of investigations, few successful arrests and prosecutions, and relatively lenient penalties ranging from two to 12 years in prison and/or 5,000 to 1 million pesos ($103 to $20,600) in fines, according to Sy and study co-author Kanitha Krishnasamy.
“If you can choose among saving habitats that are still intact and species where they still occur in viable numbers over habitat rehabilitation and re-introduction, conservation practitioners clearly go for conservation and protection,” says Schoppe, who wasn’t part of the TRAFFIC study. In fact, Katala Foundation data indicate that actively protected areas have more pangolins. “Therefore, we need to act and protect VAMR resources while they are still in good conditions and pangolins present in the area,” Schoppe says.
But as local governments and their various agencies put off institutionalizing VAMR’s governance and management structure, Palawan’s pangolins are left vulnerable. The largest ever seizure in the Philippines involved 1,154 kilograms (2,545 pounds) of pangolin scales, or the equivalent of at least 3,900 pangolins, and took place in Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, in September last year.
“Time is running out for the endemic and critically endangered Philippine pangolin,” Sy says, echoing calls by local conservationists to safeguard VAMR. “The first critical step is to provide on-site protection by putting in place a management plan. Unless we get our acts together, we might witness its extinction in this century.”
Banner image of a Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis). Photo courtesy of Katala Foundation.
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