Working with local communities to protect a Critically Endangered crocodile in the Philippines
Philippine crocodile by Clare Shenstone
At Synchronicity Earth we believe that essential aspects of effective conservation are long-term commitment and the capacity to take in all aspects of a situation causing species decline. If a species is bred successfully in captivity, but released into degraded habitat threatened by human activity, successful rehabilitation will be extremely challenging. Our partner, the Mabuwaya Foundation in the Philippines, is an outstanding example of an organisation whose long-term commitment to a project has allowed it to achieve effective change through working with communities, local government, and species.
Endemism under threat
In a previous blog, we looked at the exceptional levels of endemism in Southeast Asia and why this makes it an urgent area for conservation work. The Philippines, as a relatively isolated nation of islands (over 7,000 of them in fact), is the perfect location for the evolution of endemic species – nearly half of the terrestrial wildlife in the Philippines exists in only this country, many of them only on specific islands. Unfortunately, however, much of the Philippines has been severely degraded, with rampant logging, heavy mining activities, and slash and burn agriculture continuing to threaten much of the landscape. Like many developing countries, socioeconomic factors play heavily into the drivers of species loss. Population levels in the Philippines are high and growing rapidly, and over a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, with levels skewed towards rural areas. This means that agricultural and land use pressures are growing constantly, as more and more people attempt to eke out a living from the land. A vicious cycle ensues, as impacts of environmental degradation such as increased erosion, pollution from mining operations, and drops in fisheries productivity severely impact people living in rural areas.
Saving the Philippine Crocodile
One of the endemic species of the Philippines is the Philippine Crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis), listed as Critically Endangered on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ®. This crocodile can now only be found in three locations in the country, with fewer than 200 adults believed to be living in the wild. They are threatened by direct persecution, as well as conversion of their habitat, water pollution and overfishing. Our partner, the Mabuwaya Foundation, is working in the province of Isabela in Luzon, northern Philippines, to protect the Philippine Crocodile in one of its last remaining habitats in the wild.
An all-too-common trend in endangered species conservation is the placing of focus solely on species survival and habitat protection, while communities which directly interact with the species are left out of the equation. On top of a successful captive breeding program, Mabuwaya focuses on creating community managed wetland protected areas, and running communication, education and public awareness campaigns. Mabuwaya uses a diverse range of activities, such as community puppet shows, posters, and community consultations to fully involve people in the management of their local environment.
This kind of work is fundamental in maintaining crocodile conservation into the future. Without buy-in of local communities it will be very difficult to achieve true protection of wetlands in the area. And Mabuwaya have achieved great things in the communities they work in. In ten years since they started their education work, direct persecution of crocodiles has dropped by 80%, and 17 villages have taken on local legislation banning the use of destructive fishing methods like pesticides and dynamite (1). Recently, their model of wetland management has been taken on by the municipal government with plans for it to be adopted across the province.
Children enjoy a puppet show about the importance of wetlands. (Image: Mabuwaya Foundation)
Part of Mabuwaya’s work also involves practical regeneration of the habitat the crocodiles depend on. The group has a long history of working on reforestation projects, and it has developed in-depth knowledge on how to involve communities in the restoration of local habitats. One aspect of this is the restoration of buffer zones around crocodile sanctuaries, planting native trees to increase habitat for prey for the crocodiles, as well as providing suitable nesting areas. The reforested areas also create a natural boundary between crocodiles and livestock, and monitoring has shown that the buffer zones work in reducing contact between crocodiles and local communities.
Mabuwaya works with a local peoples’ organisation called San Isidro Rainforest Association (SIRA) on several different reforestation projects. These include a 27-hectare plot of idle grasslands and buffer zones along the boundaries of the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park – the reforestation of which involves a combination of planting native rainforest trees, the seeds of which are gathered from the natural park; and agroforestry, where farmers are paid to plant native fruit trees on their farms. Communities are paid to cultivate seedlings in local nurseries and to take part in on-going planting, protection, monitoring and care of seedlings in the reforested areas. They have also developed their own system of financing reforestation work, through a local store and bakery, and by producing and selling seedlings from the nursery. Constant monitoring of seedling survival rates has informed changes in the native seedling mix used for reforestation to make them more resilient to local weather conditions. A survey carried out ten years after the first trees were planted in the original plantation found 47 different tree species surviving ranging from 1.6 to 10.6 meters tall.
Restoration work in the northern Philippines is still very much a work in progress. Due to the complex situation of a growing need for farmland, limited support from the national government, and the constant threat from extreme weather, it is necessary to constantly improve the model of reforestation and agroforestry. Mabuwaya’s ultimate goal is to develop a combined reforestation/agroforestry system in the north which provides benefits for farmers and the environment alike. Although successful examples of such systems exist in the south of the country, very few can be found in the north where the climate and ecosystem are very different. While the work is bound to produce a mixture of successes and failures, Mabuwaya is confident that through consistent community involvement, appropriate technical support, and long-term commitment to the project, significant improvements in habitat restoration can be achieved.
1: Cureg, M. C., Bagunu, A. M., Van Weerd, M., Balbas, M. G., Soler, D., Van Der Ploeg, J. (2016) A longitudinal evaluation of the Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) campaign for the Philippine crocodile Crocodylus mindorensis in northern Luzon, Philippines, International Zoo Yearbook, 50, 1-16
* ® The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is a registered trade mark of IUCN.