In 1992, World Land Trust (WLT) was alerted to the impending demise of a small island by the late William Oliver, a multi-talented conservationist working in the Philippines. He introduced the Trust to Gerry Ledesma, President of the Philippine Reef & Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. (PRRCFI), who described the urgency relating to the ecological fate of Danjugan Island, which was about to be sold and cleared of its forests to make way for a beach resort.
The request followed on from the successes of WLT’s first land conservation projects, when WLT raised funds for the purchase of 110,000 acres of tropical forest in Belize and 5,000 in Costa Rica for partners Programme for Belize and Fundación Tierras Unidas Vecinales por el Ambiente (TUVA Foundation).
As the project would involve marine protection for the pristine coral reefs surrounding the island, as well as the land habitat, the mission to save Danjugan Island was quite different from WLT’s initial programmes in Central America. However, after witnessing the development and subsequent loss of biodiversity on neighbouring islands in the Visayas, WLT launched an appeal to raise £250,000 for the purchase of the island.
WLT supporters were encouraged to purchase a £25 ‘Green Share’ in the island, and once the island was secured, there was a call for volunteers to help citizen science organisation Coral Cay Conservation Ltd (CCC) survey, map and evaluate the island and its wildlife.
The island and its surrounding waters were bursting with biodiversity. Hawksbill Turtles nested on the beaches, a bat colony of ten different species visited the limestone caves, and the marine megafauna seen in the surrounding waters included Whale Sharks, dolphins, and manta rays. CCC volunteers identified 190 species of corals from 73 genera, comparable to the diversity of the Great Barrier Reef, which had 80 identified coral genera at the time. It was also an important stopover habitat for migrating birds, as Danjugan was one of the few islands in the area to retain its forests.
Aspirations for the island
By 2000, the loan WLT had taken out to buy the island had been repaid and the future of the island was secured. Ownership of the island was vested in WLT’s partner PRRCFI.
Moving forward, PRRCFI aimed to reseed Giant Clams in Danjugan’s reefs, restore mangroves on the nearby coast of Negros, work with local fishing community on sustainable practices and the establishment of the no-fishing marine protected areas, and ensure the land and marine habitats of Danjugan remained untouched. PRRCFI aspired that these projects would become self-sufficient with the running of a low-impact eco-tourism operation on the island.
Danjugan Island in 2018
24 years on, long since PRRCFI’s work on Danjugan became independent of WLT, the fate of the island has become a shining example of a conservation success story. Speaking to WLT, PRRCFI Executive Director Dave Albao reports that Danjugan has retained its legacy of tropical forests and rich coral reefs.
The current biodiversity records list 79 species of bird, 10 bat, 22 butterfly, 17 mangrove, 572 fish, 244 hard coral, and 74 macroalgae. “This includes a sighting that is rare in the Philippines,” says Dave, “The Beach Stone-Curlew, which made our quiet beaches its home after a storm in 2014.
“The Giant Clams reseeded in Danjugan’s reefs in 2000 have now become adults up to a metre in size. Sightings of Coconut Crabs and Tabon Scrubfowls are now becoming common, and the endangered Humphead Wrasse is a usual sighting during dives. We will also see migrating Whale Sharks passing by the island consistently every November to March, and they will sometimes stay in the area for a couple of days.”
In the skies
Another key reason for WLT recognising the importance of Danjugan Island was that one of its trees, which would surely have been lost through development, was home to a nesting pair of White-breasted Sea Eagles. Dave confirms there is still a resident pair in the same spot, “They nest at one of the tallest points of the island, and they are territorial so they will drive away their young after training them to fly and hunt. This is why there will never be more than one pair on the island.”
“The island also has a bat cave where the estimated 10,000 bats (of eight species) roost, and the colony is now resident in the cave, though some still travel back to the mainland every night, and there are two species of flying fox which roost in trees.”
The future of Danjugan
“If Danjugan hadn’t been purchased, it would have been overexploited and may not been able to support a habitat for wildlife”
Dave Albao, PRRCFI
In 2002 Danjugan Island Marine Reserve and Sanctuary (DIMRS) was declared the Best Managed Coral Reef in the Philippines. Since then PRRCFI have helped establish more than 5 marine protected areas off the coast of Negros, and the DIMRS is now the largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the MPA network of South Negros.
In the last 6 years, PRRCFI aimed for long-term conservation through environmental education with a continuing program for youth and local leaders in partner schools and communities. Recognized in the Philippines as a pioneering endeavour, Danjugan Environmental Education Program (DEEP) has sponsored about 2,000 students from coastal villages to experience its Marine and Wildlife Camps, and is now currently mentoring young scholars in the fields of Fisheries, Agriculture, and Forestry with the hope that this new generation will have the mindset of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.
PRRCFI have established an ecotourism programme to encourage people to enjoy the island’s beauty without impacting its wildlife. Only ten per cent of the island is open for trails and activities, and mainly focussed on educating tourists about conservation of habitat, species and food security of local communities (which is one of PRRCFI’s key objectives moving forward).
It has become known as a unique location for visitors to the Philippines. Gerry Ledesma, Founder and President of PRRCFI, says “Danjugan island is an example of how conservation ought to be done in this country when, in a microcosm, a small jewel in the Sulu Sea can be saved for future generations while benefiting the local community.”