BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
Beautiful photos of flowering trees at the foot slope of the Mount Kanla-on Natural Park in Negros Island have spread online during the past weeks. Specifically found in Sitio Calapnagan, Brgy. Biak-na-Bato, La Castellana in Negros Occidental, about two to three hours drive from Bacolod City, the blooming trees, with the imposing background of the Kanla-on Volcano, were photographed by several persons and they uploaded some photos in social media. The views are, indeed, marvelous as they really look like the Cherry blossoms, or Sakura trees, which are popular attractions in Japan. From then on, according to MKNP staff, the number of visitors increased at Calapnagan, where the administration center of the park is also located.
Alleged Palawan cherry blossoms
One article posted at www.choosephilippines.com claimed that residents in the area called these trees Palawan cherry blossoms. It caught my curiosity, because I was suspecting that the trees, with a mixture of pink, red, white, and yellow colored flowers, are not the Palawan cherry blossoms (Cassia javanica ssp. nodosa) that are recently known to me. The photo accompanying the said online article reminded me of similar pictures I took at the site almost two decades ago.
I requested one of the MKNP staff, Errol Gillang, to take close-up photos of the flowers, trunk, and leaves of the tree so I could consult some of my friends, who are botanists or with interests and working on botanical concerns, as to the exact identification of the species. After receiving several photos from my namesake, I shared them online, particularly Facebook, and responses to my post are interesting. Some friends pointed out the tree is similar to Palawan cherry, but a few suspected it as Salingbobog, known to science as Craveta religiosa, and one of our native species that can be found as well at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines. Surprisingly, Gillang told me they found a plate in one of the trees that states it is Akle (Albizia acle), a species native in the country.
Antsoan and Pink shower trees
It was botanists Pat Malabrigo and Pieter Pelser of the UP Los Baños and University of Canterbury, respectively, who confirmed that the species is Cassia javanica ssp. javanica or Antsoan, which is a non-native species of the Philippines, or an exotic one. Malabrigo further asserted that the so-called Palawan cherry, known as Pink cassia or Java cassia, is not native to the Philippines although it bears Palawan as its popular name, simply because it is widespread in that province.
Gillang sent me additional set of photos of lovely pink-colored flowers of another tree he found in Sitio Pabrica, Brgy. Cabagna-an, La Castellana and within the MKNP, too. I similarly posted the photos on my Facebook account, and Pelser identified it as Cassia grandis, a species native to tropical America. The common English name of this tree is Pink shower, according to biologist Renee Paalan of the Silliman University.
My Facebook posts on the two flowering plants received numerous and varied reactions. Many of my friends were amused of the beautiful color and gorgeous look of flowers, and some requested information where to secure the seeds or seedlings of trees, while many expressed interest to visit the sites where the two species are found. On the other hand, several friends in the conservation community were alarmed to know the presence of these exotic species in the protected area, and they urged the planting of indigenous or native trees, while suggesting the eradication of non-native species, because they might affect the biodiversity of the MKNP.
Forester Edgardo Cueto, a Ph. D on forest resources management recommended for the conduct of risk analysis to determine the impacts of exotic species on the MKNP’s biodiversity. He said the introduction of exotic species might “entail the modification of entire ecosystems, including overgrowing and shading out native species, changing fire regimes, and modifying water and nutrient systems.” Cueto added the species hybridization and introgression and ultimately the invasive meltdown are possible consequences. The result of the assessment shall be used in the decision-making by either extirpate the species or let them be managed properly, Cueto said.
Other exotic species and reforestation
The Antsoan is not the only exotic plant found at the MKNP administration center, as there are also mahogany, gmelina, eucalyptus, and a particular species of teak (Tectona grandis), among others, although several native species are available at the site, too. These trees were planted in the 1960s to 80s as part of the reforestation project of the then Bureau of Forest Development, and later on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, forester Johnny Flores, who served as a manager of the project site at one point in time, said.
I could only assume that the planting of these exotic species in the area was done with noble intention of reforesting the site that was badly deforested prior to it, according to local folks. I think, the issue of exotic species in relation to biological diversity has never been considered seriously at that time. If my recollection is right, it was only in the mid 80s when the issue of biodiversity started to become popular and the advocacy for planting of native plant species emerged.
I could recall that the late forester Larry Cayayan, who was then the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer of Negros Occidental in early 1990s, once told me the reforestation at Calapnagan included the planting of flowering trees at the park’s boundary so there would be visible markers that will separate it from private lands. He opined that in a way these flowering trees would be an added attraction of the park.
Most likely, with the influenced of the government’s reforestation project, settlers, not only at Calapnagan but also in other barangays within Mount Kanla-on, planted trees, comprised mostly of exotic species, in their backyards and farm lots, while others established tree farms. While Mount Kanla-on was established as a national park in 1934, it has never been spared from settlements that became political units as barangays through the years.
Mount Kanla-on and NIPAS
Mount Kanla-on became an initial component of the National Integrated Protected Areas System with the enactment of Republic 7586 in 1992. The NIPAS Act transformed the national parks and other nature reserves to protected areas, and from then on, biodiversity conservation was the focused on the establishment and management of these sites. Prior to this, we were largely following the American-tailored national park system, as introduced by the American colonial regime in 1932. As one measure to protect the biodiversity, the DENR came out with a guideline prohibiting the introduction of exotic species in protected areas.
When I was the park superintendent of the MKNP, from 1995 to 2002, my staff and me were aware of the presence of these exotic species. We knew these flowering trees, but with all honesty, we were unsure at that time if this so called Palawan cherry is an exotic species, although we were more in suspicion that it is, indeed, a non-native tree. I did not take much interest over these trees, because some are planted in the disputed “private lands” within the MKNP. I reviewed the 1st management plan of the MKNP, but unfortunately it did not list and discuss exotic species.
Considerations and possible options
The Protected Area Management Board of the MKNP, when I was still the park superintendent, came out with a policy allowing the cutting of planted and exotic species in the area. The purpose of the guideline was to minimize pressure to remaining natural forests by allowing communities to utilize and benefit from their planted exotic trees. In every tree cut, a replacement of five native species was required. It was also a way to eradicate exotic species in the area. The policy did not include cutting of trees at the government’s reforestation sites, as there might be issues on audit regulations.
I was at the MKNP administration center last year, and I observed that it seems the number of these exotic trees did not increase. I noticed some mahogany trees are already invaded with vines and other plants, while several undergrowth species are noticeable. The interest of the local government of La Castellana to promote this area for tourism purposes is understandable and a good idea. In fact, in the original management plan of the MKNP, this site has been identified as ecotourism zone, because, aside from the remaining natural forests found in the area, it is here where one can have a good view of the towering Kanla-on Volcano, and it is ideal for picnic, camping, and other outdoor activities.
I am amendable to Cueto’s recommendation to conduct a study on exotic species and its impacts, not only at Calapnagan, but the entire MKNP so that appropriate conservation measures shall be adopted by the PAMB. MKNP is also gifted with numerous native flowering plants that can be propagated. The MKNP Act of 2001, or Republic Act 9154, prohibits the establishment and introduction of exotic species with allelopathic effect, or those detrimental to endemic species, or without prior PAMB permit.*
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
I was reminded of the closure for mountaineering of the Mount Kanlaon Natural Park in Negros Island, two decades ago, after I recently learned that authorities at the Mount Pulag National Park in Luzon are considering similar action, too. It was in 1996 when I, as the then Protected Area Superintendent of the MKNP, recommended to the Protected Area Management Board the closing of the mountain from trekking, due to a number of pressing issues and concerns. There were oppositions from several mountaineering groups, but the PAMB stood firm to impose the temporary closure. It was a decision worth sharing again and again, so that other protected areas, particularly those sites with similar features to MKNP, may be able to learn some lessons and insights from it.
The prime consideration for the possible closure of Mt. Pulag is reportedly due to damages
created by the influx of visitors during the past years. The peak of Mt. Pulag, towering at 2,922 meters above sea level, is the highest in the entire Luzon and 3rd highest all over the Philippines, making it one of the favorite mountain destinations not only of local trekkers, but foreigners, too. Thousands are flocking to the area every year.
Mt. Pulag straddles several municipalities covering the provinces of Benguet, Nueva Vizcaya, and Ifugao. It is famous for its deep ravines, steep terrain, and the so-called “cloud forest”. A trek to Mt. Pulag is popularly known as an adventure above clouds, because there is a point where one is actually above the hovering clouds. Aside from mountaineering attractions, Mt. Pulag is similarly identified as one of the Key Biodiversity Areas of the Philippines, since it harbors numerous species of flora and fauna in various habitat types.
Phreatic explosion and other safety concerns
In August 1996, the Kanlaon Volcano exploded without prior indication, and at that time, there were 18 trekkers at the summit. The phreatic explosion took the lives of three trekkers, while several others were wounded. The incident reminded us that the four-kilometer radius from the crater is actually a permanent danger zone, as classified by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, and, therefore, it is supposedly close to all human activities.
The Phivolcs recommended the implementation of strict safety measures and standards if we will continue to allow trekking at the summit of the MKNP. While we were planning what safety measures shall be carried out, we saw the need to temporarily close the MKNP from trekking.
It was also observed that during the rainy season, it is not advisable to trek at the park, because of safety considerations. There were recorded accidents of mountaineers who trekked to the crater during the rainy season, since the visibility in the area is poor during this period.
Unregulated entry of trekkers
We conducted assessment on the impacts of mountaineering at the park, and our findings showed there were numerous trails leading to the summit, and they were expanding, to the extent of degrading the natural vegetation. Some areas were cleared of vegetation to serve as campsites. Numerous hikers, especially those from surrounding communities, were cutting natural growing trees for their camping tents and firewood. We noticed several graffiti that were engraved in big stones near the crater, and even in some giant trees. Solid wastes were cluttered in trails and campsites.
During the Holy Week in 1996, we found out the unregulated entry, not only of mountaineers, but thousands of faith healers who were in pilgrimage at the crater of the volcano during the Good Friday. These healers started trekking on Holy Thursday and camped overnight near a cave at the Margaha Valley, a dormant crater just below the present and active crater of the Kanla-on Volcano. At the campsite of these healers, we found out clearing and cutting of high elevation growing trees and gathering of plants believed to have medicinal values. However, we were not able to make immediate actions, because our team was outnumbered, and several unknown persons holding bladed weapons were surrounding us.
Aside from the MKNP’s feature as an active volcano and the negative impacts of
unregulated entries of trekkers, there were biodiversity concerns that also need to be addressed. The MKNP is one of the most important protected areas in the country. It was one of the 10 pilot sites for the implementation of the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, through the World Bank supported Conservation of Priority Protected Areas Project in the Philippines of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, from 1995 to 2002.
The biodiversity assessment revealed that some trails and campsites leading to the peak of the MKNP are habitats of assorted species of flora and fauna. The “shoulder” of the volcano, popularly known to mountaineers as the “saddle”, is host to a variety of wild flora, and many of these plants are left unstudied, even to date. The Margaha Valley was found to be a grazing area of the threatened Visayan spotted deer. Traces of the equally threatened Visayan warty pigs were noted in Hardin Sang Balo and other campsites along the trails, from Murcia town to the summit of the MKNP.
Drafting of guidelines
Amidst all these challenges, the PAMB, led by the late Cornelio “Bob” Aizpuro, who was then the PAMB Ecotourism Committee chairperson and former City Planning and Development coordinator of La Carlota, drafted the first mountaineering guidelines for the MKNP. Edwin Gatia, a seasoned mountaineer and the officer-in-charge of the Department of Tourism in Negros Occidental province at that time, provided the necessary technical assistance in the preparation of the guidelines, which have been subjected to technical reviews and consultations with various stakeholders, such as communities, local governments, and mountaineering groups. The mountaineering permit at the MKNP was adopted after more than a year from its closure.
Official campsites and trails were properly designated with billboards and signs. Per expedition, only a maximum of 10 members, including the expedition team leader, is allowed. The team composition excludes mandatory guide (one guide to five climber ratio) and optional porters. In every trail, only one expedition party is allowed in a given time. Four trails are used for trekking to the summit. Other trails were closed for trekking.
Mountaineering is open from March to May and October to December at the park. Other months are low season where only one expedition party per trail is allowed in a month. Once PAGASA declares a weather disturbance or PHIVOLCS declares volcanic activity, the area shall be closed automatically from mountaineering.
Issuance of climbing permit, with corresponding fees, from the PASu is a mandatory requirement in trekking at the MKNP. Climbing parties are required to submit booking form, mountaineer information sheet, and notarized waiver of responsibility of the expedition members. Booking shall be made at least three months before the expedition. No one is allowed to enter the park for mountaineering without the approved permit from the PASu. The PAMB has imposed accreditation of porters and guides from communities, who underwent training on mountaineering and safety courses.
Compulsory climbing equipment and other materials are required, including individual sleeping bag, tent, pressure stove for cooking, and personal first aid kit. All expeditions are obliged to provide themselves with their own food rations, subject to inspection and approval. Only ready-to-cook food is allowed and campfires are prohibited. The carry in – carry out policy is included in the guidelines. All are expected to strictly observe the basic rules and ethics on environmental protection and conservation.
After I left the MKNP as park superintendent in 2002, to date, the mountaineering guidelines are being observed. I guess, however, that there is a need to revisit the different provisions of the guidelines, how they were carried out, and how they impacted, either positively or negatively, on the biodiversity, communities, and mountaineers through time, so that we can learn more lessons and insights on this aspect of nature recreation in protected areas. After all, there is such a thing as “responsible mountaineering”. EAG*
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