A Real Ocean Adventure

This is the last of three features on discovering Subic Bay Freeport – a terrific place and I encourage everyone to visit.

The Dolphins at Ocean Adventure

The Dolphins at Ocean Adventure

If it’s thrilling dolphin, sea lion and marine shows you want to see, there’s no need to traipse over to Ocean Park in Hong Kong. Save all that overseas travel money and head to Ocean Adventure in Subic Bay.

Ocean Adventure is Southeast Asia’s only open water Marine Park. It’s fun for the whole family. Animals live and play in a natural setting of clear water swarming with marine life, coral reefs, and a lovely white sand beach.

A close encounter with a dolphin

A close encounter with a dolphin

Ocean Adventure features four main shows – a Walk on the Wild Side, amazing Kenyan acrobats, Sea Lion Marine Patrol and the main attraction, the Dolphin Fiends show.

We started with the Walk on the Wild Side show. Not only is this entertaining, it’s very educational. You get close-up views of the wildlife of the forest and meet some amazing creatures including bats, pythons and owls. You’ll also see how members of the Aeta tribe make fire using just bamboo sticks.

From there it was over to see an amazing troupe of Kenyan acrobats. Boy, talk about being fit. Their act was one breathtaking move after another.

I’d seen them at breakfast in the nearby Camayan Beach Resort and surprised them by speaking a few words of Swahili which I learnt as a child from my father, who was stationed in Kenya during WWII.

After a leisurely lunch it was on to the Sea Lion Marine Patrol. It’s impressive to see just how many tricks a sea lion can do. It was certainly a lot of action and fun.

Ocean Adventure at Subic Bay

Ocean Adventure at Subic Bay

Highlight of the visit was the Dolphin Friends show. We really enjoyed this presentation which is packed with action. We certainly learnt a lot about these highly intelligent and spectacular animals. I’ve seen the shows at Ocean Park in Hong Kong. The Ocean Adventure shows are every bit as thrilling.

Not only do visitors get the chance to see these brilliant creatures in action, but for a small additional fee, you can actually have a one-on-one encounter with them. Treats include swimming with a dolphin, meeting a dolphin in shallow water and even diving with dolphins. Now that’s something you don’t get to do in Hong Kong.

But Ocean Adventure is not all just about fun. There is a very serious conservation side to the operation.

The Ocean Adventure Rescue and Rehabilitation Program is an important part of the park’s commitment to conservation and education. It works closely with the non-profit Wildlife in Need (WIN) to care for sick, injured, or confiscated animals.

To date Ocean Adventure and WIN have received and cared for hundreds of animals including whales, dolphins, sea turtles, monkeys and a variety of birds and reptiles.

A bottle-nose dolphin at Ocean Adventure

A bottle-nose dolphin at Ocean Adventure

It’s heartening to know that all of their dolphins are rescued animals. Some came from the drive fishery in Japan where they were literally hours away from being slaughtered. Others were rescued when they came ashore sick and injured in local Philippine waters and once rehabilitated were unlikely to survive if released.

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More Subic Discoveries

In this second of three articles about Subic Bay Freeport, there’s one spot that really is a “must see” attraction for all visitors.

Set in 25 hectares of the lush Ilanin Forest, the Zoobic Safari is a wonderful nature theme park offering visitors a unique opportunity to experience exotic animals roaming in their natural habitat.

Zoobic's Tiger Safari - the only one of its kind in the Philippines

Zoobic’s Tiger Safari – the only one of its kind in the Philippines

It even features a Tiger Safari – the only one of its kind in the Philippines – where tigers freely roam an enclosed area. Visitors can get close to these remarkable beasts from the security of fully protected Jeepneys.

We started our tour in the main hall where one of the park’s knowledgeable guides briefed us. While waiting, there were opportunities to see some of the tigers in cages.

One of the magnificent tigers at the Zoobic Safari

One of the magnificent tigers at the Zoobic Safari

After the briefing, our first port of call was the Zoobic Park, a special petting zoo and animal observation area set in a tropical jungle environment where visitors are introduced to a wide variety of fascinating animals and birds, including deer, ostriches, albino caribou, a bear, monkeys, an eagle, miniature horses, ducks, guinea pigs and ferrets.

From there, we moved to the Serpentarium. Housed in an old US military bunker, visitors can see many different species of snakes including some mean-looking pythons.

An entertaining and educational animal show

An entertaining and educational animal show

We then enjoyed an entertaining and educational animal show in which park rangers show visitors exotic animals and birds. Lots of audience participation.

From there we jumped aboard a Zoobic special ‘train’ which took us to other parts of the park. First stop was the much-awaited Tiger Safari. Sitting comfortably in a caged Jeepney we entered the Tigers’ sanctuary.

Wow! There in front of us was a huge tiger taking  a bath. He paid us little attention as he wallowed in the water. Immediately, another tiger appeared and another and yet another. What an experience.

If you’ve bought a dressed chicken for the tiger’s merienda, park guides tie the bird and throw it outside the vehicle. The tiger then chases the chicken adding to the thrill of the ride before quaffing it at close range.

After that thrilling experience you get to see the tigers up close in their caged areas called Close Encounter. They really are magnificent beasts, but I wouldn’t want to meet one on a dark night!

The adventure is almost over, but wait. There’s more to come.

Next is the Animal Muzoolum, a small museum of  fossils and from there, we walked to Aeta’s Trail where tribe members perform a short show of their traditional dances.

The Aeta's Trail

The Aeta’s Trail

The last thrill of our visit was Croco Loco where we saw an amazing sight of a pit of over 200 crocodiles. We had fun with pieces of chicken on a fishing pole dangling them over these mighty creatures and waiting for one to quickly snap and enjoy a tasty snack.

One of the 200 crocs in the Croco Loco

One of the 200 crocs in the Croco Loco

What a day. If you are planning to visit the Subic Bay area, this really is an attraction not to be missed.

October is National Tamaraw Month

Not many people know this, but October is National Tamaraw Month.

As a foreigner, I know very little about the tamaraw. To be honest, I only knew of the animal’s existence because for years I’ve seen locally-made Toyota vans bearing the name ‘Tamaraw’. I also understand the tamaraw as symbol on a boy scout’s neckerchief.

A tamaraw - also known as a Mindoro dwarf buffalo

A tamaraw – also known as a Mindoro dwarf buffalo

But what exactly is a tamaraw?

The tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis) or Mindoro dwarf buffalo is a small, hoofed mammal belonging to the family Bovidae. It’s endemic to the island of Mindoro and is the only endemic Philippine bovine. It is believed, however, to have once also thrived on Luzon.

Contrary to common belief and past classification, the tamaraw is not a sub-species of the carabao.

The much larger sweeping horns of the carabao

The much larger sweeping horns of the carabao

What’s the difference between a tamaraw and a carabao?

The tamaraw stands four feet at the shoulder and weighs about 300 kilograms. It is solitary, skittish, and prone to charging when threatened or startled. During the Pleistocene Epoch 12,000 years ago, tamaraw herds ranged across mainland Luzon.

Extirpated by hunting, disease and land conversion, only around 350 hold out atop the rugged mountains of Mindoro. It is today classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically-endangered, just one step above extinction.

The Carabao (Bubalus bubalis) is slightly bigger at around 4.5 feet at the shoulder and weighs from 500 to 700 kilograms. Domesticated 5,000 years ago and introduced by Malay settlers to the Philippines some 2,200 years ago, it’s a highly gregarious, docile and subservient – perfect for draft-work like pulling carts and ploughs. Around 3.2 million Carabaos range throughout the Philippines, remaining the country’s most familiar and beloved farm animal.

Unlike the sweeping large horns of the carabao, the tamaraw has shorter horns that are somewhat V-shaped. The tamaraw is also slightly hairier and has light markings on its face.

For many years, the Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP) has been working hard to save the tamaraw from extinction.

In 1980, the Tamaraw Gene Pool Farm was established in Manoot, Rizal in the province of Occidental Mindoro. It’s main purpose was to serve as a captive breeding facility. Alas, it was not a success.
From 20 captured animals, only one tamaraw was produced.

Undaunted, the TCP is converting the captive breeding facility into the “Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation, Research and Education Center”.

The tamaraw will still be the star attraction, and part of the facility to be retained for research and captive breeding purposes, and as a showcase of the bovine’s typical habitat. The center will also act as a repository to various wildlife species found in Mindoro, especially those confiscated or apprehended from illegal traders and owners.

Rare deer born in Bacolod

A Visayan spotted deer fawn was born recently at the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation’s Biodiversity Conservation Center (NFEFI-BCC) in Bacolod City.

The sex of the fawn is not yet determined. It’s the fourth offspring from breeding pair Girom and Sandy. There are currently 14 deer at the center.

Mother Sandy and fawn

Mother Sandy and fawn

“The Visayan spotted deer is the largest endemic species of the West Visayas Faunal Region,” said Dr. Joanne Justo, the center’s curator.

“The species is now critically endangered and currently known to occur only in Negros and Panay islands. Deforestation and hunting for food and pet trade have greatly contributed in the decline in number of deer.”

The NFEFI-BCC is breeding this species in captivity and eventually the captive-bred animals will be released back into the wild. But this can only be done once studies have proven that the habitat is adequate and well-protected for their survival.

In the meantime, the center is involved in animal exchanges (or ‘breeding loans’) with other DENR-accredited institutions to ensure the genetic diversity of the captive population.

A Royal Garden

Negros Occidental Garden Club members were treated to a private viewing on Saturday of a BBC documentary film featuring Prince Charles and the famous gardens at Highgrove House, his English country estate.

Prince Charles (r) with celebrity British gardener Alan Titchmarsh

Prince Charles (r) with celebrity British gardener Alan Titchmarsh

The film was presented by the Sampaguita Group at the club’s monthly meeting at the Sugarland Hotel.

Prince Charles at Highgrove

Prince Charles at Highgrove

The Highgrove gardens, covering some six hectares, are a showcase for the Prince’s interest in traditional and organic growing methods.

In the film, the Prince provides celebrity British gardener and broadcaster, Alan Titchmarsh, with unprecedented access to the gardens and gives a remarkably informal and candid interview thereby offering a rare insight into a royal passion.

The Prince bought Highgrove in 1980. It came with six hectares of almost featureless garden. In the ensuing 30 years, Prince Charles set about transforming the landscape into a beautiful array of diverse gardens.

Highgrove is an acclaimed promoter of the organic movement, both in terms of environmental sustainability and by its sheer natural beauty.

Tirchmarsh says the gardens are full of “floral pageantry, with vivid color composition, buzzing bees and a heady mixture of scents”.  He adds that by his reckoning Prince Charles is the best royal gardener Britain ever had, both by dint of knowledge and practical skills.

Garden club members were certainly impressed by what they saw and they hope to organize a tour to the UK to see the gardens in the future.

The Thyme Walk at Highgrove

The Thyme Walk at Highgrove

The Prince regularly invites local charities and gardening groups for tours. The gardens are also open to the general public at certain times of the year, but advance booking is essential due to the heavy demand for tickets.

Will the Philippines become a hornbill graveyard?

Dr. William Oliver

Dr. William Oliver

British conservationist Dr. William Oliver, director of Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc (PBCFI), believes another species of Philippine hornbill will become extinct within the next five years.

Oliver, a frequent visitor to Bacolod as the PBCFI is a partner of the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation (NFEFI), made the prediction at last week’s International Hornbill Conference in Makati.

“It’s inevitable and it’s depressing,” he said “But, with sufficient effort the future can be secured if enough priority is given to these magnificent birds. Having said that I don’t hold out a lot of hope for a large percentage of that species.”

Oliver stressed that the extinction of a hornbill sub-species was not new to the country.

“Among the world’s 57 hornbill species, the Ticao Tarictic, a subspecies of the Visayan hornbill found only on Ticao Island in Masbate, is considered extinct,” he added

Visayan tarictic hornbill

Visayan tarictic hornbill

Dr. Joanne Justo, curator of the NFEFI’s Biodiversity Conservation Center (BCC) in Bacolod City said that hornbills are an eye-catching bird species with noticeably large, colorful beaks. Unfortunately for them, this makes the birds attractive pets.

“But the biggest threat to hornbills is habitat loss. They depend primarily on forests to survive and with the country’s dwindling forest cover, the hornbill’s chance of survival also declines,” she said.

Oliver added: “It’s a rule of thumb that if you’ve lose 95 per cent of your forest, you lose 50 per cent of your species.”

He noted that Mindoro has lost more than 93 per cent of its forest over.

Mining is also a threat to hornbills as mining companies use vast forest areas for their operations.

Oliver said there is no one-size fits all solution to hornbill conservation. But added that awareness of the problem is a positive first step.

“We need to get more people in the Philippines to be aware that this country is endowed with a

The Rufous-headed hornbill

The Rufous-headed hornbill

huge diversity of hornbills. Not only are they beautiful birds, they also perform a valuable ecological services such as seed dispersers.”

In the Western Visayas the Rufous-headed hornbill (Aceros waldeni) is considered  one of the most threatened hornbill species in the world. It is only known or presumed to occur only in three islands – Panay, Negros and Guimaras.

The other species of hornbill found in Negros is the Visayan Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides panini).

NFEFI’s Biodiversity Conservation Center at the Provincial Lagoon is home to many threatened animals and birds including three species of hornbills. Members of the public can see these remarkable birds as well as other rare and endangered animals including warty pigs, spotted deer and leopard cats at the BCC from Mondays to Saturdays.

Hornbill gab slated for April 24-26

6th International Hornbill Conference

6th International Hornbill Conference

Dr. Joanne Justo, curator of the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation’s (NFEFI) Biodiversity Conservation Center (BCC) in Bacolod City, will join other experts at the 6th International Hornbill Conference at the Ayala Museum and Asian Institute of Management, Makati City on April 24-26.

Organized by the Wild Bird Cub of the Philippines, Hornbill Research Foundation and Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, this is the first time the conference will be held in the Philippines.

While the conference topic may appear to be somewhat esoteric to some, Dr. Justo emphasized that these beautiful birds play a serious role in our ecology as they are important seed dispersers and more needs to be done to protect them.

“A number of species of hornbill are threatened with extinction including the two species that are found in Negros Island,” said Dr. Justo.

“The Rufous-headed hornbill (Aceros waldeni) is considered  one of the most threatened hornbill species in the world. It is only known or presumed to occur only in three islands – Panay, Negros and Guimaras. They are already presumed extinct in Guimaras and very small number remains in the other two islands”

Visayan tarictic hornbill

Visayan tarictic hornbill

The other species of hornbill found in Negros is the Visayan Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides panini).

The theme of the conference is ‘Hornbills and Caring Communities. Helping Forests to Thrive,’ reflecting the integral relationships between hornbills and ecological communities and the role they play in ensuring the sustainability of forests and providing ecosystem services.

Rufous-headed hornbill - critically endangered

Rufous-headed hornbill – critically endangered

Delegates from around the world will participate in the conference which aims to bring together people studying or interested in hornbills to present and share studies, information and conservation techniques.

Keynote speakers will be Dr. Pilai Poonswad from the Hornbill Research Foundation at Mahidol University in Bangkok and Dr. Juan Carlos Gonzalez, assistant professor at the Institute for Biological Sciences at UP Los Baños, Laguna.

Dr. Justo added that after the conference it is expected that a group of delegates will visit NFEFI where they will see the conservation center’s three species of  hornbills and hear about local programs to protect and conserve these and other wildlife.

World first for NFEFI

In another world first, the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation (NFEFI) has successfully bred two Visayan leopard cat kittens at its Biodiversity Conservation Center (BCC) in Bacolod City.

An adult Visayan leopard cat

An adult Visayan leopard cat

This is the first time this subspecies has been bred in captivity anywhere in the world .

The breeding pair were rescued early last year from La Carlota City – the female from the farm of former NFEFI president Gerry Ledesma and the male from a nearby farm. Both parents are around 20 months old. The kittens were born earlier this month.

“This is an amazing feat,” said Gerry Ledesma. “Breeding leopard cats is extremely difficult as these beautiful animals are sadly prone to many diseases, especially those spread by stray cats. I congratulate everyone involved at NFEFI, especially curator Dr. Joanne Justo and her team.”

This is the latest in a series of world first clocked-up by NFEFI in the conservation-breeding of endangered species. Other successful firsts include the Visayan tarictic hornbill in 1999, the Negros sailfin lizard in 2003 and the Philippine eagle-owl in 2005.

NFEFI has also successfully bred Visayan spotted deer, Visayan warty pigs and the Visayan bleeding-heart pigeons. All are critically endangered and endemic the West Visayas Faunal Region.

“All of these species are fully protected by law and it’s illegal to kill, capture, transport, buy, sell or maintain them in captivity whether as pets or animal collections except under special permits from the DENR,” said NFEFI president Teddy Boy Infante.

“Unfortunately, many of these animals are still hunted, whether for human consumption or for the exotic animal trade”.

The Visayan leopard cat - fully protected by law

The Visayan leopard cat – fully protected by law

The ongoing project ‘Partnerhips for Biodiversity Conservation: Mainstreaming to Local Agricultural Landscape (Biodiversity Partnerships Project)’ of the NFEFI, Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc. (PBCFI), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Region VI, the Provincial Government of Negros Occidental, the different local governments units and other stakeholders is intended to increase the protection efforts in the biologically critical sites in the province, primarily the North Negros Natural Park and also the critical limestone forest fragments in south-western Negros.

Both areas are crucial to the survival not only of Visayan leopard cats but also to huge array of critically threatened species found only in West Visayan Faunal Region.

Negros Interior Biodiversity Expedition Ends

The 2012 Negros Interior Biodiversity Expedition (NIBE) to the interior of the North Negros Natural Park (NNNP) ended on Tuesday.

The expedition team, comprising scientists, biologists, mountaineers, teachers and logistics experts from the UK and the Philippines, set off on March 24 to the park’s interior on a mission to undertake a comprehensive survey of the rare and unique mammals inhabiting the area.

NIBE leader James Sawyer (left) with two members of the team James Benares,  mountain leader and Dr. Neil D'Cruze, research leader.

NIBE leader James Sawyer (left) with two members of the team James Benares,
mountain leader and Dr. Neil D'Cruze, research leader.

Using 20 remote cameras team members were able to capture some 4,000 hours of footage, much of which showed evidence that the park is still home to a multitude of rare and endemic species.

The team also undertook an extensive study of study of various insects and rare reptiles and amphibians.

Expedition leader James Sawyer said the trip had been physically challenging, but it had been “a beautiful experience”. He added that the wealth of data collected on the expedition now had to be analyzed and assessed by local and international experts before any solid results could be released. He expects initial results to be available in the next few weeks.

The expedition was supported DENR, PEMO and the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation (NFEFI)

The UK members of the expedition will return to England Later this week.

Second Negros Interior Biodiversity Expedition Underway

A team of environmentalists from the UK and the Philippines set off on Saturday on its second biological expedition to the interior of the North Negros Natural Park (NNNP).

The Negros Interior Biodiversity Expedition (NIBE) team, which includes scientists, biologists, mountaineers, teachers and logistics experts, first ventured into the park in April 2009.

NFEFI president Paul Lizares, Don Salvador Benedicto Mayor Marxlen dela Cruz, NIBE team leader James Sawyer, Dr. Neil D'Cruze, Dr. David Farrance, Ruth De Vere, Steven Megson, James Benares, Michael de la Peña, NFEFI trustee Robert Harland (l-r standing). Emerson Trinidad, Errol James Mallorca, June Rey Alib, Ernie Mallaoca (l-r front row)

NFEFI president Paul Lizares, Don Salvador Benedicto Mayor Marxlen dela Cruz, NIBE team leader James Sawyer, Dr. Neil D'Cruze, Dr. David Farrance, Ruth De Vere, Steven Megson, James Benares, Michael de la Peña, NFEFI trustee Robert Harland (l-r standing). Emerson Trinidad, Errol James Mallorca, June Rey Alib, Ernie Mallaoca (l-r front row)

Team leader, London-based James Sawyer, said the findings of the 2009 expedition clearly showed that the center of the park contains some unique habitats.

“These require further scientific study, and that’s why we are back,” said Sawyer. “We hope the expedition will provide us with more data and analysis that confirms the park is of major biological importance.”

The park is home to a multitude of rare and endemic species, while also playing a vital role in watershed protection for surrounding communities.

Among its many activities during the three week expedition, the team will position 20 remote cameras in strategic areas so any movements by rare and threatened species such as Visayan Spotted Deer and Visayan Warty Pigs can be recorded.

The team will also undertake a study of local dung beetles as they feed on the waste of certain animals and they will indicate the presence of those animals.

And using pitfall traps, the team will be able to ascertain which reptiles and amphibians are present in the park.

The expedition is partnered by the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation, Inc (NFEFI) which sponsored the permit enabling the expedition to enter the park.

Said Paul Lizares, president of NFEFI: “We are delighted once again to be working with the NIBE team.
We hope the results will be of further value in the management of this important park as well as help raise its profile even further.”

The expedition is also being supported by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of Oxford University, the University of Texas, the Philippines National Museum and the Natural History Museum of Oxford.

Adding support with logistics and security is Don Salvador Benedicto Mayor Marxlen dela Cruz who praised the collaboration between a team of foreign nationals and local mountain trek leaders in  working together to preserve the biodiversity of local forests, particularly in the area of DSB.

The expedition will end on April 19.