The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines
The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines

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A costly national disgrace

By Ben D. Kritz
The Manila Times
April 14, 2014

Juvenile White-bellied Sea Eagle
being packed by Cebu Pacific personnel.

There is no way to be kind or clever about this, so it's best to come straight to the point: The attitude of Filipinos toward their own natural environment is a disgrace. There are exceptions, of course, and those individuals and groups who are the exceptions deserve respect; but they are sadly outnumbered by a vast population whose regard for the environment is at best callously indifferent, and far too often, intentionally malicious.

About two weeks ago, a member of one of the more active of the groups that can be considered "an exception"—the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines—posted a couple of photos and a narrative brought back from the small municipality of Adams in Ilocos Norte.

In one photo, a young man, later identified as a certain Mikel Dato, proudly displayed the carcass of a juvenile Rufous Hornbill, a striking (well, okay, they're a little weird-looking) bird known as "the farmer of the forest" for its habit of eating fruits from trees and spreading the seeds far and wide.

The Rufous Hornbill, known locally as a "kalaw," is the largest of the Philippines' hornbills and is identified by a large, red-colored protuberance on its head; it is listed as an "Endangered" species under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), and is subject to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which "strictly regulates" trade of listed species and subspecies.

It is not, in other words, a creature one can simply use for target practice without suffering some serious legal consequences (under Republic Act 9147, a prison sentence of four to six years and a fine of up to P500,000).

Unless, of course, one happens to be named Mikel Dato, and also happens to be the son of a municipal councilor and son-in-law of Adams' vice mayor, which was the specific reason given by the local police for refusing to file a report when the incident was first reported to them, according the Wild Bird Club's Facebook post. Social media does accomplish a little something once in a while, though, and the story soon caught the attention of GMA-TV and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, prompting Dato's parents to seek lenience from Adam's acting police chief. "Our son [who is in his mid-20s] feels sorry about it. We already talked to him and advised him not to do it anymore," the parents said.

Hunter Mikel Dato with dead juvenile Rufous Hornbill in Adams, Ilocos Norte
Fortunately, there are indications that treating the senseless killing of a protected species with no more seriousness than catching a kid stealing from the cookie jar may not impress the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR), who dispatched a team to investigate the incident. According to Steven Toledo of the DENR's Biodiversity Management Bureau, the regional office looking into it has been instructed that if it is at all warranted, a case should be filed against Dato as soon as possible.

If the authorities only had to contend with the occasional ignorant yahoo in the countryside that would be disturbing enough, but the destructive exploitation of wildlife is obviously a far greater problem. Within the span of about three days last week, the enterprising Wild Bird Club exposed two more scandals, both indicative of a widespread trade in protected species. The first was a series of photographs—presumably showing a number of individual shipments—of owls and other birds of prey being shipped via Cebu Pacific, and the second was the alarming appearance of at least three user-posted listings on the online buy-and-sell website (until recently, better-known as ) offering exotic wildlife for sale. Two of the listings were posted by a certain "BossingJ" from Cavite, and offered an Eagle Owl and a Scop's Owl—both protected species—for sale for P10,000 and P4,000 respectively; the third was from a Cebu user offering to sell a wallaby, which is not actually an endangered species but is nonetheless regulated by RA 9147.

According to the DENR's Toledo, the agency has already started an inquiry with Cebu Pacific and while they were not yet aware of the listings on, he assured me that would be investigated as well. The frustrating thing about all of this is that the country already has all the pieces in place to properly manage biodiversity and environmental sustainability. There is a complete collection of laws addressing every relevant issue of environmental protection, a multi-faceted agency to carry it out, and a diverse segment of the population including individuals, informal groups like the Wild Bird Club, non-governmental organizations, and some local government units energetically committed to supporting the effort. Yet they all seem to be fighting an uphill battle, and losing. One could give businesses like Cebu Pacific and the benefit of the doubt and assume that their being used for illegal wildlife trade is contrary to their policies, and that they would move quickly to put a stop to it. The real tragedy, however, is that they have to in the first place.

There is something deeply wrong with a society in which concern for the environment is such an exception that following or enforcing the law or even just displaying some sensitivity to one's surroundings is worthy of special mention. Shooting protected birds or packaging them for sale is just the outcome of callousness that begins with the little affronts to nature like carelessly tossing trash on the ground, urinating in any convenient location, letting pet dogs roam loose in neighborhoods, and dumping used laundry water in the street. The costs to the nation as a result —costs in constantly-degrading quality of life, unnecessary illnesses, eroding appeal as a tourism destination, the consequences of earning a reputation as a haven for wildlife traffickers, and the painfully-obvious side effects of environmental damage in the country's frequent natural calamities—are likely incalculable, but they are certainly felt by everyone. Yet it seems to be easier to plead poverty and ignorance as excuses for being, not to put too fine a point on it, a nation of lazy slobs. The exceptions who strive to set better examples deserve commendation and more support; given that, hopefully, they can be inspired to think of better ways to to change the attitudes of everyone else.