Calauit Island, Busuanga, Palawan, the Philippines
May 4, 2017
Bizarre on a Marcosian level. In a tiny island in the Philippines, African wildlife roamed freely. No wall contained them other than the sea. Giraffes, zebras, and several species of antelope had come to call Calauit Island in Palawan their new home. The safari park was one of the legacies of the Marcos dictatorship. The official story told of a conservation collaboration between Kenya and the Philippines circa mid-70s to establish a wildlife sanctuary away from war and drought. But of course, some quarters begged to differ, believing it was a front for the hunting hobby of Marcos’ son. In any case, decades after the strongman’s ouster, some of the species, now in their second or third generation, had survived the habitat displacement.
Taking a breather from water activities, my friends and I allotted one full day for Calauit, just off the northern coast of Busuanga Island where we were staying in the town of Coron. We contracted our tricycle driver-cum-tour guide Ronnel Mendoza to take us there without considering the distance. On the map, Busuanga didn’t appear big enough. Ronnel readily agreed anyway. We awoke at 4 AM to beat the sunrise on the road. I sat on the front seat while Melds and Sukwoo took the back compartment. We were off to Calauit, woohoo!
It was one hell of a ride, put mildly. Four hours in a tricycle was punishing! I had to keep my wits about me; otherwise, I could doze off and fall out of the door-less trike cab. Dawn was just breaking; the trike hit a sleeping dog on the dark road, though not fatally. Still, the impact stabbed my heart. Was it a foreshadowing of the plight of the wildlife in Calauit? Moreover, I could not put the disclaimer “no animal has been harmed during the course of this tour” in this blog post.
The end of the road was at Sitio Macalachiao where we took a banca ride, no more than ten minutes, to Calauit Island that was visible across the narrow strip of sea. A well-tended flower garden and a newly-built tourist center greeted us. Obviously, the park had been granted funding of late. We paid the entrance fee of P200 each (we opted for a walking tour, no jeep) and were assigned a guide, Gabby Dapar.
Gabby began his spiel with the basics. Calauit Safari Park occupied the 3,700-hectare island, chosen for sharing a similar terrain with Kenyan savanna. It was declared a game reserve and wildlife sanctuary by Marcos in 1976, which effectively displaced some 200 families living therein. The residents were relocated to Halsey Island nearby. Of course, we could imagine how that ended (more on that later).
The original animal emigrants arrived on March 4, 1977 aboard modern-day Noah’s Ark, MV Salvador. A total of 104 animals consisted of eight species: bushbuck, eland, gazelle, giraffe, impala, waterbuck, topi, and zebra. Without natural predators, the population doubled in five years.
Yet survival of the fittest still applied. Of the eight species, only two thrived: the reticulated giraffe and Grévy’s zebra. From the initial 15 giraffes and 15 zebras, the latest count upon our visit was 24 and 34, respectively. The elan, waterbuck, and bushbuck also survived; however, they lived deep in the island inaccessible to the public. These species were not as sociable and comfortable with people. The gazelle, impala, and topi died out, perhaps not acquiring a taste for local vegetation or edged out of their territory by more dominant species.
Giraffe feeding was the first order of the tour. From an enclosed gazebo, we held out stalks of leaves as a group of giraffes dipped their long necks to nibble on them. But nibbling to gentle giants was forceful plucking off our puny hands. Gabby assured us giraffes were harmless and had no upper front teeth with which to bite. They used tongue action instead. Their long, thick tongue tickled me as it grazed my skin. A tug-of-war ensued as it grasped the leaves and jerked the whole bunch off my hands. I could just let go, Gabby suggested. But not before it was camera documented, I insisted.
This species native to Kenya was reticulated giraffe, named after the web patterns on their fur. But didn’t all giraffes sported this look? They sashayed like beauty queens as they made long and gentle strides across the island savanna. I took a selfie near a full-grown adult, but still kept a good distance as I didn’t want to be kicked.
I dared not approach the zebras as closely. Gabby said they could injure or even kill with one kick of their hind legs. For the record, no one had been harmed in such way in all of the park’s history. I just zoomed in on their behinds.
Grévy’s zebra, said to be the largest species, looked no bigger than a donkey from afar. Without any carnivore threatening them, they appeared carefree and lazy as they lounged and loafed around in small groups. Gabby said they were fiercely territorial. Case in point: we soon heard a commotion at a distance as one zebra chased another. Indeed, they were a force to reckon with.
We came across balls of poop of various sizes across the dusty grassland. Gabby identified the stone-like ones as zebra’s fertilizer contribution, the pebble-sized as giraffe’s. Poop size was inversely proportional to animal size.
Local animals shared the park with the African imports. We found a herd of Calamian deer, an endangered species endemic to the Calamian Islands of Palawan, grazing and resting under a tree. As an island species, they were cute and Bambi-sized. Deforestation, hunting, and habitat loss drove the species to near-extinction. Thanks to the park’s conservation program, the population in the island ballooned from a measly 25 to about 1,200 in 2016.
Gabby led us from grassland to woodland to see other local animals. Ironically, they were all caged. Only this part of the safari felt like a zoo visit. In a man-made pond, Gabby pointed at some turtles, scooping out two of them to show us their gender differentiation. All this while two others appeared to be making whoopee despite our intrusion.
Under the shade of trees was an exhibition of various species. The one and only binturong, also known as bearcat or palm civet, in the park was dozing off, probably lonely or bored or both. It could never have fun as the turtles seemed to be having. A Palawan bearded pig appeared to be foraging, perhaps cleaning up its breakfast ration. A Philippine crocodile was sunbathing. For the first time, I came face to face with a porcupine. This species, the Philippine porcupine, was endemic to Palawan, known locally as durian or landak. Gabby found one of its spines on the ground. I was impressed by his sharp eyesight!
All of the caged animals belonged to species ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered. Habitat loss and hunting could be blamed for their dwindling population. And so our discussion went back to the original residents of Calauit. As soon as Marcos was exiled in Hawaii, human families gradually reclaimed their place in the island. Predictably, incidents of poaching were attributed to them, though never admitted.
Such was (and still is) the dilemma of Calauit Island, home of wildlife and humans, both displaced by circumstances against their will.
On our way back, a tree sporting pink flowers stood out. Gabby claimed it was “Palawan cherry blossom.” Locally known as balayong, they bloomed from March to June. Our visit was right in the middle of its blooming season.
I made this trip to Calauit in honor of Mom. We had planned to visit together a year before she passed on. She was a bigger animal lover than I could ever be. In my childhood, she took me to Manila Zoo. I was too small to feed the giraffe then. The fence was set too high; my short arms could not reach the giraffe’s mouth. She did it for me. This time I did it for her.