11/06/2011

L'HABITAT ... DE LOLONG !

La Marche d'Agusan, une région pour l'Ecotourisme ?

The Agusan Marsh, where Lolong the giant crocodile was captured, has tremendous potential for ecotourism but it must be studied well to avoid fatal crocodile-human encounters.

The capture of the 6.4 meter-long brackish-water crocodile Lolong has focused global attention on the Agusan Marsh, located for the most part in Agusan del Sur. The Marsh is separated from its Butuan Bay outlet by a horizontal distance of more than 130 km, but its vertical elevation is only 16 meters above sea level.


In earlier times when sea levels were higher, it is not difficult to imagine the free ingress of brackishwater crocodiles into the Marsh. More recently, humans have hunted the reptiles for leather and meat, from the 1960s until 1994 when the Marsh came under the National Integrated Protected Area System. NIPAS inclusion effectively stopped most crocodile hunting in the Marsh (already declared a national and international wetland sanctuary by Pres. Proclamation 913 and the RAMSAR Convention, respectively).

The ban on hunting removed humans as the top predator from the food chain, leaving the crocodiles to grow in numbers as well as body size. Anecdotes are told of an even bigger 9-meter Crocodylus porosus, possibly the (unfairly named) “monster" croc that killed and decapitated a young girl on her way home from school in March 2009.

Guesstimates are made of some 5,000 crocodiles in the Marsh, and options to build a bigger facility vs enclosing a portion of the natural habitat for Lolong are debated. Sadly lacking in all these is science – without accurate information, possible human-crocodile encounters will continue.

All it takes is one, just one, attack on a tourist, and Agusan del Sur can forget its dreams of ecotourism.

Therefore a Workshop of a dozen or so Crocodile experts with knowledge of wild populations (e.g., scientists of the Mabuwaya Foundation, Agusan del Sur DENR-PAWCZMS staff, and veteran Marsh crocodile hunters) or bred animals (the Crocodile Farm Institute in Palawan) should be convened soonest.

The Workshop will assess what is known of brackishwater crocodiles both in the Marsh and elsewhere, point out information gaps, and prioritize research topics.

What is the niche of C. porosus in the vast Marsh ecosystem? How many of these reptiles are in the swamps and rivers, in what sex ratios and sizes? What is the carrying capacity of the Marsh for crocodiles? for humans? for humans AND crocodiles?

Do crocodiles mate for life? What is their breeding, parental and other behavior? Where exactly along the
Agusan River, or in the Marsh (other than Lake Mihaba) do they rest, feed, nest and undertake the daily activities of crocodile life?

Such knowledge will provide the basis for a regulatory framework to include the culling (controlled harvest) of wild crocodiles to stabilize their population numbers, and the zoning of the Marsh into residential, fisheries, navigational, tourism and other zones.

(Growing up in flood-prone Butuan City, I would listen to tales of crocodiles leaving their river haunts to take a swim in inundated city streets during the rainy season.).

J.H. Primavera, Ph.D is an Agusanon by birth and biologist by profession and he call on the DENR-PAWB/ DOST/other national agencies to organize such a workshop, the local government officials of Agusan del Sur and Caraga Region to provide the logistics, and for all to fund the research needed to estimate harvest quotas for culling, to delineate safe navigational routes, and to delimit settlement areas out of harm’s way for Manobos and other Marsh residents.

A huge 19,000-ha freshwater ocean when it rains, the Marsh water level drops by 2-4 meters and the water area is down to 15,000 hectares spread over 59 lakes in the dry season.

 In this manner does the Marsh – the Middle Basin of the 1.2 million-ha Agusan River Basin that dominates Eastern Mindanao – act as a sponge to absorb the waters from the Upper Basin and regulate their downstream flow saving Agusan del Norte, Butuan City and the rest of the Lower Basin from catastrophic
floods. Mindanaoans and Filipinos from all over should have the opportunity to visit the Agusan Marsh at least once in their lifetime, as much for its ecological importance as its magical beauty.

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