Olango Island

- Adona P. San Diego () - June 19, 2005 - 12:00am
There is an invisible highway in the sky that leads to Olango Island in Cebu Province. Using their sensory organs, birds from foreign countries have flown through this passage during certain months, riding the winds for thousands of miles to escape extreme weather conditions. Arriving in Olango, they feed on tidy creatures in the seashore or in swamps, before retiring for the night in lush foliage. At dawn the next day, they would fly to foreign parts again but are replaced by another batch of birds.

It had not always been this way in Olango.

Many years earlier, no exotic birds came as the surrounding seas, the rivers and swamps were despoiled by greedy fishermen and traders who engaged in dynamite fishing or destroyed coral reefs with impunity.

Realizing, however, that they had much at stake if the migratory birds shield away to more hospitable lands, the local folk voluntarily stopped the slow death of Olango.

In 1992, then President Corazon C. Aquino issued Proclamation No. 903 declaring Olango Island as a protected area. Two years later, Olango’s wetlands were also declared as having international importance by the Ramsar Convention. Since then, Olango’s marine life has bounced back to life and provided a rich feeding ground for the migratory birds whose colors and graceful flights are a sight to behold. Since then, visitors had also come in growing numbers, many of them logging in as much miles as the birds they came to watch.

The migratory birds feel no need to stop their twice-a-year journey to Olango – the fishermen now know better than to disturb their routines. Even mothers and children have made it an article of faith to protect their precious visitors from the sky.
How Olango almost died
Olango Island is located four kilometers off the coast of Mactan Island in Cebu. It has a total land area of 1,041 hectares and a population of more than 20,000. About 75 percent of Olango residents are engaged in fishing and seaweed farming and other related livelihood activities.

Local folks still remember how Olango came on the brink of disaster. Unscrupulous fishermen started laying siege on its waters, using dynamite and cyanide to increase their catch. Residents became familiar with "sudsud," the term used by shell gatherers which proved to be destructive to seagrass beds. The sound of explosives reverberating in the water became a commonplace occurrence.

With Olango’s coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves rapidly deteriorating, some fishermen who used to gather rare shells and aquarium fishes in the island had to travel to faraway places instead.

It was at this point that the government stepped in, seeing the potential of Olango as a birdwatcher’s paradise and as a rich fishing ground in itself.

Olango’s residents at first resisted the idea of the place being turned into a marine sanctuary, fearing they might lose their main livelihood – fishing.
Paradise for bird researchers
That is a thing of the past now. With the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) intensified information and education campaign, the local residents have come to understand that saving Olongapo’s marine life would give them long-term benefits.

With the gradual return of Olango’s marine life, the scientists came to recognize as well the importance of Olango in bird research. What with 10,000 migratory birds flying in from foreign countries to escape extreme weather conditions. These foreign birds use the so-called East Asian Migratory Flyway.

"The East Asian Migratory Flyway is one of the most important shorebird and waterbird migratory flyways in the world," says Mundita Lim, director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau. "A total of 77 migratory bird species use this flyway and Olango supports some 62.34 percent of these species, the biggest concentration so far that can be found in the country. Part of the 77 bird species are said to be endangered, such as the Asiatic dowitcher, Chinese engret and Eastern curlew."

Olango does not only support migratory birds but also the local birds, 32 species (or 38 percent of the total bird population) of which are endemic to the country.

The great number of migratory birds is one reason why Olango Island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1992 and a wetland of international importance in 1994. The latter made the Philippines the 82nd contracting party to the Ramsar Convention. The Ramsar Convention is a pact made of international conservationists in 1971 seeking the recognition of critical wetlands worldwide, Lim added.

Olango Island is now teeming with fish. And the thousands of birds that frequently visit the area to roost and to feed is one of the many attractions of the island. The convergence of migratory birds in Olango attracts more visitors to the island, generating more income for the community.

Although the people are already aware of the importance of protection and conservation of the island, the DENR recognizes that sustaining these practices is another issue that needs to be addressed.

In 1998, the DENR, through the Coastal and Resource Management Program (CRMP), came to the island to introduce alternative livelihood and teach the people on how they can sustain the protection and conservation of the island’s marine resources as well as the prestine environment.

The CRMP helped the women of Olango to start other livelihood projetcs. One of these is eco-tourism. CRMP representatives organized the women to launch the project. The women were taught to manage the tour without disturbing the birds and other marine life in Olango.

Moreover, the women and the youth helped one another in giving refuge to the birds and in increasing public awareness on conservation and protection of the natural resources of the whole community. The women also started other alternative livelihood such as hog raising and construction of fishpens and handicrafts made of decorative shells.

Meanwhile, the men, who were mainly involved with paddling guests and guiding at the sanctuary, formed the Paddlers’ group.

The DENR, for its part, has put up service facilities like the boardwalk, binoculars, spotting scopes, and bird identification brochures to guide visitors in their bird watching spree.

Today, a "zone system" is being observed which allows the locals to engage in their traditional activities such as fishing and seashells gathering in less critical portions of the wildlife reserve.

Life for the islanders has greatly improved after the declaration of the area as a wildlife sanctuary and the implementation of the coastal resource management program. The community is now enjoying a better life and a better environment. Just as importantly, the birds are enjoying their short stop over the island.

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