Imagine a bird-watching expedition to Mt. Hamiguitan in Davao Oriental. The highlight of the trip: a rare opportunity to see the Philippine eagle in the wild.
Chances are that tourists will pay good money for such an opportunity, and environmental and tourism officials believe the idea may clear the way for educating the public about the need to protect the habitats of the country’s amazing plants and wildlife.
The Philippine eagle-watching tour, among other ecological tourism ventures, is one of the possible applications of a collaboration between the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Tourism (DOT), an official said on Friday.
The two agencies have agreed to become partners in promoting “ecotourism” projects that emphasize the richness of Philippine flora and fauna and at the same time create livelihood opportunities for agricultural communities in eight biodiversity sites across the country.
Officials signed on Friday an agreement formalizing the cooperation between the two agencies as part of a $17 million project financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The project, “Partnerships for Biodiversity Conservation: Mainstreaming in Local Agricultural Landscapes,” covers the provinces of Cagayan, Quirino, Occidental Mindoro, Palawan, Antique, Iloilo, Capiz, Aklan, Negros Occidental, Agusan del Norte, Surigao del Norte and Davao Oriental.
The DENR and the DOT will draw up plans for earth-friendly “tourism products” that will be sold on the international and domestic tourist markets, according to Director Mundita Lim of the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau.
“For example, the ecotourism venture could center on diving and snorkeling in [dive] spots that have rich biodiversity but where there has been overfishing,” she said.
“Instead of deriving income only from fishing, the community can earn their living from tourism,” she added.
But protecting the environment must take precedence over earning tourism revenue, Lim said.
“That is what [you mean by] sustainable,” she said.
Lim cited instances when ecotourism activity could disturb or even harm endangered species, such as promoting a wildlife tour to Donsol in Sorsogon province by posting on the Internet a photo of a girl vacationer standing atop a whale shark.
“We’re hoping that the DENR can guide the business plans in such a way that the environment will be protected. We are like-minded with the DOT in that respect,” she said.
Another example of an ecotourism venture is a guided bird-watching tour of Mt. Hamiguitan, one of the few places inhabited by the critically endangered Philippine eagle, the country’s national bird.
“Perhaps tourists can be accompanied on bird-watching tours of the forest and one of the stops will be a nesting ground of the Philippine eagle,” Lim said.
Of course, she added, “extra care must be done to ensure that the bird is not disturbed in any way.” This is where the DENR can come in to train people to become guides, she said.
Lim said catching a glimpse of the elusive Philippine eagle, one of the largest avian predators known to prey on monkeys and small mammals, could prove lucrative and draw plenty of interest among tourists.
“It’s a totally different experience to see a Philippine eagle in a cage as opposed to seeing it in the wild,” Lim said.
Under the agreement, the DENR and the DOT will collaborate in the development and implementation of “biodiversity-friendly and sustainable tourism activities” in the identified demonstration sites.
At the same time, they will endeavor to promote the social and economic growth of the host and surrounding communities, enhancing the contribution of tourism to the national goal of inclusive growth.
The two departments will formulate a “Sustainable Tourism-Biodiversity Conservation Framework and Implementation Plan,” which will serve as guide for undertaking biodiversity-friendly, sustainable tourism businesses and activities.
The DENR is tasked with guiding, supervising and overseeing the activities, resolving operational issues, providing technical support and training local government officials and officers in the correct approaches and methods for the identification, assessment, planning, development, promotion and marketing of the ecotourism ventures.
The DOT, in turn, will provide technical assistance, mobilize staff for the development of the business plans, incorporate ecotourism and other biodiversity-friendly projects in the Local Tourism Guidebook and conduct studies to assess the feasibility of proposed ecotourism ventures.
The Philippines, according to the DENR, is regarded as one of the world’s 17 “mega-diverse” countries, and is home to the highest rates of species discovery on a global scale and the biggest number of endemic species in the Indo-Malayan region per unit area.
Endemic species refers to plants and animals found only in a particular place and nowhere else in the world.
Among the species endemic to the Philippines are the Philippine eagle, the tamaraw of Mindoro island and the Philippine mouse deer of Palawan.