BIODIVERSITY, RAINFORESTS AND RARE ANIMALS IN THE PHILIPPINES

BIODIVERSITY IN THE PHILIPPINES

The animals found in the Philippines are similar to this found in Southeast Asia except there are no large mammals such as elephants, tigers and rhinoceros other than a kind of small wild buffalo found on the Philippines island of Mindoro. In many places the largest predators are eagles. Many of the big animals found on the Philippines—such as pythons, king cobras, monitor lizards, eagles—are able to swim or fly.

The Philippines is home to 1,100 land vertebrae species. More than 500 species—including 11 mammals, 172 birds and 108 amphibians—are found in the Philippines are found nowhere else in the world. Other species are found only in the Philippines, Borneo and Sulawesi.

Plants and animals have evolved in isolation in the Philippines because it has been so far from the Asian mainland. During the Ice Ages periods shorelines expanded and retracted and land bridges emerged and disappeared ed as the sea levels rose and fell allowing species to migrate between other islands and reach places like Borneo and Sulawesi but for the most part Southeast Asia and China were to far distant to allow any meaningful migration of animals.

Because the Philippines has so many different habitats that are so isolated from one another by mountains and water, it is not surprising that over time so many different species have evolved.

Philippines: Biological Hot Spot

The Philippines have been designated as one of the world’s 35 biological hot spot (biodiversity hot spot) by Conservation International because it is rich in unique wildlife and plant life but also threatened by the encroachment of people and environmental problems. In the Philippines, habitats where animals live are threatened by poverty, migrations, logging and industry. Many of these problems are manifestations of unchecked population growth, poverty and corruption.

The eight hottest biological "hot spots" are: 1) the Caribbean; 2) Western Ghats and Sri Lanka; 3) Sunderland (Sumatra, Malaysia, Borneo and Java); 4) the Philippines; 5) Brazil's Atlantic Coast; 6) Coastal forest of Kenya and Tanzania; 7) Madagascar; 8) Indo-Burma.

Many regard the Philippines as the hottest biodiversity spot of all because its vast numbers of species and the predicament they are in. Of the 1,196 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles in the country, nearly 46 percent are endemic. Among plants, the number is around 40 percent. Habitat loss threatens more than 70 percent of the 500 species unique to the Philippines. No doubt the extinction of some them is unavoidable. Only about 5 percent of the Philippines land area is under some form of protection. [Source: Pritt Vesiland, National Geographic, July 2002; mongabay]

More than 7,100 islands fall within the borders of the Philippines hotspot, identified as one of the world’s biologically richest countries. Many endemic species are confined to forest fragments that cover only 7 percent of the original extent of the hotspot. This includes over 6,000 plant species and many birds species such as the Cebu flowerpecker, the Philippine cockatoo, the Visayan wrinkled hornbill, and the enormous Philippine eagle. Amphibian endemism is also unusually high and boosts unique species like the panther flying frog. The Philippines is also one of the most endangered areas. Historically logged for timber products, today, the forests are also being cleared for farming needs and for developments to accommodate the nations growing population. [Source: Conservation International +=+]

Vital Signs: A) Hotspot Original Extent (km²): 297,179; B) Hotspot Vegetation Remaining (km²); 20,803; C) Endemic Plant Species: 6,091; D) Endemic Threatened Birds: 56; E) Endemic Threatened Mammals: 47; F) Endemic Threatened Amphibians: 48; G) Extinct Species: 2; Human Population Density (people/km²): 273; H) Area Protected (km²): 32,404; I) Area Protected (km²) in Categories I-IV: 18,060. +=+

The world's second largest archipelago country after Indonesia, the Philippines is one of the few nations that is, in its entirety, both a hotspot and a megadiversity country, placing it among the top priority hotspots for global conservation. The archipelago is formed from a series of isolated fragments that have long and complex geological histories, some dating back 30-50 million years. With at least 17 active volcanoes, these islands are part of the “Ring of Fire” of the Pacific Basin. The archipelago stretches over 1,810 kilometers from north to south. Northern Luzon is only 240 kilometers from Taiwan, Province of China, (with which it shares some floristic affinities), and the islands off southwestern Palawan are only 40 kilometers from Malaysian Borneo. The island of Palawan, which is separated from Borneo by a channel some 145 meters deep, has floristic affinities with both the Philippines and Borneo in the Sundaland Hotspot, and strong faunal affinities with the Sunda Shelf. +=+

Rain Forests and Deforestation in the Philippines

Forests once covered 96 percent of the Philippines’s land area. They included lowland rain forests, mangrove swamps and montane forests in the foot hills and mossy forest in the highlands. Forests cover now stands at only 18 percent with a small portion of this being old-growth, or uncut virgin, forest. According to a report issued by Conservation International, only five percent of Philippine forests remain intact. Some of the last stands of virgin rain forest are in the Sierra Madre in northern Luzon, Palawan and the interior of Mindanao.

Hundreds of years ago, the bulk of the country was blanketed by lowland rainforests dominated by towering dipterocarps (Dipterocarpaceae), prized for their beautiful and straight hardwood. At higher elevations, the lowland forests are replaced by montane and mossy forests that consist mostly of smaller trees and vegetation. Small regions of seasonal forest, mixed forest and savanna, and pine-dominated cloud forest covered the remaining land area.

The Philippines is one of the most heavily deforested countries in the world. The World Wildlife Fund has designated the Philippines a crisis deforestation country along with Madagascar and some islands in the Pacific, because the ecosystems in the forest are small, unique and vanishing quickly. The loss of habitat in some regions has reduced the number of species to perhaps one tenth of the number that were once there.

Deforestation exacerbates flooding and landslides. In places where it has occurred cogon grass springs up. This course grass muscles out many kinds of plants and creates vast expanses of course grassland. Deforestation is particularly damaging on islands with thin soil. Once the trees are gone the soil easily washes away, leaving behind rocks or soil in which very little grows. The soil run off also clouds up ocean water and damages reefs and fisheries.

Large timber companies have harvested from large swathes of rain fores. Clearing by the rural poor and plantation owners is also severe. To give you some idea of how quickly the Philippines was deforested by timber companies owned by Marcos's cronies, in the 1970s and 80s Korea and Japan got much of their timber from the Philippines, but today they get hardly any because most of the hardwood trees there are gone. Logging was banned in the Philippines in 2011. However, illegal logging still continues at a high level, especially in the southern part of the country on the island of Mindanao. Philippines has lost more than half a million hectares of forest since 2001.

Rhett Butler of Mongabay wrote: “The once spectacular primary forests of the Philippines are now a relic of a bygone era. What little primary forest does remain exists on the island of Palawan, the last sanctuary for the Palawan eagle. Between 1990 and 2005 the Philippines lost a third of its forest cover, according to FAO estimates, but the country's deforestation is down since its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. [Source: Rhett Butler, Mongabay, July 14, 2014 ^+^]

“Widespread logging was responsible for much of the historical forest loss in the Philippines. Despite government bans on timber harvesting following severe flooding in the late 1980s and early 1990s, illegal logging continues today. After temporarily lifting the log export ban in the late 1990s, the government has increasingly tried to crack down on timber smuggling and forest degradation. Additional threats to Philippine forests come from legal and illegal mining operations — which also cause pollution and have been linked to violent conflict — agricultural fires, collection of fuelwood, and rural population expansion. In recent years, deforestation has been increasingly blamed for soil erosion, river siltation, flooding, and drought; environmental awareness is now rising in the country. Environmentalists in the Philippines now fear that plantation agriculture, especially oil palm, could emerge as the newest threat to remaining forests. ^+^

Estimates of current forest cover in the Philippines are highly variable between sources. According to the national Forest Management Bureau, forest cover in the Philippines declined from 21 million hectares, or 70 percent of the its land area, in 1900 to about 6.5 million hectares by 2007. This data is very similar that to the U.N. FAO, which is usually based on government data. Both the government and the FAO show an increase in overall forest cover since 1990. ^+^

See Rain Forests factsanddetails.com

Philippines: Where 'Megadiversity' Meets Mega Deforestation

Shaira Panela wrote in mongabay.com, “Ongoing loss of forest cover in the Philippines places it among the top ten most threatened forest hotspots in the world, with the archipelago ranking fourth, behind Indo-Burma, New Caledonia and Sundaland (a region encompassing Australia and parts of Southeast Asia) according to a report issued by Conservation International. The high rate of forest loss is especially troubling as the Philippines is considered to be one of the most biodiverse countries in the world - so much so, that scientists have termed it "megadiverse." The United Nations World Conservation Monitoring Center ranked the Philippines 25th among countries with the highest numbers of bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian and vascular plant species. Scientists estimate 10,000 plant and animal species inhabit the Philippines, many of which are endemic to the country. According to Conservation International, "the country is one of the few nations that is, in its entirety, both a hotspot and a megadiversity country, placing it among the top priority hotspots for global conservation." [Source:, Shaira Panela, mongabay.com, July 31, 2014]

Among the Philippines’ many species found nowhere else in the world is the Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi). One of the world’s largest birds of prey, the Philippine eagle has declined dramatically in just the past 50 years, owing to extensive deforestation. Estimates vary, but surveys indicate no more than 340 breeding pairs currently exist.

Rare Species and Endangered Animals in the Philippines

The nations with the most threatened species include: 1) Indonesia (128 mammal and 104 bird species); 2) Brazil (71 mammal and 103 bird species); 3) China (75 mammal and 90 bird species); 4) India (75 mammal and 73 bird species); 5) The Philippines (49 mammal and 86 bird species); 6) Peru (46 mammal and 64 bird species); 7) Mexico (64 mammal species); 8) Columbia (64 bird species); 9) Australia (58 mammal species); 10) Papua New Guinea (57 mammal species); 11) Ecuador (53 bird species); 12) Madagascar (46 mammal species); 13) the U.S. (50 bird species); 14) Vietnam (47 bird species).

Half the endemic species of mammal and bird in the Philippines are endangered. Between 1961 and 1998, more than 40 percent of the bird species from Mt. Isarog lowland forest on Luzon vanished, even though the mountain is a national park. Fifteen of the 18 unique fish in Lake Lanao in the Philippines and half the 14 birds on Cebu are extinct. Species hunter Lawrence Heaney of the Field Museum in Chicago who has worked extensively on the archipelago told National Geographic, “Acre for acre. the Philippines may have the most seriously threatened flora and fauna on Earth,”

The cloud rat of the Philippines is on the brink of extinction. Tender, meaty and size of a house cat, it has been hunted to the point of extinction throghout the Visayas. The dwarf water buffalo was once found throughout the Philippines but now is found only on the island of Mindoro. The Isarog shrew-rat has only been observed twice. Found in the mossy rain forests around Mount Isarog in southern Luzon, it survives almost exclusively on earth worms and resembles a miniature kangaroo. In 1997 two new species were discovered in the Philippines: the Panay cloudrunner, a nocturnal squirrel-like mammal, and Lina's sunbird, a species first collected in 1965 but misidentified as a known species.

Gray's Monitor lizard sell for up to $20,000 on the black market. Rarely seen in the wild, they reside in the canopy forests of the Philippines. In 2001, a new species of monitor lizard was found on the island of Panay.

Dragon-sized, Tree-Dwelling Lizard in the Philippines: a New Species

In April 2010, scientists reported the discovery that a dragon-sized, fruit-eating lizard that lives in the trees on the northern Philippines island of Luzon had been confirmed as a new species. Deborah Zabarenko of Reuters wrote: “Hunted for its tasty flesh, the brightly colored forest monitor lizard can grow to more than six feet in length but weighs only about 22 pounds (10 kg), said Rafe Brown of the University of Kansas, whose team confirmed the find. "It lives up in trees, so it can't get as massive as the Komodo dragon, a huge thing that eats large amounts of fresh meat," Brown said by telephone. "This thing is a fruit-eater and it's only the third fruit-eating lizard in the world." [Source: Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters, April 6, 2010 ==]

“Discovering such a large vertebrate species is extremely rare, Brown said. The lizard, a new species of the genus Varanus, is skittish and able to hide from humans, its primary predators, which could explain why it has gone undetected by scientists for so long. Biologists first saw photographs of the big, skinny lizard in 2001, when those surveying the area passed hunters carrying the lizards' colorful carcasses, but the species at that point had never been given a scientific identification. In the next few years, Brown said, ethnobiologists kept hearing stories "about these two kinds of lizard that everyone liked to eat because their flesh tasted better than the ones that lived on the ground; this thing was described as bigger and more brightly colored." The two kinds of lizard described by the local people were two names for the same animal, Brown said. ==

“In 2009, graduate students at the end of a two-month expedition kept seeing signs of the big lizard. There were claw-scratches on trees and clumps of pandanus trees, whose fruit the lizard prefers. The clumps indicated that the lizards had eaten pandanus fruit and then excreted the seeds in clusters. "It was literally in the last couple days of the expedition, we were running out of money and food and this was the payoff: they finally got this gigantic animal," Brown said. Hunters who had heard of the team's interest brought a barely-alive adult male lizard to their camp. The team euthanized the animal and did genetic tests that confirmed it as a unique species, Brown said. ==

“DNA analysis showed there was a deep genetic divergence between the new lizard and its closest relative, Gray's monitor lizard, which is also a fruit-eater but lives on the southern end of Luzon, rather than the northern end where the forest monitor lizard lives. "They are extremely secretive," Brown said of the new species. "I think that centuries of humans hunting them have made the existing populations ... very skittish and wary and we never see them. They see and hear us before we have a chance to see them, they scamper up trees before we have a chance to come around." These findings were published in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters, with additional work by scientists in the Philippines and the Netherlands. =

New Species of Beetle Discovered in Manila

Dominic Rowland of mongabay wrote: “When imagining the discovery of a new species, most people conjure thoughts of intrepid explorers, battling the odds in remote rainforests. But this needn't be the case, at least according to a new study published in Zookeys. The study reports the discovery of a new species of water beetle in the heart of the 10th largest megacity in the world: Manila, Philippines. [Source: Dominic Rowland, mongabay, October 30, 2013, Freitag H (2013) Hydraena (Hydraenopsis) ateneo, new species (Coleoptera, Hydraenidae) and other aquatic Polyphaga from a small habitat patch in a highly urbanized landscape of Metro Manila, Philippines ZooKeys 329: 9. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.329.5955, +++]

“During a routine training exercise for undergraduate biology students, scientists from Ateneo de Manila University discovered the unknown beetle hidden in the leaf litter of a small creek within the university's campus. The new species, Hydraena ateneo, named after the University in which it was found, is a tiny freshwater invertebrate measuring only 1-1.5 mm (0.04-0.06 in) in length. It is distinguished from similar species by its small size and by a characteristic straight section on its leg known as a metatibia. It belongs to the genus Hydraena, which are commonly known as long-palped water beetles. These are endemic to the Philippines, i.e. found no-where else. +++

“New species are discovered every year in the Philippines, but they are mostly uncovered in natural forests and remote mountain ranges. The discovery of a new species in the heart of a city with a population of nearly 12 million proved astonishing to the researchers and students involved . "I was so amazed that there are new species even in the Ateneo Campus in the middle of Manila," said Arielle Vidal, a student enrolled in the training. Although remarkable to discover a new insect in the middle of a city, the authors were not surprised to find a new species of the Hydraena genus. "The long-palped water beetles are in fact one of the most overlooked and diverse genera of aquatic beetles. Only 14 species of this genus—all endemic—are known from the country by now, but many more wait to be named and described," explained the paper's author, Associate Professor Hendrik Freitag. +++

“The new species was found in several other locations during the same workshop, leading the authors to hypothesize that the species had recolonized the area following extensive reforestation over the last 50 years. Such studies provide encouragement that reforested semi-natural landscapes within urban areas can still support significant biodiversity. However, the authors were keen to note that such encouragement should not be used to undermine existing conservation efforts. "This should not lead to the illusion that the ongoing dramatic loss of biodiversity in the Philippines can be reversed," cautioned Freitag. "A large proportion of endemic organisms are closely associated with primary forests. Therefore, it should remain a priority for nature conservation to protect the last remaining rainforests in the country." +++

Plants in the Philippines

The Philippines is home to 12,000 plant species. More than 6,000 plant species are unique to the Philippines. It is not unusual to find more 100 tree species growing on a single slope of a mountain. The highest concentration of endemic flora are found in the cloud forests in the upper elevations of the mountains, where most cling to branches and who leaves are nourished by an almost constant mist.

With some 800 to 1,000 species of orchids, the Philippines has one of the highest numbers of different orchid species in the world. Philippine orchids come in an amazing array of shapes, sizes and colors. Most grow only in old-growth forest, often on branches of huge trees dozens of meters above the forest floor. One species of fig found only in the Philippines, Borneo and Sulawesi produces fruit that grows from neither roots nor branches but from runners that sprout out from the trunk.

Flower and Plant Omens: 1) The kalachuchi, a Philippine ornamental plant, is believed to be a harbinger of death. 2) A family living in a house surrounded by flowers called bandera espanola will always run into debt, no matter how large its income. 3) The barrio folks of Negros Occidental believe that the fragrance of the dama de noche attracts witches. 4) The Cebuanos believe that the azucena flower brings misfortune and even death. In contrast young swains in Northern Mindanao consider the same flower as a lucky love charm. 5) In Cebu the century plant, a hardy ornamental vine, is also considered as a plant that attracts death in the family. 6) In the mountain barrio of Igboras, Iloilo, the tree of the fragrant ilang-ilang is regarded as bad luck because evil spirits always haunts it. 7) The fishermen of Semirara Island in Antique believe that the everlasting flower is lucky because it brings a big catch to fishermen and staves off danger at sea. 8) Many folks subscribe to the superstition that the wood rose can ward off lightning and brings long life. [Source: felixfojas.wordpress.com , March 6, 2012]

Illegal Animal Trade in the Philippines

The Philippines is involved in the illegal animal trade not so much as a trading center and source of animals, but more as a way station or entrepot for animals captured in Australia and Philippine bound for markets in Southeast Asia and China. In February 2014, AFP reported: “ Wildlife authorities said they had seized nearly 100 exotic animals that had been smuggled into the southern Philippines in the second such haul in just two weeks. Among the creatures confiscated were 66 wild birds, including a rare Pesquet's parrot, as well as assorted reptiles and mammals such as a long-beaked echidna, a Malayan box turtle, and 10 sugar gliders - squirrel-like animals that can glide from tree to tree. A total of 93 animals from Indonesia and Australia were seized by maritime police in the waters off the southern island of Mindanao, including vulnerable and critically endangered species, said Ali Hadjinasser, the regional chief of the government wildlife board. [Source: AFP, February 26, 2014]

Five Filipinos who were transporting the animals were arrested and will be charged with illegal possession and transport of those species, he told AFP. Some of the animals did not survive their extended confinement in small cages, he said, adding that he was also worried about how to care for and feed the exotic creatures. The seizure came just a week after wildlife officers, also in the southern Philippines, found almost 100 similar animals from Australia and Indonesia, being transported by van to Manila. "They (the two shipments) could be connected. They may have one source because the animals were almost the same types. They may have a large stock so they may have divided it into two," Hadjinasser told AFP. He said the animals were so rare even the wildlife officials could not identify them, and had to ask Filipino hobbyists for help.

The head of the government's wildlife division, Josefina de Leon, said the shipments were suspected to have originated from the same international syndicate which sells the animals to local collectors. She said the two large seizures in two weeks were a sign of improved training of wildlife authorities and better cooperation from the public. "Enforcement is better because there are concerned citizens who are now assisting us in catching the perpetrators," she said. Wildlife officials believe the animals are transported from Indonesia to Malaysia, and then across the porous maritime border to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Aside from endangering the exotic animals, officials fear the smuggling could spread disease to local animal populations.

Philippines and the Illegal Ivory Trade

The Philippines is a transit point for ivory but it is also known for its carving industry producing religious sculptures and artifacts. In 2012, year, National Geographic magazine featured an ivory collection allegedly belonging to a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Cristobal Garcia, who was suspended in 2012 by the Vatican because of a sex abuse case. [Source: Hrvoje Hranjski, Associated Press, June 21, 2013 /~/]

The Elephant Trade Information System, which tracks the illegal trade on behalf of the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, says that the Philippines is among nine countries and territories identified as being most heavily implicated in the illegal trade. The others are Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China and Thailand. Ivory can fetch up to $2,000 per kilogram ($910 per pound) on the black market and more than $50,000 for an entire tusk. /~/

In June 2013, Philippine government workers used a backhoe and an incinerator to crush and burn more than five tons of smuggled elephant tusks worth an estimated $10 million in the biggest known destruction of trafficked ivory outside Africa. Hrvoje Hranjski of Associated Press wrote: “The government said that the destruction of the stockpile, gathered from seizures since 2009, demonstrates its commitment to fighting the illegal ivory trade. It also eliminates any opportunity for corrupt officials to resell the ivory, as was the case in 2006 when the largest single shipment of 3.7 tones vanished from the inventory, according to an international network that tracks the illegal trade. "Ivory is known to have disappeared from a number of government-held stockpiles worldwide, so it is vital that proper protocols are established," said Colman O Criodain from the World Wide Fund for Nature. /~/

“The U.S. Agency for International Development and the anti-wildlife-trafficking Freeland Foundation said they were helping the Philippines analyze DNA of tusks at the Center for Conservation Biology of the University of Washington so that law enforcement agencies will know the origin and transit points of the smuggled ivory. It will also help to dismantle criminal syndicates responsible for poaching in Africa. "This not only sends a message to wildlife traffickers that the Philippine government is taking firm action against the illegal ivory trade, but also takes a stand against corruption by burning their ivory stockpile so it cannot be stolen then sold into the black market," said Steven Galster, director of Bangkok-based Freeland Foundation.” /~/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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