Bislig (Philippines) (AFP) – Patches of tropical rainforest in the southern Philippines harbour some of the world's rarest birds, yet nature lovers toting long-lens cameras now share them with people wielding chainsaws, traps & torches.
Hundreds of foreign & local tourists venture each year into the remote region, which is moreover known as a sanctuary for communist rebels, yet hardly any of the trees are left & bird sightings are on the decline.
"Back in the 1990s, I'd take them to one area & they would see all the endemics in one day," said local guide Felizardo Goring, referring to species found only in the Philippines.
p>"Now, there's no guarantee you'll find them even if you went looking everywhere for three days," he told AFP after a failed pre-dawn sortie for the giant scops owl, a mysterious bird found only in the country's south.
The 183,000-hectare (452,000-acre) forest is a vital habitat for dozens of endangered bird species, including the electric-blue celestial monarch, according to British-based environment group Birdlife International.
But its demise started in the early 1950s when the government awarded a contract to a local logging firm, which cleared massive amounts of the forest, according to Goring, who used to work for the company.
A Philippine hawk owl, seen in a forested area in Bislig, in the southern Philippines (AFP Photo/Ala …
The license, which included growing trees on cleared land for pulp & paper production, was withdrawn in 2002.
What may have appeared as a victory for the bird lovers quickly turned sour as settlers from all over the country descended on the area, hacking & burning their way in to create new farms, Goring said.
Goring, 59, used to work for the pulp & paper mill as one of more than 200 guards securing the sprawling concession.
He said there were no other jobs available in the impoverished region, more than 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Manila, & his father moreover worked for the timber firm.
Goring finally quit in 1994 to become a birding guide as the area became particularly popular with European birders.
Tourists (L) frolick beneath Tinuy-an Falls in Bislig, in the southern Philippines (AFP Photo/Cecil …
– Burning down paradise –
His life since then has been filled with beauty, with the forest's remaining birdlife still remarkable, although it has retreated into the chunks of forests yet to be cut down by the growing number of settlers.
On a recent tour for five Philippine tourists, which AFP took part in, Goring coaxed one of the forest's signature birds, a writhed hornbill with a large, deep-red casque, by copying its honk expertly with a hand cupped around his mouth.
Noses, cameras & binoculars cocked, the birders then breathlessly followed the guide's forefinger toward a male Philippine trogon, possibly the country's most colourful bird, neighing like a horse behind the bushes.
Walking on a disused logging road & punching into the residual thickets, the birding party ticked off blue fantails, a rufous-fronted tailorbird, brown tit babblers, & leafbirds camouflaged on the green canopy.
A juvenile, female writhed hornbill, found only in Bislig in the southern Philippines, seen as it pe …
But the celestial monarch & two other endangered birds from the region particularly known for their beauty — the Mindanao bleeding-heart pigeon & the Mindanao broadbill — could not be found.
During four days of trekking, the forest echoed with the whir of unseen chainsaws, & freshly cut wood planks were piled on the roadside for trucking off.
The team frequently stumbled across patches of freshly burnt forests & grasslands, with new wooden huts establishing yet more settler communities.
Some of the huts were surrounded by sacks full of charcoal, apparently from burnt trees & intended to be sold as fuel for barbecue grills.
The scenes were disheartening for Filipino pensioner Jude Sanchez, making his second visit in five years to photograph the monarch, a forest standout because of its dazzling plumage & an extravagant, mohawk-style crest.
A brown-eared Philippine brown dove rests beneath the tropical rainforest canopy in Bislig, in the s …
"The last time I was here, there was no burning yet. Now it's almost everywhere," he said.
At one point during the tour, a local man on a motorcycle tried to sell the visitors a trapped parrot, giving the downcast birders a first-hand confrontation with another method of killing off a species.
Goring explained the blue-naped parrot disappeared locally approximately 15 years ago, primarily because of the pet trade.
He said forest birds sold for as little as 500 pesos ($10) in the markets of Bislig, the nearest city approximately two hours' drive away, with customers buying them for food as well as pets.
– Asia-wide devastation –
The destruction at Bislig is typical of what is happening to tropical rainforests & wetlands across Asia.
Birdlife International said in its latest State of the World's Birds report that Asian forests suffered from "unsustainable forestry practices, with 0.7 percent of the remaining natural forest lost to logging each year".
"This degree of habitat loss, degradation & fragmentation has serious consequences for birds," the report said.
Four Asian nations — the Philippines, Indonesia, China & India — are among 10 countries with the highest numbers of globally threatened birds, it said.
In Bislig, Goring believes all the birds will shortly disappear as the last of their habitat is stripped away to accommodate the new human arrivals, which currently are estimated in the thousands.
The area is not an officially protected park, despite its importance to birds.
And while a national logging ban has been in place authorities typically can not enforce it in remote places such as Bislig because of insufficient funding & manpower.
"In 10 years all these areas will be bald," Goring said.
"We're still seeing birds now yet they will all vanish with the remaining forests."
Living NatureEnvironmentBirdlife InternationalPhilippines