Travel writer and WLT supporter, William Gray recalls his visit to the Philippine island of Danjugan, saved by our partner 25 years ago
Danjugan crouched low on the horizon, an emerald, dragon-backed island, long, thin and spiky. Small fishing outriggers, or bangkas, with triangular sails, danced in a brisk northwesterly beneath its rainforest-cloaked hills. The wind dropped as we reached the leeward side of the island, sheltered by limestone cliffs smothered in trees and vines. Even from 100m, I could hear the whistling calls of orioles, sunbirds and kingfishers. Beyond the cliffs stretched a long, deserted beach scattered with driftwood. At its far end, dwarfed by a huge fig tree rising above the forest canopy, were two thatched shelters and a cluster of tents. Passing through a narrow passage in the fringing reef, we drifted gently towards shore and I waded the last few metres through seagrass meadows littered with bright orange starfish.
Arriving on Danjugan over 23 years ago – not long after it had been saved from development – I spent several weeks with a team of expedition volunteers, surveying the island’s virgin rainforest and coral reefs.
Of the 7,641 islands in the Philippines, Danjugan might be one of the smallest – barely 1,500m long and 500m at its widest point – but it is also one of the most important. Back in 1993, when the late William Oliver alerted World Land Trust to the impending threat of a resort on Danjugan, the Philippines had already lost 92% of its rainforest, while 90% of its coral reefs were suffering from pollution and dynamite fishing.
After helping to establish the Philippine Reef & Rainforest Conservation Foundation (PRRCFI), led by Gerry Ledesma, WLT raised funds to purchase the island. Partnering with Coral Cay Conservation, expedition survey teams began to reveal the island’s extraordinary biodiversity.
It didn’t take us long to synchronise with the island’s natural rhythm. We knew when the fruit bats would rouse from forest roosts, their silhouettes scything the sunset. And, an hour before dawn, we always heard the sea eagles calling in baritone coughs from their nest in the fig tree above our camp. Locals said the birds symbolised Danjugan’s healthy reefs and forests. It would be a bad omen if they ever left.
Today, following 25 years of work by PRRCFI, the Danjugan Island Sanctuary still has its sea eagles – and over 70 other species of birds. Ecotourists and school children can visit a small camp on the island and discover turtle-nesting beaches and forests that are alive with 22 different kinds of butterfly. Danjugan’s coral reefs and mangroves – along with three nearby community-managed marine reserves created by PRRCFI – are not only valuable stores of biodiversity, home to 572 fish species and 244 hard corals, but they also protect coastlines and act as fish nurseries.
Danjugan shows, in a microcosm, how conservation ought to be done – collaborating with partners, involving local communities and inspiring the public. It’s a glowing testament to PRRCFI and WLT that, if I was lucky enough to ever return to this little gem in the Sulu Sea, I would find it much the same as I left it over two decades ago.