Squatters vs. Exotic Beasts on 'Jurassic Park' Isle
Bungle in Philippine Jungle
| CALAUIT, PHILIPPINES
At first sight, Calauit reminds its infrequent visitors of the remote island depicted in Steven Spielberg's film "Jurassic Park," with palm-fringed shores and lush vegetation.
The island is virtually inaccessible, entailing either chartering a boat for a four-hour journey through typhoon-prone seas, or a jeep ride and canoe trip through crocodile-infested swamps.
An exploration into the 9,300-acre island's interior reveals that huge tracts of forest have been felled to create an incongruous savannah-type landscape. Herds of zebras and impalas can be spotted grazing among the waist-high grass, while in wooded areas, giraffes nibble on treetops.
Despite its serene appearance, this safari isle has recently become the scene of a mini-revolution, bloodshed, and one of the country's longest-running legal battles.
Calauit secured its controversial place in the history books in 1976 when then-President Ferdinand Marcos answered an appeal by Kenya to provide a temporary reserves for its wildlife. At the time, it was feared some of the African species could be wiped out during civil unrest by hungry soldiers in Kenya, who were killing game animals in their thousands.
A team of government experts decided Calauit was a suitably isolated site for the project. In early 1977, a consignment of 104 giraffes, elands, topis, zebras, bushbucks, impalas, gazelles, and waterbucks arrived after a 15-day crossing of the Indian Ocean.
But in the excitement over the challenges of his latest prestige project, President Marcos sowed the seeds of future conflict: He ordered the eviction of Calauit's more than 1,000 residents. Despite being given small cash payments and resettlement sites on nearby Cullion Island, many of the residents claim they were forced out of their homes at gunpoint.
When Marcos was finally overthrown in 1986, the displaced families, inspired by news of a "people power" revolution in the capital, Manila, decided to stage their own revolution to take back their homes.
A Navy gunship was dispatched to guard the island. But after a week, the disgruntled former residents persuaded the ship's captain to let them come ashore to stage a prayer protest.
Once they had landed their boats, the protesters refused to leave and have been squatting on the island ever since. They have taken over at least 500 acres of the island's lowlands for rice farming, the same areas that provide grazing for the African animals in summer.
More important, many of the islanders have found a lucrative new source of income: poaching.
Meat from impala, eland, and the endangered Philippine Calamian deer has been found on sale in markets on nearby Busuanga Island. Poachers earn about 700 pesos ($20), or more than four times the average daily wage, for the flesh of these animals. The horns and antlers fetch 1,000 pesos ($29) as trophies for collectors.
Calauit's administration officer, Froilan Sariego, says it is hard to know how many animals are falling prey to poaching because the killings are sporadic.
But "it's definitely our biggest problem," he says. "We understand why some people have resorted to poaching: They are poor and they see these animals as instant cash.
"But coexistence is impossible, and this is why they must leave the island if this conservation project is to survive."
Mr. Sariego points to Calauit's importance as one of the country's foremost sites for the protection of endangered Philippine species such as the Palawan bearcat, Calamian deer, and the seven-inch-high mouse deer, the world's smallest hoofed animal. More than 20 species of rare birds have also made their home on the island. Although five Filipino marines have been stationed on the island since the 1986 uprising, Sariego says many of them seem to view their posting only "as a holiday."
The island's 15 game wardens are unable to control poaching, largely because they lack funds. "They are unarmed and can't request any backup if they encounter a poacher because our radio mast was hit by lightning five years ago," Sariego says. "Our boats are very small, and not fast enough for high-speed chases."
The government has been trying to evict the squatters through court actions since 1987. But after a series of lengthy appeals, they are still in place.
One of the squatters, a young fisherman who gives his name only as Rico, says: "I haven't killed any animals myself, but I don't think there's anything wrong with it. This island was our home for years, but the government threw us out. It thought we were less important than animals. Millions of pesos are being spent to look after giraffes and antelope, but we get nothing."
A government official involved in the court case says the government is confident of a legal victory. "It is inevitable...," the official says. "These people were only ever tenants, not landowners.... The records show that most of them agreed to accept the resettlement package."