Bringing the Philippine crocodile back from the brink of extinction

By |2020-03-31T16:36:59+00:00September 6th, 2018|Biodiversity, Education, Freshwater, Interviews, Southeast Asia, Species|Comments Off on Bringing the Philippine crocodile back from the brink of extinction

An interview with Marites (Tess) Gatan Balbas,  Deputy Director of the Mabuwaya Foundation, an organisation supported by Synchronicity Earth – and others – to conserve the Philippine crocodile through its community-based wetlands conservation programme in San Mariano, Isabela in the Philippines.

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you were growing up?

When I was young, I dreamt of being a teacher. I had heard that teachers were always well respected and were a model not only for children but for everyone. As a teenager, my dream changed – I decided I wanted to be an accountant, so that’s what I enrolled to study for my first year at college. The problem was, to study accountancy, you had to go to a private college, which was quite expensive, and my parents could not afford my studies after that first year. So, rather than stopping my education, I opted to enrol in the public university in our college for a forestry course. I knew that the foresters in our municipality had a good standard of living, with big houses and a steady income – at least that’s what I had heard – because at that time logging was booming in the Philippines. At the same time, I also realised that logging was not creating a better place to live. If it’s not done sustainably, it destroys the environment.

I knew that because of all the logging, the Philippines would need people to restore the forests that were being removed, and that they would need people who knew about forests to do that.

Did you always love animals? Or did you have a specific experience that led to you being interested in animals?

Honestly, I never used to like animals! I was afraid of everything that bites and I saw people who had been bitten by animals and had died or had developed severe infections.

When I was 16 years old, in my first year at college as a forestry student, we were taught about the status of the environment and the wildlife that lives in the forest. To be honest, the lectures themselves were not all that impressive, but what they said really worried a student like me. Knowing that forest cover and wildlife species were dwindling gave me the motivation to finish my studies and try to do something to bring back the beauty of the environment as I imagined it was in the past. I started doing my share for conservation during my college days by implementing an environmental restoration project. At that time, I was the first female governor of the student body organisation and I introduced a reforestation project near to our college.

What was your first role in conservation?

When I graduated from my forestry course, I was employed as a Community Organizer with Plan International, who were implementing one of the biggest conservation and development projects in the Philippines at that time. The project was funded by the Dutch government and focussed on the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park.  My work was focused on organization and training for development-focused organizations and the provision of alternative livelihood options to local farmers. But it was during this time that we rediscovered the existence of the Philippine Crocodile.

What was it that drew you towards the crocodile?

In 1999, when I was working as a community organiser in San Mariano in Isabela province, a fisherman brought a Philippine crocodile to our team.

It was the first time that I had seen a real Philippine crocodile. That was when I first learned how special this species is: it is only found in the Philippines and is Critically Endangered. I realised that if we did not do something to save it, it would go extinct.

Philippine crocodile, by Clare Shenstone

Plan International, who I was working for at that time, started doing some research into the species. However, when that project ended in 2003, the Mabuwaya Foundation was established so that research and conservation work on the Philippine crocodile could continue.

In 2004, I was hired by the Mabuwaya Foundation as a Community organizer, because they understood the need to involve the community if we were to protect this species and save it from extinction. I knew that I was well-suited to that aspect of conservation work. Up to now, we are still working with the communities to conserve the species and its habitat. We also work with local governments, universities and village leaders.

Tess gives a speech at the release of a Philippine Crocodile at Dunoy Lake. Image © Merlijn van Weerd

What difficulties and challenges did you face in your efforts to conserve the Philippine crocodile?

In the Philippines, these crocodiles have an image problem! Most people have very