For Philippines’ unprotected hotspots, new conservation window beckons

  • Scientists have identified 228 key biodiversity areas in the Philippines, but only 91 are currently part of the country’s network of protected areas.
  • Conservationists see an opportunity in the adoption of the new Global Biodiversity Framework, which commits signatories like the Philippines to protecting 30% of terrestrial and marine ecosystems by 2030.
  • However, experts caution that protecting biodiversity is not as simple as creating new protected areas on paper, and that care needs to be taken to protect the rights and interests of Indigenous and local communities.

After hours of wading through raging rivers and braving the steep, slippery slopes of the Victoria-Anepahan Mountain Range (VAMR) on a rainy morning in October 2022, wildlife specialist Aubrey Jayne Padilla and her Indigenous Tagbanua parabiologist companions breathed sighs of relief as they reached Atabay Lake, one of their three research stations and base camp for the next five days.

“The lake is very magical,” Padilla, a National Geographic explorer and research project coordinator of the environmental organization Centre for Sustainability (CS), told Mongabay in a video interview. “It’s tucked away in an enchanting forest where a wide range of wildlife abounds.”

Straddling the central-southern part of the Philippines’ Palawan province, the 164,789-hectare (407,202-acre) mountain range is a Key Biodiversity Area, defined by global wildlife conservation authority the IUCN as greatly contributing to the planet’s biodiversity and overall health.

While setting up wildlife camera traps, Padilla says she gained a deeper appreciation of how Indigenous stewardship and prohibitions on extractive industries have been vital in conserving Victoria-Anepahan, particularly Kensad mountain. The 8,063-hectare (19,924-acre) Kensad is part of the Tagbanua’s ancestral domain and home to an array of Philippine endemic species, including pangolins and cockatoos.

Yet, despite the local government’s promise to conserve the area, VAMR remains poorly protected from illegal logging, swidden farming and mining. This mountain range is emblematic of what the Philippines has overlooked for years: 137 of the country’s 228 identified Key Biodiversity Areas don’t fall within the national network of protected areas, known as NIPAS, despite advocacy efforts by conservationists and Indigenous peoples.

As of 2022, this megadiverse archipelago has 248 protected areas, including seven newly legislated ones, covering 7.8 million hectares (3.2 million acres), or about 15.4% of the country’s land area and 1.4% of its territorial waters.

With the adoption of the new Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) at the December 2022 U.N. Biodiversity Conference, which commits signatories to protecting 30% of terrestrial and marine ecosystems by 2030, conservationists see a renewed opportunity to push for the expansion of the Philippines’ protected area system. However, experts also caution that truly protecting critical ecosystems isn’t as simple as demarcating them on paper.


BANNER IMAGE: A narcissus flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina) in the Philippines. Image by Hiyashi Haka via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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