BALABAC, PALAWAN – In coastal communities in Balabac, an island town in the southern tip of Palawan – Indo-pacific crocodiles or commonly called Salties are “king.” They make locals tremble in fear. When doing recreational swimming or fishing along the river or sea, everybody remains vigilant as, anytime, this creature may relentlessly consider them as prey.
With the considerable number of reported crocodile sightings received recently by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS), the office sent out Levita Lagrada of the ECAN Regulation and Enforcement Division (ERED) and Rhoda Roque, Manager of District Management Office-South (DMO-South) to conduct a series of information, education and communication (IEC) campaigns in select areas in the municipalities of Balabac, Bataraza and Brooke’s Point on January 21-30. They were accompanied by this writer of the ECAN Education and Extension Division (EEED) and a representative from Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PWRCC), Eric Evio.
MUSLIM AND BALABAC’S indigenous group, Molbog, who predominantly populate this island town, revere the crocodiles. They call them “upô” or ancestors, believed to guard the rivers and sea, and bless the fisher folk with abundant catch.
But 60-year-old Molbog, Teodoro Basinting, no longer thinks that they should have to hold true to this belief anymore. The crocodiles, his forefathers told to be respected, had attacked three of his kin.
“Sa totoo lang, sa nangyaring ganyan parang di ko na rin sila matawag na upô dahil masakit din ‘yung ginawa niyang perwisyo sa aking mga kamag-anak,” he lamented.
Two years ago, Basinting shared, his cousin was fatally attacked by their upô. Just last year, his another cousin Kerim Baldosa, 35 and nephew Jason Flores, 27 fell into separate attacks but they managed to retaliate and survive.
It was around 5 p.m. of Tuesday, November 15, 2015 when Baldosa encountered a three-meter Indo-pacific crocodile while on way home. He was rowing his fishing boat going to Sitio Caritan, Bgy Catagupan, after having sold his catch at the nearby Sitio Agu.
As you may know, sitios and barangays in this town inhabited by “Salties”, may it be inland or island, are more accessible and affordable via water transport vessels rather than tricycles or motorcycles (locally known as “habal-habal”). This as many of the provincial roads remained unpaved, if not already opened.
While Baldosa knew his town is infamous for crocodile attacks, he never expected it was that very moment his own narrative will unfold. “Pagdating ko sa tandol, kati na. Hanggang tuhod ang tubig. Habang sumasagwan ako, may narinig ako,” he vividly recounted.
And his suspicion was true. “Parang may sumusunod. Akala ko bangka rin. Paglingon ko nakita ko yung buntot. Hinabol niya talaga ako. Sumagwan ako nang mabilis hanggang sa inabutan na ako.”
Propelled by his adrenaline, Baldosa gathered all the energies he had, telling himself it wasn’t the time to be coward. What will his four children’s future be should he give into the crocodile’s might? His mind said he should brave the situation. He must live.
“Pagkagat niya sa likod ko nalaglag ako sa bangka. Inabot ko yung mata niya, saka binira ko. Bumitaw. Pero sinunggaban ako ulit. Tinusok ko ulit yung mata. Binalikan niya ulit ako pangatlo at pang-apat na beses,” he narrated.
It was a power struggle between man and animal. A skinny Baldosa, standing five feet, did not let fear grapple him. He continued the tug-of-war. The determined crocodile threw him down two meters away from his outriggered paddle boat.
Gasping, he managed to reach his bolo and forcefully struck the crocodile’s nape, just inches away from its piercing eyes, pushing the disoriented creature to flee the scene.
Meanwhile, Flores, a father of three, thought he was safe within his own parameter. Just like his neighbors, who depend on sustenance fishing for a living in Sitio Purisan, Bgy Catagupan, his small nipa hut stood on the shallow part of the sea.
At around 8 a.m. of December 8, 2015, he dived into the water just under his house. To his surprise, a three-meter long saltwater crocodile defensively attacked him from behind. Mr. Flores suffered puncture wounds at the back part of his head and right check.
CITING STUDIES AND REPORTS, Lagrada, a zoologist by education, said that the sightings in Balabac came as no surprise because it is observed to be highly concentrated in there.
“Sa buong Pilipinas, ang mataas na concentration ng population ng crocodiles ay dito sa southern tip ng Palawan kaya di nakapagtataka na dito lagi ang mga insidente ng pag-atake,” says Lagrada at the Balabac’s ECAN Board meeting.
In the Philippines, aside from Palawan, its population remains in only a few scattered locations in Mindanao, particularly in the periphery of Ligawasan Marsh, Panguil Bay, Zamboanga Sibugay, Tawi-Tawi and Del Carmen in Siargao Island. It is also reported in three rivers in the eastern foothill of the Northern Sierra Madre National Park in Isabela province.
Lagrada, who worked for years at the PWRCC, said that the Indo-pacific crocodile or estuarine crocodile is normally found in coastal waters, estuarine rivers and freshwater habitats such as lakes, rivers and creeks. It is known to occasionally venture into marine habitats and intertidal coastal areas when they are moving between coastal rivers.
In fact, when our group was crossing the river in Bgy Catagupan heading to sitios identified for IECs, we spotted a two-meter long crocodile basking in mangroves knee-roots. Imagine the fear that engulfed us knowing it was just a stone throw from the motorized boat we’re riding.
The fact that majority of the people in Balabac are living in coastal areas makes them even more vulnerable to crocodile attacks.
Norhata Diaacon, 38, lives beside the river at Sitio Dawi-Dawi, Bgy Melville. They used to defecate on the river, but not anymore when a nearly two-meter saltwater crocodile snagged her left hip while defecating at 3 p.m., sometime in July 2015.
Diaacon, who managed to survive the attack, said never again did she defecate on the river since the incident happened.
Another non-fatal attack happened to Jason Sahel, 28, of Bgy Indalawan, another coastal barangay in Balabac. Because of the incident, he promised himself four years ago to never go fishing again. At 8 p.m. sometime in June 2012, it was low tide when he and his sister’s husband went near the estuary. He carried with him his fishing spear.
Not an hour passed after plunging into the half-foot-deep water, a one-meter long saltwater crocodile assaulted him from behind, snagging his left leg. He felt its sharp teeth piercing his skin.
But the then 24-year old father wants to live, so never mind the blood spurting off the water as his skin gets torn up like paper, while pulling his legs out from the crocodile’s mouth. Although wounded and exhausted, he ran away and, thankfully, managed to escape.
HUMAN-CROCODILE CONFLICTS all boiled down to one glaring fact: Habitat loss, destruction and human persecution.
Such conflicts increase over time, as the population of both human and crocodiles that compete for resources to survive also grow, according to Lagrada.
Human and crocodile population growth, habitat loss through conversion of mangroves, among others, are the contributing factors why crocodiles haunt communities and villages, specifically in the coastal areas of southern Palawan towns, such as Balabac, Bataraza, Brooke’s Pt and Rizal.
“These generate encounters between people who now have little knowledge about the species,” she explained.
Crocodiles seen within the one kilometer range from the general public or the barangay proper suggest that they may likely be attracted to live food prey say livestock and other domestic animals, and other high-protein waste food materials being dumped on river banks or beach areas, Lagrada explained.
This is especially true in coastal barangays the group visited in three southern Palawan towns. At Balabac’s ECAN Board meeting, Carman Condes, President of Liga ng mga Barangay, lamented how wild crocodiles had eaten alive the dogs and goats that his constituents tended in Bgy Agutayan.
Balabac Mayor Shuaib Astami even told us that locals even spotted a crocodile at their town port, where his house is also located.
Crocodiles, on the other hand, are considered to be territorial. Studies say chances of possible crocodile attacks are also high when human intrudes into their natural habitat. “And by that, it simply indicates [that] they are just defending their territory as any other creatures do,” notes Lagrada.
A quality habitat for this creature should not be lower than 10 km length of river, but because of increase in human activities of villages and communities along the rivers and coastal areas, the suitable habitat for this species has continued to reduce.
Condes, for instance, pointed out that when illegalists open riverine forest and cut mangroves in his barangay, crocodile sightings begin to be observed.
HUMAN-CROCODILE COEXISTENCE could be achieved through a holistic approach that takes into consideration the welfare of human, crocodile and its habitat.
“Conservation of crocodiles goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of and indeed respect for crocodiles– a win-win solution,” Lagrada said in her presentation during the series of IECs.
“Sino nga ba ang dapat na turuan natin – ang buwaya o ang tao?” Lagrada added while discussing the safety considerations in order to avoid human-crocodile conflicts.
DMO South Manager Rhoda Roque, on the other hand, organized technical working groups for the towns of Balabac, Bataraza and Brooke’s Pt. With its members coming from the respective municipal ECAN Boards, these groups are tasked to coordinate concerns about crocodiles. They are also the ones to validate reports of crocodile attacks and remove the involved crocodile from the wild should it meet the prescribed criteria.
In the long run, Lagrada said this problem will not be mitigated without the LGUs initiative to provide its constituents with alternative livelihood, which, in one way or another, will veer them away from destructing or encroaching the mangrove forests that harbor the crocodiles. Other LGUs can also put up warning signs in areas known to be crocodiles’ sanctuaries as a further precautionary measure.
To keep the crocodiles’ habitat intact, she suggested the local leaders to create a program on habitat enrichment and restoration through re-introduction of mangroves. She added that the LGUs may also legislate an ordinance/resolution that will address human encroachment to mangrove areas and river sides, and further impose strict measures to prohibit the dumping of garbage and farm refuse on rivers and beach areas.
While, as we know, crocodiles are notorious for fatal attacks, God never created them without a purpose, says Lagrada.
Citing a recent study “Crocodiles and Their Contribution to the Productivity of Selected Aquatic Ecosystems in the Philippines” conducted by Dr. Angel Alcala, former secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in partnership with the Crocodylus Porosus Philippines Inc. (CPPI), she said the crocodiles, as “keystone species,” are said to be fertilizing the rivers, making it favorable for fishes.
“Lahat ng mga ilog o lugar na may crocodiles, lumalabas na mas mataas ang huli ng isda. Inassociate yun sa pwedeng naitulong ng crocodiles sa pag-fertilize ng tirahan ng mga isda,” she explained.