BACOLOD CITY ? Environmentalists wanted to save a tree where an eagle had built its nest but ended up doing so much more. They bought the entire island where the tree stands and created a marine and wildlife sanctuary.
Gerry Ledesma, president of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation Inc. (PRRCFI), said the Montes family, who owned the Danjugan Island in Barangay Bulata, Cauayan, Negros Occidental, intended to sell the eagle?s tree for P40,000. His group decided that the only way to save it and the biodiversity-rich place was to buy it all.
Before 1994, the island had suffered from varying degrees of abuse as venue for several failed business ventures.
A kiln to produce lime and rock phosphate, prawn aquaculture in two of its five lagoons, a coconut plantation on half of its 43 hectares, and the cutting of forest trees for timber were some of the ventures that diminished Danjugan?s wealth, Ledesma said.
So he and the other activist members of the PRRCFI, a nonprofit foundation, launched the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Project. The international fund-raising endeavor aimed to raise P4 million to purchase the 43-hectare uninhabited island.
With the help of the World Land Trust (WLT) and the Coral Cay Conservation Ltd. (CCC) in the United Kingdom, PRRCFI Green Shares were created and sold at ?25 or $40 each to pay a bridging loan from the Land Bank of the Philippines.
The fund-raising effort was necessary because there was and still is no such grant window for the purchase of vital conservation sites in the Philippines, Ledesma said.
Although it had a five-year payment period, the bridging loan was paid in three years due to the successful international response to the efforts of the WLT, CCC and PRRCFI, Ledesma said.
Today, Danjugan is estimated to be worth at least P86 million. But its biodiversity is more precious than in any material terms, Ledesma said.
Visitors and divers have described the island, 151 kilometers south of Bacolod City, as a slice of paradise. Its surrounding clear blue waters are part of the Sulu Sea ? the birthplace of the world?s corals, according to marine experts. At least 235 species of hard corals in 22 genera and over 500 fish species are found there, Ledesma said.
On land are 72 bird species, including the most magnificent but not threatened White-Breasted Sea Eagle, nine bat species (seven fruit-eating and two insect-eating), 17 mangrove tree species, and countless other life forms, he said.
Danjugan has seven habitat types ? limestone, beach, mangrove forests, caves, seagrass beds, coral reefs and open sea that is the migration path of some species of whales. It has five lagoons (two open, three inland) and beaches of fine white sand under coral rubble after two typhoons hit the area in 1984 and 1987.
The PRRCFI?s involvement has subsequently led to the establishment of three marine protected areas in Danjugan, Sipalay and Hinobaan, Ledesma said.
With the involvement of CCC, he said, foreign volunteers conduct marine research to determine if Danjugan?s reefs would qualify it as a marine protected area (MPA).
Many of the CCC volunteers were students of marine biology, environmental science and geography. Some of them have produced masteral and doctoral dissertations from their research on the island and the adjacent coastal zones in the mainland.
Some science advisers come from prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, such as the Universities of Newcastle, Edinburgh, Bangor (Wales).
With this scientific collaboration, the fringing reefs became the Danjugan Island Marine Reserve and Sanctuaries on Feb. 9, 2000, the first MPA in Negros Occidental, Ledesma said.
Important projects are still on the PRRCFI wish list, Ledesma said. One priority is a terrestrial ecologist to conduct radio-tracking studies on selected wildlife species, such as bats and birds, particularly white breast sea eagle fledglings, to determine out-migration patterns so that conservation projects could be implemented in key areas of the mainland.
To sustain the management and protection of marine reserve, the PRRCFI has opened the island to ecotourism.
Although facilities are spartan with shared cabanas, bathrooms and toilets, Ledesma said it had seduced many pampered travelers who keep on returning. ?A limited number of visitors of 16 max are accepted to enjoy overnight stays and 24 persons on a day stay,? he said.
Danjugan is an excellent natural classroom with its ecosystems and wildlife, Ledesma said.
Today, the island paradise, spared from being ravaged by development because of one eagle and its family, is a flourishing international environment showcase.