Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Life in the Cave Ecosystem

Topic: Cave Ecosystems

April 14, 2011 Episode 28

Guests: Anson Tagtag, Ecosystems Management Specialist (Wildlife Conservation)
             Ofelia Espayos, Ecosystems Management Specialist (Cave Management Conservation)
 Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) of the Dept of Environment and Natural Resources

In preparation for our April 14 episode on caves, I asked my friend Ichie  – who's been to at least three caves in the Philippines – how she felt about these adventurous journeys. “Being in the Sumaguing cave (in Sagada),” she said, “gives you the feeling you’re in another world.  There were layers upon layers of very clean pools of water 1,500 meters below ground and the calcium formations, and the stalagmites and stalactites were just awesome...I felt this conscious acknowledgment that I was just passing through a wondrous habitat that rightfully belonged to hundreds of bats that I saw hanging upside down.  I knew I had no reason to complain about chancing upon some heaps of bat dung along the way.” 

At the Callao cave (in Cagayan), Ichie recognized being a part of an ancient civilization.  And then, there's the magnificence of the St. Paul's subterranean river cruise (in Palawan) which, according to her, made her see that protecting this national heritage is an absolute imperative.  In all these experiences, she said, she knew she was in the midst of the incalculable  wealth that God has given to the Filipino.

The images conjured by this sharing came alive on radio when Khrysta and I discussed caves with DENR-Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau officials Anson and Ofel who kindly came to the dzUP studio for this episode.  They confirmed the immense biodiversity found in more than 1,500 known caves in our country, “and counting,” they said. 

The Role of Government

Their agency plays a key role in the implementation of RA 9062 -- the 2001 law that seeks to conserve, protect and manage caves and cave resources as part of our country's wealth.  It was along this line that DENR-PAWB recently sponsored a week-long conference in Nueva Vizcaya  for a group consisting of reps from the Tourism Department, the National Historical Institute, the National Museum, and select LGUs -- to finetune together their over-all mission, plans and their respective roles as implementors of the cave law.

Our guests confirmed that caves form part of the natural resources that must  be protected and managed well, because apart from the sheer beauty of their natural water and mineral formations  they are loaded with  irreplaceable archeological and ecological value such asfossils and other paleontological and  geological deposits, artifacts that have historical, cultural and sociological import to us  Filipinos, and overwhelmingly bio-diverse naturally occurring live plants and animals.

As cave protectors and cave law implementors, it is the above-mentioned agencies that bear the burden and pride of enforcement, of ensuring that visitors and sightseers behave in ways that will preserve cave resources.  And that is why Anson and Ofel point out, there are caves that today are still not open to the public.,.  More specifically, it is the job of local governments to adopt whatever measures and preparatory steps are necessary in order that caves located within their jurisdiction will be visitor-ready. This requisite state of preparedness includes the capability to arrest and seriously prosecute cave violators, such as vandals.

But vandalism by uncaring tourists is not even the worst affront to our caves, we found out.  As we all know, the awe-inspiring stalagmites and stalactites found inside caves take hundreds of years to form.  Yet, our guests Anson and Ofel told us, there have been several horror stories of “enterprising” people – criminals, actually -- who felt entitled to make money out of these precious cave resources by actually cutting off stalagmites and stalactites for export.  “For use as what?” we asked.  Anson and Ofel said these precious natural resources eventually find their way overseas as aquarium and manicured garden decorations!

The Beat of Life in Caves
Anson and Ofel then went on to give us a sneak peek at the life that beats inside these caves.  They spoke of fishes, reptiles, mollusks and other smaller invertebrates - and of course the bats.   Philippine bats feed on insects or fruits, they assure us; the bloodsucking kind, or vampire bats, thrive mostly in the Southern and I certain parts of the North American continents only not hereabouts (thankfully). 

The Philippines is said to have at least 56 species of bats, the smallest and the largest of bats in the planet among them. The natural function of bats is to disperse seeds, to guarantee the constant pollination of fruit-bearing trees and plants.  As well, they feed on insects, then produce droppings, called guaño, that constitutes one of the best natural fertilizers available to man.

Ofel and Anson also informed that there is no such thing as overpopulation of bats.  They warn, in fact, that the killing of bats is an offense that is punishable by imprisonment and payment of a huge fine.  Woe to those who hunt bats and eat them as a delicacy.  That apart, there is need for a little more education to dispel lingering myths and superstitions about our bats. They will continue to be misunderstood and endangered unless we make them familiar.

The health of our caves also impact greatly on ecology, and vice versa.   Each cave comprises the unique and special habitat of and for the plants and animals that depend on it.  On the other hand, the vegetation over and around  a cave provides it the hydration that makes its life and the lives in it possible.  Therefore there is nothing worse than cutting trees around a cave, because that will certainly dry it up and spell its death as a habitat.

As I waited for my friend to pick me up after the program, I got to talking with the guard assigned at the ground floor of the Media Center where dzUP is housed.  Mr. Maumen Kuli, who was listening to our program, told me of the way he and his folks back home in Maguindanao know of the wonders that are their beautiful caves.  He also shared his belief that their caves are “enchanted” in that they, who revere and protect their caves, have in turn been protected by the caves from “enemies.”  He was, he said, a part of a rebel group when he was a lad.  Their “enemies” who, according to him, had no respect for the caves, either died or got lost inside these caves.

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