With more than 7,000 islands and islets comprising the Philippines, the excitement of telling people where I live never gets old. Home is Puerto Princesa, Palawan, considered a city within a forest, the country’s last ecological frontier and Travel + Leisure’s “Best Island In The World” for 2020.
It’s the kind of place where it’s easy to assume that isolation is part of our culture, considering that we’re literally separated from the country’s major regions and island groups. Over the course of this pandemic, with its series of lockdowns and restrictions, “isolation” took on a whole different sense.
Public spaces were avoided. Work and school shifted online. Masks and face shields became mandatory. Hugs, handshakes and “mano po” were foregone. Elders stayed home, and young ones suddenly became “tributes” for supply runs and other essentials. These and more became the so-called “new normal.” It was weird, unnerving even.
As Covid-19 steadily spread across the country, everything slowed down.
UNDERGROUND river in Puerta Princesa, Palawan. / PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF UNSPLASH/MIRIAM EH
There was no other way to describe it. I’ve walked on, as the Celtics believed, “Thin Places,” spaces where the distance of heaven and earth collapse, and we were able to experience or even catch glimpses of the divine, its energy felt with every movement. Slowly but surely, I developed a deep sense of gratitude and smallness, in awe of the grandness that only nature could offer.
While beautiful and bold, nature is fragile. Traces of trash on beaches and in forests, vandalized rock formations, signs of logged trees. Everywhere I went, there were traces of humans destroying nature.
I can vividly recall the instance where I saw a girl walking an otter on a leash in a coastal area in southern Palawan. Upon asking, I was told the girl got the “pet” for a low cost from a local dealer. Sure it was cute and cuddly, but it was also illegal.
I mentioned this to a friend who worked with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, a body in charge of the province’s Strategic Environment Plan. But when he asked for proof, I was at a loss. Not only had taking pictures of the otter slipped my mind, but I also realized that my inaction possibly contributed to a system that further exploited wildlife. Palawan otters, I learned, were recently classified as critically endangered. In fact, it was just one of the many species of wildlife that are illegally sold on a global scale.
Palawan is a cradle of biodiversity that serves as a refuge for hundreds of threatened marine and terrestrial species. From the world’s most trafficked mammal, the pangolin, to the world’s most aggressive and critically endangered crocodile species, Palawan is home to all of them. As such, it has become a magnet for illegal wildlife traffickers. What’s more bothersome is that the number of animals being illegally traded is just a fraction of an industry that’s estimated to cost P50 billion annually.
What struck me most is that while the origin of Covid-19 still remains uncertain, a significant body of evidence strongly links the early spread of the virus to a wet market in Wuhan, China, known for selling various animals used in traditional medicine and cooking. Possibly, the root of the pandemic could have come from a wild bat that was sold in a market and eaten by an unsuspecting person who would later be known as patient zero.
Palawan is a cradle of biodiversity. / PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF UNSPLASH/JULES BSS
The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call. It is a result of the direct collision between human and natural systems. The rapid economic growth during the last half century has disrupted various ecosystems through unplanned urbanization and expansion of human settlements, resulting in rampant deforestation and widespread land loss for wildlife. So much human disturbance resulted in an environment where people closely interact with wildlife, which consequently lead to the creation of hotbeds for infectious diseases and viruses, those which have jumped from animals to humans.
What we are experiencing should not have come as a surprise. Experts, who have solid bodies of science-based evidence, have long warned that an epidemic on the scale of Covid-19 was due to happen. It was a question not of “if” but of “when.”
The pandemic has shown us that a health crisis, Covid-19 climate crisis and an ecological crisis are linked. As living beings, animal health, human health and environmental health are interlinked. Yet, we still fail to see the connections between them, as most of us never really care that much to look away from our phone screens to see the bigger picture. The ways we have treated and abused nature and animals have created perfect breeding grounds for new diseases to surface. They say that the next pandemic could be potentially worse. Hopefully, we can work together to prevent it.
Recently, calls to amend the 20-year-old Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act or Republic Act 9147 from private and public groups have been raised, as our antiquated law has proven to be a weak match against modern-day methods employed by illegal wildlife traders, even with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ focused response to the problem. With the illegal wildlife trade thriving, it is a race against time. We need up-to-date laws, stricter penalties, and a better organized network of enforcers among our communities to be further established. We also need to spread awareness, not only on the illegal trade, but also on our part as stewards and consumers.
As we coexist with other living things in this world, we are inevitably part of the system that we have to protect. Like all things, we, too, are part of nature, and it’s time we step up our game.
I think back again why I am grateful to consider Palawan as my home. Like the wildlife that live here, I appreciate seeing the blazing colors of the sunset beneath the trees.
I appreciate the sight of rich marine life. I find comfort that the place I call home is also home to other beings of nature.
We are taught early on that our lives are a precious gift, to be valued, protected. Which is why I don’t see it as impossible for us to learn that the lives of these living creatures should not be treated and valued as less precious than our own.
Note: Born and raised in Palawan, Katrina Lucena is a 26-year-old working Law student. She likes to go outdoors and visit cafés in her free time.
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