Smile Exclusive: Around the Philippines with BBC wildlife specialist Mike Dilger

A sneak peek at BBC's two-part special, 'Philippines: Island Treasures'

In this Smile magazine exclusive, British ecologist, ornithologist and BBC wildlife specialist Mike Dilger shares a peek into the making of a new BBC World News special, ‘Philippines: Island Treasures’, airing from April 7. The two-part show takes Mike on a 14-day whistle-stop tour of some of the country’s biodiversity hotspots, with Filipino broadcast journalist and BBC World News presenter Rico Hizon.

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As someone obsessed with wildlife, the Philippine archipelago has always been on my radar of places to visit. The islands’ geographical isolation for millennia, and position within the tropics, make it home to immense biodiversity and, in the time of climate change, many critically endangered species. So when BBC World News asked if I was interested in spending a couple of weeks taking in a combination of wildlife and culture, I couldn’t say yes quick enough. That Rico would be sharing presenting duties on a show that spotlights his home country made it all the more promising, even if the itinerary looked punishing from the start — we would be on the move, and in a new location, nearly every single day.

Day 1: Manila

 

I’m thrilled to meet with Boy Siojo, a legendary field producer in the Philippines who is also our man on the ground. While waiting for the BBC’s four-man film crew who are all flying in from London, Boy takes it upon himself to teach me some local phrases. We are off to Coron almost as soon as the crew arrives. As locations for spending a birthday evening go, this is about as good as it gets, particularly when a delicious cake that Boy had safely stowed in his hand luggage appears after the evening meal.

Day 2: Coron, Palawan

 

In the fabled Coral Triangle, which stretches from the Philippines in the north, to Indonesia in the west and the Solomon Islands to the east, the diversity of marine life is off the charts: 75% of the world’s coral species are found here, as are 40% of the planet’s coral reef fish. Dipping into the water with mask, snorkel, and fins, it feels like I have just dropped into the world’s largest fish tank as countless different species of damsel, trigger and butterflyfish come over to investigate me.

Day 3: Puerto Princesa, Palawan

 

Firefly watching at Iwahig. Lighting up the mangrove as dusk takes hold, these illuminating insects put on a performance that is spectacular and enchanting in equal measure. Now a major ecotourism spectacle, few who watch the evening show realize that the insects are not flies but beetles and that they are the saviors of their mangrove habitat, where many other species live. Put simply, without the money the beetles bring in to the local community, the mangrove, like much of this specialized saltwater forest across the tropics, would have long since been chopped down.

Day 4: Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, Palawan

 

Another day, another astonishing location. Inside, the caves teem with life — much of it microscopic and barely visible to the naked eye — and beautiful formations of stalactites and stalagmites. We paddle gently upriver and underground, the team’s head torches flashing across hundreds of bat colonies taking refuge in the pitch dark. We climb off our boats to explore on foot. Over a kilometer from the entrance, our guide locates tarantulas, huge centipedes and bizarre whip scorpions that have lost the need for eyesight over time. Relying on touch as their sense of choice for finding prey, these troglobites would never survive in the outside world. After the caves, we stop for lunch in the forest alongside long-tailed macaques and huge monitor lizards. An iridescent flash of blue moving across the forest floor suddenly catches my eye. I look through my binoculars and can’t believe what I see — the Palawan peacock-pheasant is a bird only found on Palawan. It is as rare as it is beautiful and should be tops on any birdwatcher’s list. A victim of deforestation and hunting, this charismatic species thrives here under the protective custody of the park’s guards. It’s the highlight of my trip so far.

Day 5: Narra, Palawan

 

In the coastal town of Narra, south of Puerto Princesa, the birdwatcher in me gets another treat. The Philippine cockatoo used to be widespread across the archipelago but is now confined to tiny pockets as a result of the loss of its lowland rainforest habitat and relentless poaching for the pet trade. Anna Agullo and her team at the Katala Foundation are determined, however, to ensure that this captivating bird does not disappear from Palawan and are working with local villagers to protect the enclave here. Nesting on nearby Rasa Island, the cockatoos frequently fly over to mainland Palawan for a day’s feeding and we are lucky enough to catch up with the noisy neighbors, as they tuck into breakfast. Many of Anna’s colleagues have themselves turned from poachers into protectors, as the project not only gives them employment but is also a source of local pride — Narra is one of the best places to see endemic Philippine birds in the entire archipelago.

Day 6: Cleopatra’s Needle, Palawan

 

It takes over three hours driving through the forest and wading through rivers before we’re able to reach the Batak, believed to be the Philippines’ oldest indigenous tribe. Living a subsistence lifestyle on the edge of the forest, Dampot is an important member of their community, who explains that their most important crop is almaciga, a resin tapped from a remote forest tree, located halfway up the mountain. Used in everything from paint to printer inks, the resin supply is under threat from excessive tapping, particularly from outside communities. Determined to future-proof his community’s livelihood, Dampot has begun repopulating the forest with almaciga and I am given the honor of planting one such seedling. He hopes this long-term strategy will provide a much-needed source of employment and revenue for his children’s children.

Day 7: Puerto Princesa, Palawan

 

I meet Rico, just in from Singapore, at Palaweño Brewery, the only craft beer brewery in town. He’s excited about the next leg of the TV special, which basically covers the northern regions of Banaue and Sagada. Although they are popular tourist attractions, he’s never been to the highlands before, he tells me, as it’s a rather arduous trek to get there — eight to 10 hours on a bus from Manila, and hours of legging it up mountains. But now he’s ready for adventure, and he’s off to quite a start. Earlier in the day, a rain-soaked tree branch snapped and fell right next to him. It’s been a grueling seven days and the team and I are glad for the refreshing beer break coupled with lessons on the Philippines. Rico tells us, for instance, that the sheer number of languages and dialects is a direct result of their independent evolution on many of the disparate islands. This is the very same reason why so many animals — such as the Palawan hornbill and the tarictic hornbill — have evolved into distinct species on the different islands. Interesting.

Day 8: Sagada

 

We wake up at the crack of dawn to fly all the way to Tuguegarao in Cagayan province, on the northeastern tip of Luzon. To get to the limestone mountains of Sagada, we drive on cemented and rough zig-zag roads. Night falls and the journey entails long bus rides on mountain passes that are twisty and often very bumpy. We reach Sagada at around 9pm, deathly exhausted, and check in at our pension house. The cool climate — with temperatures ranging from 12°C to 16°C in the daytime — is a welcome change from the relative humidity of the south, especially for the London crew.

Day 9: Sagada

 

While the crew wanders around town, I decide to catch up with the local birds. My guide, Daniela Toyoken from the local Igorot community, leads me up onto the ridgetops for unparalleled views across Luzon, and to track down montane sunbirds and insect-eating pitcher plants along the way. Due in part to its remote location in the Central Cordillera mountains, Sagada was left relatively untouched by the Spanish occupation. A Spanish mission wasn’t founded in Sagada until 1882, resulting in one of the few places in the Philippines that’s preserved its indigenous culture with little Spanish influence, starting with their burial rites.

Day 10: Sagada

 

With local potter Siegrid Bangyay as our guide, we descend into the wooded valleys. Here we find the town’s departed residents, displayed for all to see in their respective coffins suspended halfway up a sheer cliff-face. The spectacle is both awe-inspiring and sobering — Siegrid explains that moving the Igorot community’s dead higher up, in this age-old tradition, means that the departed will then be positioned closer to their ancestral spirits. As someone who adores tropical forest, I can’t think of a better place to be laid to rest, albeit in a spot that has now become one of the Philippines’ top tourist attractions.

Day 11: Banaue Rice Terraces

 

It’s a little mind-blowing to think that the steps we are descending were built some 2,000 years ago as a source of livelihood among the Ifugao people. And for a number of them, it still is. We meet one of the farmers, Jimmy Cabigat, whose family has owned a rice terrace for generations. We get our hands and feet wet and muddy as Jimmy demonstrates the local technique of planting, and we can officially confirm that planting rice is hot, sweaty and back-breaking work. And yet, Jimmy tells us, they’re having to supplement farming with other means of income, which is why the younger generation is moving away to bigger towns. It’s heartbreaking to think that one day, people might altogether stop farming these terraces in Banaue.  

Day 12: Cauayan

 

While Rico makes his way back to Singapore, the rest of us make one last trip — to San Mariano, the site of an exciting project to protect the world’s most threatened crocodile. Tess Gatan-Balbas and Bernard Tarun work for the Mabuwaya Foundation and are resolved that the Philippines’ very own crocodile should not continue its precipitous decline towards extinction. Raising youngsters in a captive facility is thought to be the best way to boost the wild population, which may only number about several hundred. Simon, our film director, is keen to take a publicity picture of me holding a young croc measuring around 75cm (while it hasn’t reached its adult size of up to 3m!) due to be released back into the wild. He gets a little too close and is promptly bitten on the thumb with a set of razor-sharp teeth.

Day 13: Sierra Madre

 

Situated on the edge of virgin forest in the Sierra Madre mountains of northern Luzon, the Dunoy Lake Philippine Crocodile Sanctuary is a very remote place indeed. We take over half a day to reach the release site for our two young crocodiles. On the way, our huge, ancient truck blows a tire, and we have to push it out of the mud at least half a dozen times before we have to walk the final 30 minutes to Dunoy village. From there we board a leaky boat until we arrive with our valuable cargo at the world’s epicenter for Philippine crocs. No larger than a football pitch, it’s home to at least four or five adult crocs. I check the water nearby before wading in to give the youngsters their liberty. We watch them swim away, the hopes of a threatened species on their backs. It’s a moment I won’t forget, not in a very long time.

Dec 14: Dunoy Village

 

It’s our last day on this epic tour, and we’re up early to track down as many rare birds as possible. With Bernard Tarun as our guide, we quietly pick our way along the forest paths just after dawn. We spot coletos, a red-crested malkoha and Philippine bulbuls — all species confined to this amazing archipelago. In two hours, we manage to spot 19 species, an astonishing 12 of which are endemic to the Philippines. We’re on such a high that we’re already making plans to return, even as we begin climbing down the mountain; the first leg of a long journey back home.

Follow Mike and Rico as they make their way around the country in ‘Philippines: Island Treasures’ on BBC World News and BBC Earth. Here are the broadcast times in Manila/Singapore and Hong Kong:

April 7 & 14 (Saturday) 930am and 430pm
April 8 & 15 (Sunday) 1030pm 
April 9 & 16 (Monday) 430am 
April 10 & 17 (Tuesday) 530pm 

For logistical and filming reasons, the order of events presented in the BBC World News program is slightly different from this behind-the-scenes diary written exclusively for Smile magazine. The series will air again later in the year.

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Mike Dilger

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