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Agusan marshland a sanctuary for naturalists

From top right: 300-year-old Toog tree; Manobo woman paddling through the marshland, migratory bird stretches its wings. Contributed Photos by Rhea Arjona

MANILA, Philippines – Long before 6.17-meter crocodile “Lolong” became a tourist icon of Agusan del Sur and landed in the Guinness Book of Records, the province was the toast of the world’s naturalists with the Agusan Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.

A protected area covering more than 14,000 hectares in the heart of the 250-kilometer Agusan River, it is perhaps the country’s most significant wetland, listed in the Swiss-based prestigious Ramsar List Wetlands of International Importance.

Scattered in the towns of San Francisco, Bunawan, La Paz, Loreto, and Talacogon, it is habitat to endangered animals which include 1,332 species of birds, 112 species of flowering plants and ferns, two crocodile species and 65 types of butterflies.

Also within the marsh is Lake Mambagongon in La Paz town which has over 200 migratory birds from Northern Asia and Siberia, making it an important avian refuge. With 40 floating households of indigenous Manobos, it is known for dense and diverse fauna and has a woodpecker’s park located along the river channel.

Visitors can observe nesting sites in bungyas trees, Javan pond herons perched on bangkal trees darting at water hyacinths to catch small fish and insects for food.

Lake Panlabuhan is a floodplain lake in Loreto town which is a swamp habitat for freshwater crocodiles and floating houses of Manobos, spread across sub-lakes and river channels. The indigenous people here still practice the ancient “panagtawag” ritual offered to celestial spirits to ensure the safety of visitors.

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Other notable wildlife within the marsh are the golden-crown flying fox, silvery kingfisher crocodile, and Southeast Asian migratory birds.

Gov. Adolph Edward Plaza said that the Agusan Marsh is a one of a kind tourist destination. He said that the cruise along the picturesque Agusan River is a must-do travel experience, which reveals the rich tropical biodiversity of the area.

A supplemental ecosystem is the Agusan Peatland, a swampland in Caimpugan, San Francisco which stores some 22.8 million tons of carbon deposit (52.53 ton per hectare), the highest in the country.

Also called “Wonderland” by naturalists due to its wondrous natural composition, peatswamp forests are important ecosystems being the most carbon-dense in the terrestrial biosphere.

Its topsoil is composed of forest litter, while the bottom is made up of organic soil or peat and serves as a shelter and habitat of diverse fauna which includes deer, tarsier, monkey, wild boar, duck, wild chicken, owl species and migratory birds.

Plaza said that the province also takes pride in the legendary Mt. Magdiwata which boasts of a virgin forest with a series of seven major waterfalls and 53 smaller cascades.

Deriving its name from the legendary fairies, it towers at 633 meters, abounds in 228 flora and 113 fauna flora species, lawaan trees, dypterocarp, and the country’s biggest tanguile and bagrass, the world’s most colorful tree.

This 1,658-hectare rainforest park is also the watershed of San Francisco town, and sanctuary to deer, monkeys, wild boars, snakes, birds, squirrels, eagles, lizards and tarsiers.

Agusan del Sur is also punctuated with Combretodenton quadrialatum trees locally known as to-og, a species which thrives only in Mindanao and is scattered around the marsh, the national roads, and the provincial capitol compound in Prosperidad.

The most prominent tree, measuring 65 meters high and 360 centimeters in diameter and estimated to be around 300 years old, stands proudly in San Francisco and is regarded as the world’s third tallest.

Another natural wonder is Bega Falls in upland Prosperidad, which serves as the core of the Bega River system comprising seven major waterfalls, most of which are designated for biodiversity research.

The province’s pre-colonial history dates back to the Majapahit Empire of Southeast Asia evident in archaeological discoveries in its vicinity, among these an eight-inch image of the Golden Tara, a woman in pure gold, and molten jars in Prosperidad.

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