Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
More than two decades ago, Time magazine described the Philippines as one of “the world’s top 25 biodiversity hotspots,” areas disturbed by human activity but remains exceptionally rich in animal and plant species found nowhere else.
According to Russell Mittermeier, one of the authors of Mega diversity: Earth’s Biologically Wealthiest Nations, the Philippine biodiversity was “truly amazing in global terms and this is certainly true of overall diversity but especially so as regards endemism.”
Mount Makiling in Los Banos, Laguna alone has been found to have higher species diversity than the whole of North America. In 1997, the late award-winning zoologist Dioscoro Rabor reported at least 50 species of mammals, 120 bird species, six species of amphibians, 19 types of reptiles, and several varieties of fish inhabiting the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve.
A publication prepared by the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), a line agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), said the Philippine forests are home to 13,500 plant species, representing five percent of the world’s flora. Twenty-five genera of plants are endemic.
Forty-five percent of the 1,085 species of terrestrial vertebrates found in the country’s forests are endemic. These include 179 species of mammals, 252 species of reptiles, and 96 species of amphibians. About 67 percent of the species occur nowhere else in the world.
The country’s wetlands harbor a rich variety of plant and animal life estimated at 1,616 species of flora and 3,308 species of fauna.
Found in coastal and marine habitats are 4,951 species of marine plants and animals. Coral reefs are by far the most diverse, with 3,967 species. Seagrass beds follow with 481 species and then mangroves with 370 species.
Among its endemic species, birds get the attention of the international community. Various studies revealed the country “has the most number of threatened endemic bird species globally.”
The Philippines has 558 species of birds, with 86 of them – mostly local species – under various threatened states. The list includes the Philippine Eagle, which is considered an endangered species.
“Only Indonesia and Brazil have more threatened species at 104 and 103, respectively,” wrote environmentalist Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan in Kasaysayan, a Reader’s Digest publication. “(But the Philippines) lands in the unenviable position of being the country with the greatest number of endemic bird species in its threatened list.”
The Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) listed 12 tree species on the verge of extinction. Three endemic trees are included: almaciga, igem, and kalantas. The nine other soon-to-vanish tree species are batikuling, dungon, ipil, mangkono, sangilo, supa, tindalo, yakal–kaliot, and Mindoro pine.
It’s no wonder why Mittermeier listed the Philippines as “the world leader in degree of (species) endangerment.” In his report, he wrote: “With only 6 to 8 percent of natural vegetation remaining and far less than that in the primary condition, (the Philippines has) the dubious distinction of being considered the hottest of the hot spots and the most severely endangered of the megadiversity countries.”
David Qyammen, the man behind The Song of the Dodo: Island Biography in an Age of Extinctions and Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, has this to say: “There are few places on earth that are richer in biological wonderments, and more sorely beleaguered, than the Philippines.”
Biodiversity (condensed from biological diversity) refers to the vast diversity of plants and animals on the planet and implies the importance of all. Only about 1.75 million species have been formally identified, with scientific names, including everything from bacteria to the relatively tiny group of vertebrates.
The most accurate estimate of the total number of species in the world, according to the 1,140page Global Biodiversity Assessment, is from 13 to 14 million. “Biodiversity represents the very foundation of human existence,” says a summary of the report. “Yet by our heedless actions, we are eroding this biological capital at an alarming rate.”
In a developing world like the Philippines, biodiversity assures food, countless raw materials such as fiber for clothing, materials for shelter, fertilizer, fuel, and medicines, as well as a source of work energy in the form of animal traction.
“The rural poor depend upon biological resources for an estimated 90 percent of their needs,” points out the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
Despite the multifarious uses, biodiversity is more threatened now than at any time in the past 65 million years. Harvard biologist Edward Wilson estimates that, at a minimum, 50,000 invertebrate species per year – nearly 140 each day! – are condemned to extinction by the destruction of the tropical rainforest habitat.
At the turn of the 20th century, old-growth rainforests covered about 70% of the entire country. Less than a hundred years later, in 1992, some 8% of the old-growth forest cover remained, in scattered and small fragments.
“Most of these (forests) are in the higher elevations where people cannot reach, that’s why it remained there,” Rodolfo Caberoy, curator of the Zoology Division at the National Museum, was quoted as saying. “When there is structure, there is function,”
Once the structure, or the habitat, is destroyed, the inhabitants are sure to vanish as well. Seymour Sohmer from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, once reported that about half of the Philippines’ endemic species have already been lost due to the loss of 90 percent of the country’s original rainforests.
“This (claim) can never be validated since, until today, knowledge of Philippine biodiversity is abysmal for many important groups of flora and fauna,” said the paper titled Philippine Biodiversity and Conservation: Status, Issue, and Prospects.
Some experts believe the present knowledge of biodiversity in the country is still inadequate. “If we have good knowledge of our biodiversity then we can transform or enhance its transformation to industrial and agricultural uses,” said Dr. William Dar, when he was still the executive director of the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resources Research and Development.
“You can just imagine the benefits derived if we can convert them to other uses such as food, medicines and other products,” he continued. But the hitch is, “Hindi pa natin halos na-identify or characterize all our genetic resources so this is one big area of concern particularly with biodiversity erosion.”
But one thing is sure: the Philippines is fast losing its biological resources. “A few decades ago, the wildlife of the Philippines was notable for its abundance; now, it is notable for its variety; if present trend of destruction continues, Philippine wildlife will be notable for its absence,” commented Dr. Lee Talbot, who used to head the Southeast Asia Project on Wildlife Conservation for Nature and Natural Resources.
Once a species is extinct, it cannot be brought back again. “When the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again,” naturalist William Beebe reminded.
That statement is a good reminder for every Filipino. If each does their part, the world would be a better place to live. “If we are to build a world without hunger, we have to conserve and sustain biodiversity and use it equitably,” declares Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, a former Ramon Magsaysay Awardee.