Martial Law legacy: Out of Africa, and onto Palawan's Calauit island
When you’re a dictator, you can do almost anything and get away with it. So hey, why not bring a herd of wildlife from the African savannah to an island in the Philippines?
That’s exactly what then-President Ferdinand Marcos did in 1976, when he ordered the transport of more than a hundred animals from Kenya – including zebra, giraffe, and several antelopes – to what became known as the Calauit Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Palawan.
In tourist brochures, the official reason for having a protected area in Calauit is that it was a response to an appeal from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature for a sanctuary where endangered African wildlife could thrive.
But according to a report from Agence France-Presse, an Englishman who organized the “translocation” of animals to the Philippines and remained here after the project has said what Marcos really wanted was to start a tourism business.
“None of them were endangered… that was all nonsense,” the AFP quoted the 75-year old Tony Parkinson as saying. “We would never have put them on an island like that if they were endangered.”
Anyone who has explored Calauit would easily see how Marcos may have gotten enamored with the island. On a balmy morning, mist rises from the plains and floats languidly along the tree line. Chirping birds wake up the guests at the rangers’ cottage, and in the thick forests, elusive ones with metallic and bright plumage tease the impatient trekker with plaintive songs.
Sandy beaches sparkle along the coast of the 3,760-hectare island, which is surrounded by clear waters where the endangered dugong, sea turtles, and giant clams are found. On one side, a narrow river separates Calauit from the main island of Busuanga, and branches into even smaller passages lined by thick stands of mangrove forests.
This was the scene in the early 1990s, when the last remaining gazelle in Calauit was still hiding among the trees. Back then, a safari meant riding a battered open-air truck to see African animals in a tropical island setting. Mostly it was zebra and giraffe, with the few remaining African deer grazing in the grassy plains along with the more numerous and endemic Calamian deer, and occasionally, some wild boar.
Even then, the meager staff was already having problems caring for both the African and native species under their custody. During the dry season, there was not enough water for the animals, and some of the Palawan mousedeer kept in a small enclosure were going blind for an unknown reason.
Many of the staff had been there since the project began, and they were quick to debunk the urban legend that Calauit served as the hunting ground for Marcos’ only son Bongbong, now a senator. They said he only joined hunting parties when the game preserve’s staff needed to do seasonal culling of wild boar, which preyed on the deer.
Whatever the truth is, the only thing certain is that the African animals in Calauit have suffered from neglect after Marcos was ousted in 1986. The project has been shunted from one agency to another, and its budget has dwindled through the years. There has been talk of selling some animals to zoos abroad to raise money for the wildlife sanctuary, but the proposal has been mired in bureaucratic tussles.
Ironically, Marcos may have achieved his goal, but not for himself. Palawan officials and tour operators are now actively promoting Calauit as an attraction due to its proximity to Coron, a booming tourist destination after Boracay. Gone are the days when intrepid travelers would land on a small plane at the gravel tarmac of Yulo King’s Ranch, which has been transformed into the modern Coron airport. And Calauit is now on the itinerary of most package tours, part of a been-there, done-that experience which glosses over the serious problems confronting its wildlife.
According to the Agence France-Presse report last year, inbreeding among the surviving animals is a major concern while three species of antelope from Africa have died out.
Another recurring problem is the Balik-Calauit Movement, a group of island residents that Marcos had forcibly removed when the animals were brought in. He later issued presidential decrees that resettled them in Halsey and Burabod in Culion island, where they complained about harsh living conditions.
When it was Marcos’ turn to be removed in 1986, the former residents of Calauit banded together and returned to the farms they had left behind. Since then, there have been reports of giraffe’s necks getting caught in bamboo spikes, and even death threats within the small island community.
What started as an ambitious and supposed wildlife conservation project during Martial Law has become a conflict pitting exotic animals against native islanders, a struggle that persists until today. – KG, GMA News