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Bacolod City, Philippines Monday, August 20, 2018
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Conservation Matters
with Errol A. Gatumbato
OPINIONS

Community and conservation tourism
(Last of two parts)

Rock & Refuge

SUYAC ISLAND, Sagay City – Some participants of the recently-concluded Southeast Asian Bat Conference held in Bacolod City visited this small island in Sagay City in northern Negros Occidental.

The main purpose of the visit was to see the bat colony that is present in the area, which is only about 30 to 45 minutes boat ride from the city proper of Sagay. A good number of flying foxes, including large flying foxes and island flying foxes, are roosting in the mangrove forest, now popularly known as the Suyac Island Mangrove Eco Park.

The mangrove forest, estimated at 10 hectares, in the island is purely natural and comprises of numerous old trees. According to several old folks in Suyac, some of these mangrove trees are most likely century-old already.

The city government of Sagay had constructed a watchtower so that visitors would be able to see the flying foxes and water birds in the island. This is one of the added and unique attractions in the mangrove park, because wildlife protection has been integrated into the overall management scheme of the area. The Bat Conservation International, represented by its senior director for network and partnerships, Mylea Baylees, and international programs manager, Dr. Jon Flanders, awarded a certificate of recognition to the Sagay City government and the community for their exemplary efforts in bat conservation.

The community organization, called the Suyac Island Eco-Tourism Association, is now managing the site-based tourism activities, including guiding and catering services. Visitors are not allowed to tour in the park without guides and briefing about the features of the site, as well as prohibited activities. Together with several participants of the bat conference, we visited the island on August 10, and we were served with a variety of menu out of freshly catch or collected seafood. Members of the community organization have been trained in food preparation, presentation, and proper serving, and foreign nationals, who were with us, were impressed by the good services they rendered. They also operate the boat services for visitors from the mainland of Sagay to the island, and vice-versa.

Within the mangrove park, the patches of big trees are connected with about 800 meters long boardwalk where visitors can leisurely walk under broad daylight when the weather is just fine. The mangrove trees provide shadow effect that makes the water looks green, but it is so clean and not muddy at all, which is usually associated in mangrove areas. Visitors can swim under the mangrove trees or do boat paddling surrounding the mangrove forest.

There are also cottages for picnic in the park, but overnight stay is not allowed. One of the signs displayed along the boardwalk states, “There is no Wi-Fi in this mangrove forest but we promise you will find better connection with nature”.

Suyac Island was badly affected when typhoon Yolanda lashed out several parts of the country in November 2013. Numerous houses and other structures have been wiped out in the island, but fortunately there was no casualty at all. Island residents said it was the mangrove forest that protected them from strong winds and waves and heavy rains.

Although they had long realized the importance of the mangroves, the residents are now even more appreciative of the significance of mangrove forest in protecting their lives from natural hazards and risks, like typhoons.

Historically, Suyac Island had also been a refuge of some mainland residents of Sagay during the World War 11. Upon reading my Facebook post about the island, Davoy Castor, curator of the Biodiversity Conservation Center in Bacolod City, commented that his mother and grandparents evacuated in Suyac out of fear from the Japanese soldiers. He added the family had no food provision when they went to the island, but the seafood was so abundant, such that they survived for quite a time in Suyac until they felt safe to go back to the mainland.

Suyac Island is part of the broader Sagay Marine Reserve, a protected area declared by the Congress in 2001, measuring more than 30,000 hectares and comprising of numerous islands and islets within the Visayan Sea and tail-end of the Tañon Strait. The marine reserve is not only known for mangroves and marine life, but it is also critical for water birds, including migratory species.

Lisa Paguntalan, executive director of the Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc., said the vulnerable Chinese Egret and the endangered Far eastern curlew have been noted in the SMR. She added other interesting species in the area include the Great crested terns and the endemic and vulnerable Philippine duck with the latter found in thousands flocking in the SMR.*

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