Feature - ISSUE #9
An international group of scuba divers and conservationists established a 43-hectare marine sanctuary at Danjugan Island in the Philippine archipelago.But in addition to their conservation work, they are also having to win over local fisherfolk and politicians.
It was a clear night in late Philippine summer when the baby hawksbill turtle emerged from its shell. Under the light of a full moon, it slowly waddled down one of Danjugan Island’s steep limestone sand slopes, and slipped into the still and clear waters of the Sulu Sea. For the next hour, hundreds of the turtle’s siblings would follow suit, swimming to freedom and a hope of life in the open ocean.
Danjugan Island, a 43-hectare marine sanctuary in the midwestern region of the Philippine archipelago, is no stranger to such scenes. Its location in the middle of the Coral Triangle, a region known to have the highest concentration of marine biodiversity in the world, makes it a prime spot for wildlife. Its surrounding reefs are home to 256 species of corals (more than a quarter of the species that can be found in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia), 572 species of fish, 10 species of bats, and 72 species of birds - including a nesting pair of white-bellied sea eagles.
The island is managed by the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation (PRRCFI), a small conservation group founded by a group of scuba divers who, concerned about the destructive impacts of dynamite fishing - a practice that became rampant in the late 1980s - decided to try and establish the island as a protected area. It now serves as a research base and centre for the PRRCFI’s conservation and education programmes.
Before Covid shut down the world’s borders to travel, Danjugan was also an ecotourism site, attracting local and international visitors as well as scientists and wildlife enthusiasts who wanted to experience the vibrant ecosystems that led the divers to dub it “nature’s perfect classroom”.
The island’s limestone forests and mangrove lagoons are a home for the coconut crab (listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a vulnerable species), a nursery for the giant clam (an endangered species), and in recent years, a feeding ground for juvenile blacktip reef sharks (a near-threatened species).
Sunset over Danjugan Island and surrounding marine reserves.
Bleaching of the goniopora coral.
But life on Danjugan hasn’t always been this way. In 1985, a copper mine in the nearby municipality of Cauayan abruptly shut down. Abandoned in the mines were explosives, which people started using for dynamite fishing on the coral reefs. By the time PRRCFI stepped in, fish catches in the vicinity had already declined by more than 75%, and what had been dense coral reefs became rubble in the span of only a few years.
With the help of international conservation groups such as the UK-based Coral Cay Conservation, the PRRCFI established a science programme to run biodiversity assessment surveys that resulted in the establishment of the Danjugan Island Marine Reserve and Sanctuaries in 2000. This was a development met with anger and resentment from many in the Cauayan community, who saw the PRRCFI as outsiders who had not just invaded their territories, but allowed their fishing rights to be taken away as well.
“Whenever I catch someone from the community trespassing inside the protected area, they always hit me back saying we [the PRRCFI] may own the island, but the sea is free for anyone,” shares Ryman Gonzaga Armada, a Cauayan native who works for the PRRCFI as a tour guide.
Ryman is one of a handful of people from the local community trained by the PRRCFI to educate about Danjugan’s unique biodiversity. A great lover of corals and sea critters, Ryman first started working on Danjugan as a construction aide. He discovered his love for wildlife when he was asked to join PRRCFI’s Young Eco-Guides training programme. Since then, he has spent most of his time snorkelling with island guests, showing them around the reefs that he has grown to love and care deeply for.
Goniopora coral is a shallow-water coral.
In 2020, as humans sheltered in their homes due to the pandemic, Ryman and the PRRCFI team documented at least six nestings of hawksbill turtles, a critically endangered species (meaning their populations are declining around the world).
Asked whether he felt that the sudden proliferation of nesting turtles was due to the absence of humans (the six recorded occasions in 2020 were more than the total between 2015-2019), Ryman just shrugs. “For me it is a sign that our protection efforts are working,” he says. “I am more worried that when they [fishers from Cauayan] hear about the turtle nests, they will come and try to steal the eggs for themselves.”
Ryman’s reticence is also partly because he does not like having to catch and report trespassers, many of whom are his neighbours and friends. When Covid lockdowns were enforced, local government officials shifted their focus to protecting land borders, leaving most of the protection of the marine reserve and sanctuaries up to Ryman and his colleagues.
“I grew up with many of these people. Some call me a traitor for choosing to work [with the PRRCFI], but I tell them that I am also just doing my job, that I also have a family to support, just like them,” he says.
Ryman adds that working to help protect Danjugan Island is his way of ensuring that his own children won’t need to go too far to find a suitable livelihood.
“Protecting Danjugan means protecting their future,” he says. “Most of us only think about what and how much we can get today, without thinking about leaving anything for tomorrow, and that needs to change.”
Kimberly and Carmela on a site assessment of mangrove cover.
Danjugan’s mangrove forests are a nursing ground and shelter for young fishes and birds.
Carmela Ellaga, a licensed fisheries technologist who works with Ryman, agrees: “Fishing is what has sustained my family and why I am here. I’d like to see the source of my livelihood protected, too.”
Like Ryman, Carmela also grew up on the shores of Cauayan, and shares his dream of seeing the reefs thrive again. As a girl, Carmela heard of Danjugan and the PRRCFI through classmates who had attended educational workshops and visited the island to see its ecosystems. She explains that it wasn’t until she also had the opportunity to visit the island as a conservation scholar that she truly realised how rich her environment was.
“I suddenly felt proud of where I am from,” she shares. “That’s the feeling I want others to feel, too. That’s why I chose to work here.”
As a fisheries technologist, Carmela advocates for more sustainable fishing practices in her community, but confides that her work is “less technical, more social” - referring to the effort needed to build trust among members of the fisherfolk organisations: “It used to be challenging because people didn’t want to hear about conservation, but now they hear the stories from their own children - those who have seen the island - and they’re starting to listen.”
Ryman watching over a turtle nest to ensure all live hatchlings make their way to the sea.
Kimberly stitching up an injured sea turtle.
Early morning in Cauayan; most in the community are subsistence fishers - they eat what they catch and sell what is extra.
Kimberly Casipe, the PRRCFI’s resident scientist, also feels a paradigm shift happening among the community. “I think they just want our presence to be more consistent - they want to feel that we are taking this [conservation] journey with them.” As a biologist, Kimberly has done research on butterflies, birds, and dolphins, but, like Carmela, her work with the PRRCFI has mostly revolved around community engagement - ensuring that locals as well as government officials stay informed and updated about their different initiatives, and making sure the community always has a voice in decision-making processes.
They recently collaborated on programmes such as SWEEP (Sea Waste Education to Eradicate Plastic), which includes local government officials in campaigns to clean up the coastal areas around Cauayan; and Pro-Coast, a programme that advocates for coastal protection through biodiversity conservation in typhoon-prone areas in the region.
As part of Pro-Coast, the PRRCFI gathered with some officials and members of the Cauayan fisherfolk on Danjugan Island to share stories and best practice on ecosystem protection and restoration. One morning, while on a trek along Danjugan’s beaches, the group were able to witness another hawksbill turtle hatching.
“Some of the officials started to make little pathways for the turtles,” shares Kimberly. “They said it was so it could be easier for the turtles to get to the sea.”
“I think they are starting to understand that we need to help each other, and do our best to help other creatures thrive, so that our community can thrive, too,” says Carmela.
It was a pivotal moment; one that Ryman, Carmela, and Kimberly hope is the beginning of a friendlier chapter in the conservation story of Danjugan Island and the community of Cauayan.
A volunteer cooks rice porridge during a community relief drive in the wake of Typhoon Rai.
As WtLF was going to press, Typhoon Rai passed directly over Cauayan and Danjugan Island. Initial reports indicate that it has destroyed homes, forest, agricultural land, and most of the surrounding coral reefs. Because Carmela and Ryman were first on the ground to help local officials assess damage, PRRCFI was immediately able to get word out to its network and, together with other groups and individuals, are now raising funds for procuring roofing material, potable water, and solar charged batteries and charging stations that will go directly to the affected families.