The unique Savannah ecosystem of Calamianes
BY: ERROL ABADA GATUMBATO
CORON, PALAWAN – The moment I disembarked from a commercial flight from Manila to this northern tip municipality of Palawan province last week, I immediately noticed a different kind and yet an awesome environment, which I thought could only be found mostly in African regions. The relatively dry scenery, with forest patches scattered in vast grasslands, reminded me of African animals that were transported and are surviving in Calauit, one of the islands comprising the Calamian Group of Islands or Calamianes. This island group also includes Culion, Busuanga and over a hundred more islands. Coron and Busuanga municipalities occupy the Busuanga Island, while Culion is a separate island municipality. Coron is another island in Coron municipality, a popular tourist destination in this part of the Philippines and an important ancestral domain of the Tagbanwas.
As we traversed the road from the airport to the town proper, several sites offer glimpses to what I compared with Jurassic, because you seem to be in an isolated place, with some strange animals may suddenly appear, especially with the mystique and serene ambient provided by the late afternoon’s Sun. With the beautiful landscape, I could only imagine that I was in an African Safari. When I shared this observation to Lisa Paguntalan, she told me the scenery is actually a semblance of what the Calamianes, also known as Calamian Islands, looked like some 23,000 years ago.
Paguntalan, Director for Field Operations of the Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Inc., and I were in Coron to attend the First Coron Environment Forum organized by Coron Initiative, through the efforts of Susan Santos de Cardenas of the Sustainable Tourism, Hospitality, Events and Marketing, and Al Linsangan of the Calamianes Cultural Conservation Network, Inc., with the participation of various local, national and international institutions. Paguntalan, a biologist by profession who has conducted intensive faunal study in Calamianes, further said there was a recent publication describing the ecosystem of Calamian Group of Islands as more of a Savannah type that is quite unique and different compared with other ecosystems usually found in other parts of the Philippines. This probably explains why those African species in Calauit survive and thrive, because the Calamianes is characterized by Savannah ecosystem, which is the original habitat of those animals.
Unlike with tropical rainforest, Savannah is actually a grassland ecosystem interspersed with relatively smaller trees that are widely distributed. The canopy of trees in a Savannah ecosystem is open, allowing grasses to survive and bloom in between trees. Africa accounts the largest Savannah ecosystem in the world. This type of ecosystem is also exemplified with distinctive assemblage of flora and fauna. The features of Calamianes can be traced to the geological and biological history of the Philippines. Scientists claim the Philippines Archipelago was divided by deep water channels and bisected by one of the world’s major bio-geographic divides, known to science as Huxley’s Line that produced several separate and highly distinct faunal regions. Palawan Island and its associated islands, or collectively called as the Greater Palawan Faunal Region, are the only parts of the Philippines lying west of Huxley’s Line. Such formation makes Palawan’s characteristics closely associated with the Greater Sunda Islands, comprising of Borneo, Java and Sumatra, than the rest of the Philippines. This explains why the biological composition, particularly the fauna and habitat, of Palawan is quite different from other islands in the country, as clearly presented in terms of its species endemism, accounting at least 16 endemic mammals and 17 endemic birds and a large but still poorly known endemic herpetofauna.
Through time, however, Calamianes reportedly evolved as a distinct group of islands and seemingly maintained its original Savannah ecosystem, while tropical rainforests developed in Palawan mainland. It is by this account that Calamianes is considered as a sub-center of endemism within the Greater Palawan Faunal Region, because there are restricted species confined only in this group of islands, such as the famous Calamian deer, Busuanga tree squirrel and Culion tree squirrel, although there also regional endemic found in the area, like the Palawan stink badger, Palawan porcupine, Palawan flying fox and Palawan bearded pig. The exceptional features of the Calamianes make this group of islands as an important biodiversity conservation area not only of the Philippines but the entire world. The protection of the unique ecosystems and endemic species found in the different islands is therefore of paramount importance and that is precisely the primary motivation why it is being considered as one of the priority conservation sites of our organization, the PBCFI.
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