The last of the white heron has left a small rice farm along Aguinaldo Highway in Dasmari?as City.
No matter how small, the rice field serves as a staging and feeding ground for a handful of white herons during migration season and they have added attraction to the very few remaining green spaces on that portion of the major thoroughfare in the bustling city in Cavite.
The farm is grazing ground of a few cows, and about 20 or 30 domestic ducks are being raised in the farm. Also called the great white egret, or locally called tagak, these highly migratory waterfowls are among the thousands of migratory birds that pick the Philippines as their staging ground.
Decades ago, the tagak are being hunted for their meat, or are being sold as exotic pets.
Not anymore. Since the mid-1990s, the Philippines, through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), had intensified the campaign against hunting or killing birds in the country.
These bird sites are being closely monitored by the DENR, for early detection and prevention of the spread of the dreaded bird-flu virus, which has of late affected the Philippines's poultry industry.
The DENR is now promoting tourism-related activities to educate the people on the importance of these migratory birds and their habitats, especially wetlands, where they stay to feed and roost during migration to avoid the cold winter season.
Being part of the East Asian-Australian Flyway, the Philippines plays host to tens of thousands of migrating birds. The annual migration of birds starts in September and ends in April.
In the Philippines, if one sees a few of these birds during this time of the year, the reason is they might have been left out by the flock.
Not to worry, though, because if they are protected, they become resident-migrants of a particular bird site.
Environment Undersecretary Jonas R. Leones, the spokesman of Secretary Roy A. Cimatu, said the Philippines values its various international commitment, such as in the Ramsar Convention, to ensure a strong link that will protect migratory birds and all the important staging ground and wintering areas.
"The Ramsar Convention protects swamps and migratory areas. We have to do that [value international commitment] because migration is a very important cycle. The point of Ramsar is to protect the migratory sites," he said.
He added that the Philippines does not want to be the weak link of migratory bird sites.
"Not only that, these sites are important for food security, for biodiversity and for protection against natural calamities," Leones, the DENR?s undersecretary for policy, planning, international affairs and foreign-assisted projects, told the BusinessMirror in an interview on April 30.
Besides the benefits of having a healthy environment and ecosystem for the conservation of threatened species, keeping its commitment under treaties like the Ramsar Convention, he said, makes the Philippines qualified for access to international funding support or aid.
"Since we need to protect these sites, if we are a signatory of the convention, we can also avail ourselves of funding in case it becomes available," he said.
Like in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Leones said, its ratification of the Paris Agreement now allows the Philippines access to the multibillion-dollar green climate fund, which can boost the country's efforts to combat climate change.
The Convention on Wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources, its web site said.
It got its name from the Iranian city of Ramsar, where the treaty was adopted in 1971. It came into force in 1975. There are currently 169 contracting parties to the treaty, 2,303 Ramsar sites and 228,921,972 hectares of total surface of designated sites. The convention entered into force in the Philippines on November 8, 1994.
The Philippines currently has seven designated Ramsar Sites or Wetlands of International Importance, with a combined surface area of 244,017 hectares.
Besides being a party to the Ramsar Convention, the Philippines is also a signatory to the Bonn Convention, or the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.
Various environmental laws that protect endangered wildlife, including migratory birds, are available in the country. This includes the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act, which designates protected areas, setting them aside for conservation.
There is also the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, which prohibits illegal wildlife trade, including poaching or hunting, or harvesting wildlife resources. The law designates certain areas, particularly those considered as key biodiversity areas, as critical habitats for the protection of these amazing flyers.
592 bird species
According to Bird Life International, 592 species of birds can be found in the Philippines. Of these, 456 species are landbirds and 20 are migratory.
The Philippines also has a total of 258 breeding endemic birds, 28 seabirds and 124 waterbirds
A total of 92 bird species that can be found in the Philippines are globally threatened, 15 are critically endangered, 54 vulnerable, 78 near threatened and 416 fall under the conservation status "least concern."
There are also 10 endemic bird areas in the Philippines. These are in Batanes and Babuyan Islands, Luzon, Mindoro, Tablas and Sibuyan Islands in Romblon, Cebu, Eastern Visayas, Negros and Panay, Palawan, Siquijor, Sulu archipelago and Mindanao.
A list of Ramsar Sites in the Philippines identifies the various threats that the government needs to address.
Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary
The Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Agusan del Sur in Mindanao, with a total of 14,836 hectares, is described as a vast complex of freshwater marshes and watercourses with numerous shallow lakes and ponds in the upper basin of the Agusan River and its tributaries, which rise in the hills of eastern Mindanao.
"Some parts of the marsh have been converted into fishponds and rice paddies. The site acts as storage for rainwater and reduces the downstream flow of floodwater into Butuan City and other population centers," the Ramsar Site information furnished by the DENR-Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) to the BusinessMirror revealed.
It said the marsh supports the largest expanses left in the Philippines of seven habitat types, and includes a very large area of swamp forest and a peat swamp forest not found anywhere else in the country.
"High silt loads caused by deforestation and other activities in the catchment are a continuing problem," the document added.
According to the document, the marsh is sparsely populated because of seasonal flooding.
Among the threats to the marsh include the trapping of crocodiles for sale to commercial farms, which is a source of living to some people in the area.
Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area
The Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area, a coastal wetland in Manila Bay within Metropolitan Manila, is comprised of two interconnected, mangrove-covered islands, shallow lagoons and coastline.
It was designated as a critical habitat in 2007, through a presidential proclamation, to ensure the survival of threatened, restricted-range and congregatory species. At least 5,000 individuals of migratory and resident birds have been recorded at the site, including about 47 migratory species, such as the vulnerable Chinese egret (Egretta eulophotes).
The most important of the resident bird species found in the ecotourism area is the vulnerable Philippine duck (Anas luzonica), which breeds at the site and is endemic to the country.
According to the DENR-BMB, from 2007 to 2011, the site supports at least one person of the estimated population of black-winged stilts (Himantopus himantopus) using the East Asian-Australasian flyway.
The site faces threats from near densely populated areas, particularly from garbage.
Other threats include ongoing land reclamation and mangrove cutting.
Naujan Lake National Park Site
In Oriental Mindoro the Naujan Lake National Park Site, with a total area of 14,568 hectares, is the fifth-largest lake in the Philippines. The volcanic lake receives water from local runoff with no major effluents.
The lake has 14 species of fish, five of them migratory, and is an important feeding or wintering area for large numbers of ducks and other waterbirds, such as herons, egrets, rails and bitterns.
Other species found in the lake are the rare plain swamp hen (Amaurornis olivaceous) and the endemic species of freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis).
Most of the people in the area depend upon the lake for their livelihood through fishing.
The Mangyan, indigenous peoples of Mindoro, including the Tadyawan tribe, and the damuong or non-Mangyan, are among the beneficiaries of the lake's bounty.
Fishing is the principal occupation and source of income, but the lake also provides water for drinking, laundry, bathing and irrigation.
Negros Occidental Coastal Wetlands Conservation Area
The Negros Occidental Coastal Wetlands Conservation Area (NOCWCA) lies along 110 kilometers of coastline of the island of Negros.
It covers 52 coastal barangays and seven municipalities, namely, Pulupandan, Valladolid, San Enrique, Pontevedra, Hinigaran, Binalbagan and Ilog.
The wetland hosts three globally threatened marine turtles, the critically endangered hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), the endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the vulnerable olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea).
The area is also known to host the vulnerable Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris).
In 2014 72 waterbird species were recorded in the conservation area, including the globally endangered great knot (Calidris tenuirostris), far eastern curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) and spotted greenshank (Tringa guttifer).
There are three other vulnerable species: the Philippine duck, Chinese egret and Java sparrow (Lonchura oryzivora).
It is also known for its rich and diverse coastal resources, particularly mangroves and shellfish, including economically important species, such as oysters, green mussels (Perna viridis), nylon shell (Paphia undulata), angel wing shell (Pholas orientalis), shrimps and crabs.
The site faces potential threats?including the conversion of mangrove forests and other wetlands to commercial or residential uses or for aquaculture, and also pollution by industrial waste and coliform contamination.
Overfishing in some areas also threatens the biodiversity and the sustainability of local livelihoods.
Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary
The Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Cebu province is a low-lying island surrounded by extensive intertidal sandflats, mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs and islets.
It is one of the most important areas in the country for significant numbers of migratory waterbirds and provides a habitat for staging, wintering, roosting and feeding birds.
?Over 10,000 shorebirds have been recorded at one time [in the area], with the total number approaching 50,000. [It is] the most important site in the Philippines for the rare waterbird species, Asiatic dowitcher,? the Ramsar document said.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
In Palawan the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is a National Geological Site, Asean Heritage Park, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.
The site is unique in the biogeographic region because it connects a range of important ecosystems from the mountain-to-the-sea, including a limestone karst landscape with a complex cave system, mangrove forests, lowland evergreen tropical rain forests and freshwater swamps.
Also known as home to the Puerto Princesa Underground River, the park is home to about 800 plant and 233 animal species, including the critically endangered Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia) and hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate), as well as the endangered green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) and Nordmanns greenshank (Tringa guttifer).
There are also some 15 endemic species of birds, such as the Palawan peacock pheasant (Polyplectron emphanum) and the Tabon scrub fowl (Megapodius freycinet cumingii).
One of the unique features of the park is the 8.2-kilometer-long section of the Cabayugan River that flows underground within large formations of stalactites and stalagmites. The river, which provides water to local communities for domestic and agricultural uses, is now a major ecotourism destination.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Site
Also in Palawan province, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Site is a National Marine Park and World Heritage Site in the center of the Sulu Sea.
"This wetland is an example of an ecosystem with near-pristine coral reefs having high diversity with at least 359 species of corals [equivalent to about 80 percent of all coral species in the Philippines], 600 species of fish, seven species of seagrass, 13 species of sharks and two species of marine turtles," according to the Ramsar Site information.
The biogeographic region has one of the highest coral diversity in the world, harboring threatened species like the vulnerable staghorn coral (Acropora abrolhosensis) and dana staghorn coral (Acropora aculeus), and serves as an important source and sink not only for coral larvae but also for fish and other marine species.
The site harbors the highest number of white-tip sharks and supports threatened fish, such as the endangered humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) and the vulnerable giant grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus).
Islets provide the only known breeding area for the endemic subspecies of black noddy (Anous minutus worcestri) in the Philippines.
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park acts as breeding and feeding grounds for threatened species, such as the critically endangered Christmas Island frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi) and the critically endangered hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).
Threats to the site include plans for oil exploration in the Sulu Sea, illegal harvesting of topshell and the introduction of invasive plant species.
The Philippines is one of the mega-diverse countries in the world, but is also one of the biodiversity hot spots because of the rapid rate of biodiversity loss, mainly because of habitat loss brought about by destructive development projects, massive land conversion for agriculture or human settlement, illegal wildlife trade, and the hunting and poaching for food and trophy.
The last of the white heron has left a small rice farm along Aguinaldo Highway in Dasmari?as City.