Palawan as Earth's 4th most 'irreplaceable' area for endangered species

Animals unique to Palawan such as the horned frog, the Palawan flying fox, and the Palawan bearded pig appear to be dwindling in numbers, painting a disturbing picture of reality: the unique inhabitants of the “Last Ecological Frontier of the Philippines” are at risk of dying out, making Palawan one of the most critical areas for species conservation on the planet.

A detailed report published in the international magazine Science presents a comprehensive analysis of statistics covering 173,461 terrestrial protected areas and 21,419 vertebrate species across the globe. The study was a collaborative effort from scientists hailing from France, Switzerland, the UK, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and the US.

The list of protected areas was taken from the World Database on Protected Areas, while the species examined in the report were taken from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species. The data used in the study is regarded as the world’s most complete collection of information regarding endangered species.

The researchers identified the Palawan Game Refuge and Bird Sanctuary as the overall 4th most irreplaceable protected area in the world, as well as the 10th most vital in terms of threatened bird species. Palawan is the largest province in the country in terms of land area, spanning over 1,700 islands. ProtectedPlanet.net reports there are 392 protected areas in the region.

The study also ranks 38 other locations in the Philippines, including Mt. Banahaw, the Sierra Madre mountain range, and Mt. Makiling.

The most irreplaceable areas in the world

A total of 137 protected areas in 34 countries were identified as the most vital to the survival of 627 various species of amphibians, birds, and mammals. Half of these species are critically endangered.

The findings reveal that the two most irreplaceable areas in the world are both in Venezuela. The Formaciones de Tepuyes Natural Monument is the most irreplaceable area in the world, followed by the Canaima National Park. Additionally, Colombia’s Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta Natural National Park is listed as the most irreplaceable protected area in terms of overall number of threatened species.

The Western Ghats World Heritage Site in India is ranked highest when it comes to endangered amphibians, while the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California World Heritage Site is the most globally irreplaceable area in terms of threatened mammals. The Galapagos Islands World Heritage Site, on the other hand, nearly tops the list of areas crucial in terms of endangered bird species.

World Heritage Sites

A number of places highlighted in the study are already recognized as World Heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). However, a considerable number of the areas identified in the report have yet to be awarded this distinction, including the aforementioned Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta Natural National Park, Cuba’s Ciénaga de Zapata wetlands, and Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains National Park.

Lead author Soizi Le Saout believes that all of these irreplaceable areas are worthy of World Heritage status. “Such recognition would ensure effective protection of the unique biodiversity in these areas, given the rigorous standards required for World Heritage sites,” the researcher explains.

The path to World Heritage Site recognition entails an extensive review system, says Ana Rodrigues, co-author of the study. "In order to be granted World Heritage status, countries must demonstrate that the site meets rigorous standards of integrity and management, and provide guarantees that these standards will be maintained," adds Rodrigues, a conservation biologist from the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier, France.

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park and the Puerto Princesa Underground River, both located in Palawan, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Focus on other species too

The researchers also noted that efforts directed solely towards the preservation of more “charismatic” animals, such as polar bears, might not be the ideal approach to take towards species preservation.

According to Rodrigues, some protected areas focus almost exclusively on aesthetically appealing animals, leaving the smaller and less attractive species more vulnerable to the threat of endangerment and even extinction. However, the researchers maintain that all species and protected areas bear significance in the overall picture. "We're not saying we should drop any," clarifies Rodrigues.

Only 'paper parks'

Even more unsettling is the fact that some of these so-called “protected sites” only exist as “paper parks” – designated in name alone, without proper management or investment.

“Páramo Urrao National Protective Forests Reserves, in Colombia, for example, does not really exist,” says Paul Salaman, chief executive of the Rainforest Trust and biodiversity expert. “It was legally created in 1975, but this was never translated into on-the-ground management.”

Through the study, the scientists seek to emphasize the importance of improving the management and maintenance of existing protected areas. "[I]t has become clear to us that you can't just [expand the network of protected areas]," states Rodrigues.

"You also need to ensure the existing areas work and do what we need them to do."

For countries burdened with financial troubles such as the Philippines, the key to the preservation of threatened species lies in the efficient management of protected areas.

"Protected areas can only fulfill their role in reducing biodiversity loss if they are effectively managed," notes Simon Stuart, chairperson of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. "Given limited conservation budgets, that is not always the case, so governments should pay particular attention to the management effectiveness of highly irreplaceable protected areas." — TJD, GMA News