We visit one of the most important tourist destinations in the Philippines, the island of Bohol, which, at nearly 4 120 square km, is the nation’s tenth largest island. It’s located in the Visayas and can be reached by air (a new airport recently opened on the offshore island of Panglao) or by sea. We fly into Cebu City and take a two-hour ferry ride to get to the provincial capital, Tagbilaran City, where Dao Diamond Resort becomes our home base for most of our trip.
Bohol has some of the world’s most spectacular beaches and dive sites, and is home to the famous Chocolate Hills – more than 1 200 uniformly cone-shaped hills, whose name comes from the fact that the grass that covers them turns brown in summer. Although the observation deck shown in the photo was destroyed by the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck the island on 15-October-2013, our students may choose to visit the site during their free time, though they might not be able to view it from the exact same vantage point. They also visit a shoreline in an area that was heavily affected by the earthquake, so they can appreciate the amazing topographical and ecological changes it caused. This is on top of the consequences on humans. After all, the energy the quake released was equivalent to 32 Hiroshima bombs, and it left more than 230 souls dead and 976 people injured – indeed, this was the country’s deadliest quake in 23 years.
More than 73 000 structures were damaged (more than 14 500 completely destroyed), and damages totaled 2.5 billion PhP. Unfortunately, the island’s churches were especially hard hit. These churches are among the oldest in SE Asia, with some dating back to the early 17th century, when construction methods basically involved using egg whites to glue together bricks made of coral. Many of them were reduced to rubble, but often, as shown in the photo here, one or a few specific structures, such as statues or stained glass windows, somehow made it through unscathed and appear to almost stand guard over the remains of these once beautiful buildings – this is viewed by many congregation members as evidence of a miracle.
Another big tourist draw is the Philippine tarsier (Carlito syrichta), which is endemic to the islands of Bohol, Leyte, Samar and Mindanao. This tiny primate was recently reclassified into its own genus based on genetic evidence, and the genus name honours Carlito Pizarras, also known as the Tarsier Man. Carlito has long worked to protect the Philippine tarsier, which is listed as “near-threatened” by the IUCN, from anthropogenic threats, mainly habitat loss and the illegal pet trade. Our students visit the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Inc. (PTFI) in Corella and have the opportunity to interact with the people who run the organisation, the tourists who visit and Carlito himself. We also visit another tarsier-focused ecotourism spot, Bohol Tarsier Conservation Area, in Bilar, so students can compare and contrast the approaches adopted by these two facilities.
We visit Habitat Bohol, formerly known as Simply Butterflies, a site dedicated to the conservation of insects in general, and butterflies in particular. The facility conducts plant research and breeds butterflies for release, all while welcoming visitors to tour the facilities and obtain a quick education about Bohol’s amazing butterflies (there are approximately 300 species) and the issues that threaten their survival. Students go beyond the standard tourist experience – they also get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on at Habitat Bohol and have the opportunity to speak with tourists to evaluate the conservation and educational value of Habitat Bohol for themselves.
Bohol Biodiversity Complex (BBC), located roughly in the centre of Bohol, is a consortium of agencies (e.g., Bohol Government, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Bohol Island State University) that functions as an education and research centre. Established in 2002 with the aim of creating a dipterocarp nursery, BBC now focuses on diverse initiatives. It is also close to Raja Sikatuna Protected Landscape (RSPL), which contains Bohol’s largest remaining tract of relatively undisturbed forest (mostly secondary, but with some patches of primary forest) and is the recharge area for the Bohol watershed as well as the site of the RSPL Biodiversity Conservation and Poverty Reduction Project. This is where we spend three full days and two nights. Students participate in many activities here, including hiking, bird watching, mist netting bats, forest restoration and interviewing local stakeholders. During their stay, students interact with foresters, researchers and other people who are among the most active conservationists in Bohol. One of their key activities is a forest survey to record vegetational parameters and bird diversity in plots subjected to Rainforestation, one of several reforestation regimes used in the Philippines. They compare the data they collect with analogous data they collect in plots subjected to another regime, monoculture, in Bohol Manmade Forest. They also perform the entire process of rainforestation, from collecting wildlings, to building a recovery chamber, to planting saplings. They see one more method of forest restoration, called Assisted Natural Regeneration (ANR), in which they are fortunate enough to be led by Mr. Charles Patrick Dugan Jr., whose inspirational father, Patrick Dugan, pioneered the technique and, until 2016, interacted directly with our students.
Based on feedback from the inaugural class in 2014, the trip in 2015 and 2016 included an activity that revolved around mangroves – the various anthropogenic threats they face and the methods of restoring them. We were honoured to have Dr Jurgenne Primavera, a TIME Magazine Hero of the Environment in 2008, talk about mangrove rehabilitation before leading us on an afternoon tour/activity, in San Vicente Mangrove Association’s protection area, in Maribojoc. Read an essay written in 2005, for Science Magazine, by Dr Primavera. This was a great activity, but after Dr Primavera retired, we replaced it with a visit to the Maribojoc Organic Demo Farm. This farm, started by Mr Reyland Jabonillo, caters to tourists, but also operates a training centre that equips locals (mostly women) with the tools to cheaply produce their own healthy food in a sustainable way. Students get a tour of the farm and learn how the training centre operates. They also have the opportunity to evaluate the operation and offer suggested improvements.
Experience has shown that the interactions with local people who are engaged in some aspect of conservation, be it research, education or implementation, are among the most valuable aspects of the trip for our students. This year, we will receive Mam Marites (Tess) Gatan-Balbas, of the Mabuwaya Foundation, who received the prestigious Whitley Award in 2014 in recognition of her work to save the critically-endangered Philippine crocodile and will talk with us about the Foundation’s various initiatives. We will also welcome Mam Indira Lacerna-Widmann, of the Katala Foundation, which works to protect one of the world’s most endangered parrots and other species with a strong emphasis on community involvement. Mam Widmann also won a Whitley Award in 2017 for her work. We will welcome Mam Chai Apale, who coordinates Project Seahorse’s iSeahorse programme, which takes advantage of the diverse benefits of citizen science to conserve these amazing fish, which are very diverse but under intense human pressure in the Philippines. Also joining us are two experts on the impacts of natural disasters on coastlines. They are Prof Rene Rollon, of University of the Philippines Diliman, and Ma. Laurice Jamero, a Researcher at University of the Philippines Collaboratory. They will spend a day with us, exposing students to the general theme of community (ecological and human) resilience to changing sea levels.
Of course, no environmental studies trip to Bohol would be complete without considering challenges in the marine realm – after all, this is one of the three core themes of the course – and this is actually the first activity planned for our trip. We go to one of the most stunning locations in SE Asia, the small island of Panglao, just a short drive from Tagbilaran City. We conduct assessments of two marine sanctuaries: Bingag and Tabalong, both just offshore from the Mithi Resort & Spa (formerly Panglao Island Nature Resort), which provides us with boat transfers and amazing food and drink. These assessments include marine surveys (while snorkeling) to measure corals, other invertebrates and fish, in an effort to compare the ecological effectiveness of both sanctuaries. There is also a land-based assessment, during which students interact with the key players involved in the establishment, financing and management of these protected areas. Finally, we hope to be joined by Dr Corazon (Cora) Batoy, from Holy Name University (HNU), our institutional partner in Bohol. HNU helps us out in many ways, including helping to arrange our ground transport and renting us facilities, and in 2014 and 2015, Dr Batoy was our main contact person. She retired (deservedly !) in 2015, but she is an expert on sea cucumbers, including the ecological and social impacts of the trade in trepang. In many ways, Cora epitomises the honest, warm and open vibe that makes Bohol such a wonderful place to hold this course. Although I always look forward to each year’s iteration of ENV 3102 because of the course itself, I’m always equally excited to be going back to see the island and people I love so much. And I must say that this is probably the class I’m most excited to lead because this is the first batch of students I will have taught since year 1, which means I already know them all and how wonderful they are.