The silver-haired visitor from Brussels was perplexed. â€œWhere did your birds disappear to?â€ he asked.
His disquiet stemmed from a continent of zealously guarded biodiversity. Storks tiptoe unhindered between tractors in his native Belgium. Robins and pigeons fill parks. â€œFeed the birds/Two pence a bagâ€ is the haunting â€œMary Poppins refrain.
Birds here, in contrast,Â run a gauntlet of slingshots, traps and pollution â€“ and disdain. We`ve paved over mangroves (â€œAsphalt is the cropâ€) and poisoned rivers.
Thus, the Mindoro imperial pigeon, Sulu hornbill and Mindanao parrot finch, among others, have vanished. Of 200 native species, 89 are threatened.
â€œYour children will no longer thrill, as we did, to the heart-stopping dive of a hawk,â€ National Scientist Dioscoro Umali, told UP graduating students, just before his death.
â€œWe`ve stripped the land of its beauty,â€ he said. â€œAnd the bitter tragedy is: the victims are our grandchildrenâ€”flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone.â€
Yet, the Philippines is a â€œmega-diversityâ€ nation,â€ notes â€œState of Environment in Asia and the Pacificâ€. Itâ€™s wedged in the top seven (of 17) countries that â€œcollectively more than two-thirds of the earthâ€™s biological resources.â€ The Philippines and Australia top Indonesia in number of â€œendemicâ€ or native birds.
No less than 77 species of egrets, plovers and sandpipers make a stopover in Cebu, as they traverse the East Asian Migratory Flyway flee winter. Olango island provides â€œpit for 67 per cent of these transients.
Today, the Philippines is a â€œbio-diversity hot spotâ€â€”one of the regionâ€™s 12. This strip extends from Indian Ocean islands, Eastern Hi layas to Sri Lanka. Many endemic species face extinction within this belt.
Deforestation saw â€œa number of bird species disappear from Cebu, Negros, Panay and Mindoro,â€ the UN study notes. â€œOf highest priority for conservation are Indonesiaâ€™s Lower Sundas, Eastern Himalayas, Luzon (especially Mindoro)â€ it adds.
On an Ulaan Bator hilltop, I watched hawks, swoop from clear Mongolian skies. Childhood memories of hawks swooping to snatch chicks in outlying barrios resurfaced. â€œMy grandchildren never saw this,â€ I mumbled. â€œAnd theyâ€™re poorer for the loss.â€
The Master from Galilee used the image of a hen, sheltering chicks, to underscore the â€œtime of visitation.â€
Birds perform multiple tasks: from curbing insect infestations to scattering seeds. In the shrinking North Negros Forest Reserve, 20 per cent of trees will fail to regenerate, if the present rate of hunting continues, a University of British Columbia study notes.
Like rivers, birds make up a unique early warning system. When rivers dry up, or birds disappear, they signal that â€œthe environment is under such stress that species which lived in them for thousands of years, can no longer survive,â€ the Philippines Red Data Book notes.
The graybird and flower-pecker (dicaeum quadricolor) were unique to Cebu. They`ve been wiped out and are now numbered among â€œfeathered desaparecidos.â€ The black shama or siloy is endangered. Â â€œWorse, I have seen other birds that will never sing again: the tukmo, kukuk,â€ columnist Roy Lu wrote…â€
RepeatedÂ World Conservation Union surveys foundÂ Â that â€œconcentration of endangered birds is larger in islands like Hawaii, the Philippines, Indonesia or Mauritius.â€
Islands birds are smaller in number and range. They become vulnerable when forests, as in Mindanao, are razed, or rivers like Abra are laced with toxic chemicals and human waste.
In Cebuâ€™s Guadalupe river, coliform pollution exploded by 6,000 per cent within a four year period â€“ a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records.
Complacency stems from greed, indifference and ignorance. Used to past abundance, many assume â€œthereâ€™s more where they came from.â€ Well, thereâ€™s none.
But no bird, herb or fish disappears alone, Oxford Universityâ€™s Dr. Norman Meyer warns. When they go, so do their unique genesâ€”life building blocks.
Genes are spliced into â€œmiracle rice,â€ high-yielding corn, even Dolly the sheep. Other go into drugs against cancer, AIDS, etc. No one knows what may be needed the day after.
This â€œkilling curveâ€ of species is genetic forfeiture. It seals off little-understood options for our grandchildren. Loss of species is irreversible obliteration of unique life forms. No one has yet invented recall from annihilation. Extinction is forever.
â€œAnd what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill?â€ asks the mythical Chief Seattle. â€œIf all the (birds) were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit.â€Â (Email: email@example.com )
By Juan L. Mercado