‘Eco-terrorism victimizes butanding’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 - The Philippine Star

The New York-based Royal Carribean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) launched last Monday a global partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Philippines to promote what they chose to support as the most environmentally sustainable tourism program in our country. The luxury cruise travel giant has chosen Donsol, Sorsogon to be their first sustainable tourism destination program upon the recommendation of the WWF-Phl and the Department of Tourism (DOT).

Now known as the “whale shark capital of the world,” the once fifth-class municipality – the lowest classification of towns in terms of economic development – Donsol in Sorsogon has been turned into a bustling eco-tourism site. Thanks to hundreds of “butanding,” or the local name of the whale sharks, that frequently come to Donsol Bay.

The project is a five-year partnership between RCL and WWF starting with the Whale Shark Conservation Tourism Program which aims to reduce the environmental impact on these sea creatures. The “butanding” mostly migrate to Donsol Bay where they feed on huge amounts of planktons provided to them by Mother Nature’s rich bio-diversity.

Leading the announcement of this global partnership last Monday was no less than RCL chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) Richard Fain; WWF-Phl president/CEO Jose Angelito Palma; and Carter Roberts, CEO of WWF-US.

From its press kit, RCL is described as a global cruise vacation company that owns Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Pullmantur, Azamara Club Cruises and CDF Croisières de France, as well as TUI Cruises through a 50 percent joint venture. Together, these six brands operate a combined total of 43 ships and operate diverse itineraries around the world that call on approximately 490 destinations on all seven continents. Fain said they have 11,000 Filipinos employed in RCL cruise ships, or 30 percent of their total workforce.

On the other hand, the WWF is one of the world’s leading conservation organizations, working in 100 countries with almost five million members worldwide. The WWF is dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat climate change.

Speaking for his company, Fain described in detail what this partnership intends to do in terms of “measurable and achievable sustainability targets” to help reduce RCL’s “carbon footprints” and disposal of other wastes from their ships. And to help raise awareness about ocean conservation among the cruise company’s more than five million guests each year, Fain added.

For now, Fain disclosed, RCL initially chipped in as initial support for WWF’s global oceans conservation work some $5-million contribution as start-up funds for this partnership. As part of the global announcement, RCL also made a separate $200,000 donation to WWF Phl in support of conservation programs in Donsol that is home to a model community-based ecotourism program for whale-shark conservation.?

I was fortunately invited along with several other local and foreign journalists later to experience the interaction with the “butanding” to highlight the global announcement of the RCL-WWF partnership right of this eco-tourism project in Donsol.

Perhaps since time immemorial, these gentle giant sea creatures have already been roaming the Donsol Bay. But their presence were only first noticed by the local and national governments in 1998 after the “butanding” became a staple food and livelihood for Donsol fisher folks who slaughter them for their meat. So a law was passed that penalizes the hunting of “butanding” from that time on.

Though called as whale shark,“butanding” is not a whale but a member of the family of sharks. The typical “butanding” is 18-meter long and identified by dotted white spots all over its body.

According to studies by the WWF-Phl, Palma cited, these highly migratory whale sharks frequently visit not only to feed but also to spawn based on the recent discovery of several  “butanding” babies around Donsol Bay.

And because of this tourism-driven development, Donsol is now one of the first-class municipalities in the Philippines where people now earn higher income and live in better  conditions. This is not to mention the town is accessible by cemented roads and other basic infrastructure to facilitate local and foreign travellers, plus commerce and trade.

With 25,000 visitors a year and increase of tourism and commercial activity in the area, however, it created a strain on these creatures and partly by the deterioration in their nearby environment.

This is why the Bicol Regional Development Council (RDC) chaired by Albay Governor Joey Salceda recently passed a Resolution to denounce what has been happening to “butanding” that were being lured to Oslob in Cebu for commercial purposes and not for the sake of eco-tourism.

Donsol is part of the so-called Al-Ma-Sor (Albay-Masbate-Sorsogon) growth and tourism corridor in this part of the country. Thus, we were met at the Legazpi Airport by no less than Gov. Salceda and initially briefed us about the growing eco-tourism boom in Donsol.

Salceda took the opportunity to ask media to help call attention to what he called as “eco-terrorism” that victimizes the “butanding” being lured and commercialized in Oslob. Feeding them truckloads of “alamang” (shrimp fries), the feeding habits of the whale sharks – to go to the same place where they can feed most – is being changed away from planktons of Donsol.

Instead of Donsol, more “butanding” now go to Oslob where there is unregulated interaction with tourists who pay higher for a chance to swim up close with them.

But such does more harm than good for eco-tourism of the country. “Eco-tourism is good. Oslob is pure and simple deadly opportunism. It’s eco-terrorism!” the outspoken Salceda deplored.

According to Palma, the WWF-Phl has been trying to engage the local government officials of Oslob to follow Donsol’s successful eco-tourism policy but to no avail.

Palma renewed his call for national and local government officials to work in unity and cooperate with private sector groups like RCL and the WWF for the sake of next generation of Filipinos to continue enjoying the visits here of “butanding.” He could not agree more to Salceda’s call for an end to this kind of eco-terrorism.

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