Editor's Pick

Our Time In Eden

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In 1994, a worldwide effort saved Danjugan Island from environmental ruin. Years later, it's become a paradise on earth.

Photography by
Geric Cruz
Read Time
Location Tag

On Danjugan Island's Tabon Beach, there is a lone bird who is considered a bit of an oddity. He’s a homely fellow with a big beak, and not very vibrant as far as plumage goes. His only noteworthy trait is a pair of particularly knobby knees.

This bird is imaginatively named the Beach Thick-knee, and some similarly odd people—passionate birdwatchers—go out of their way to see him, mostly because he's not supposed to be there. There have only been less than ten sightings ever recorded in the country, and this is possibly a first for the Visayas region. As a ground-dwelling bird, beaches are essential to Beach Thick-knees, for nesting and for foraging. Our beaches have had tourists flocking to them steadily, and as ground-nesting birds, there hasn’t been space for the Beach Thick-knee’s eggs and young. To date, there hasn’t been enough recorded sightings to determine the Thick-knee population in the Philippines.

Not being the type to camp out on the beach for days for a chance to spot the 53cm-high feathered celebrity, we didn’t see the Beach Thick-knee during our stay at Danjugan. We did, however, understand how a lone bird from a threatened species would want to call this island home.

Danjugan Island is not a resort, if one is looking for something built for comfort. The side of the island with a mobile signal has no electricity. The side that does—courtesy of solar panels—is a dead spot, and signal is acquired by either a five-minute hike through a narrow trail or a seven- minute paddle out into the waters. There is no Wi-Fi, no air conditioning, no room service. Danjugan Island rests in the Sulu Sea, about three kilometers southwest of Negros, forming part of the Southern border of the Philippines’ sugar production giant. Getting there is about six hours by road from Bacolod, and a 15-minute boat ride from the shore of Bulata, Cauayan. Even getting there is quite a journey.

After our banca docked, and as we made our sloshy way to the crushed-coral shore, I spotted a pair of slate-colored moray eels and a couple of fat birds, later identified as Tabon birds or Philippine scrub fowls, strutting through the foliage, unconcerned by our arrival. The pain in my jaw signaled to me that I’d had my jaw open for an uncomfortably long time.

It was my first time there, hence the wonder. Chaz, who had brought us to Danjugan, was on his fourth visit. Coming from Bacolod himself, he found Danjugan by word of mouth, and had kept coming back to introduce friends and visitors to this unlikely Eden.

To say that Danjugan Island is rich in wildlife is an understatement. The entire place is built so that its presence does not interfere with nature, from its surrounding natural reefs to its thick limestone forests, to its five lagoons. Animals come and go, and plants grow wild, all undisturbed. Only about ten percent of the island’s 43 hectares is employed for accommodation and operations, and it will stay that way. Certain portions are free for exploration, but the rest remains untouched.

It’s this uncushioned closeness to the wild that makes the island the best classroom one could hope for.

We were greeted at the shore by Dave Albao, manager of island operations. At his side was Anavic, a scholar of the Danjugan Island Environmental Education Program (DEEP) and the Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Competitiveness Enhancement Fund. She is from the mainland, one of the 150 scholars of Danjugan Island’s marine camps. A student of aquaculture, she’s spending her summer vacation helping out on the island.

Danjugan Island is not a resort, if one is looking for something built for comfort.

The child of fisherfolk, it is hoped that she and her peers, the future generations of the surrounding communities, study and put into action sustainable fishing practices. “We provide education by allowing people to explore and experience the island firsthand, and make the connection with the classes that we hold,” explains Dave. Since 1991, and every year since then, Marine and Wildlife camps have been held for kids. Lectures are held by scientists and conservationists, some who are actually from the first few marine camps in Danjugan, including Kaila Ledesma-Trebol, daughter of founder Gerry Ledesma, and herself a marine biologist.

Some camps are exclusive to certain schools, others are open, and mixed with chosen scholars from the surrounding communities. A short video clip presented to visitors upon arrival explains it best: “After 25 years in conservation work, we’ve come to realize that our conservation program needs to take the long-term route; that is, the education of children,” says Gerry Ledesma.

“Who really are the lawbreakers in Danjugan?” asks Roberto Tabujara, an Environmental Management Specialist from Cauayan. “It is the local community surrounding the island. They always think that Danjugan is not for them, they think Danjugan there is for other people.”

“We cannot protect what we don’t understand,” says Mark Dela Paz, an alumnus of Danjugan’s marine camp, now a researcher and conservationist himself. “In a way, environmental education explains to us, introduces to us the biology of science. Of life, and how to take care of that life.”

Anavic, and other scholars like her, come to the island by boat in the morning, help out with the camps, and go around the island. Sometimes, she said, they like going up the watch tower to watch out for birds or check out the sunset. She mentions that for some of her classmates back in the mainland, this isn’t their idea of fun. But she and her friends love it here and mean to put to use what they learn in the island.

Our first stop is the island's learning center—a large, airy room bleached white, decorated with old maps and posters of Philippine fauna and flora. The ceiling is festooned with the wired skeleton of a Risso’s dolphin. The shelves are groaning under the weight of various books on plants, fish, animals. They also display specimens for closer study: a bottle of baby turtles who didn’t make it alive after hatching, in formalin-preserved perpetual slumber. The frail, spiked husk of a reef pufferfish. The leathery, dried body of a whole triggerfish, big teeth and all. Bits of coral and various shells.

One shelf in particular warranted a closer look: 16 plastic bottles, of various colors and size. Each one from a different country: Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, China, Kuwait... the list goes on. These all have been found washed up on the shore. At one point, someone had thoughtlessly littered, not really caring about where it could end up.

Education is the main thrust of the island. By creating marine protected areas and involving the next generation of locals in the work, the community remains invested in conservation. Besides imparting knowledge through classes and exploration, Danjugan’s best lessons include giving a damn about the environment, whether it’s by the simplest act, like picking up after one’s self, or something that takes more effort, say knowing the different varieties of mangroves that grow on the island, or how many species of bats reside in each of the island’s ten caves, and knowing better than to touch or tamper with their homes.

It's an unforgettable 15-minute walk from Moray Lagoon to Typhoon Beach. We hiked through narrow, stone-strewn paths and delicate bamboo bridges built over and around trees. A small detour led us to the entrance of the island’s bat cave, where, just a few inches away, you can quietly observe thousands of bats in repose, while breathing in the cloying scent of guano. Later on, we crossed a bridge and peered into the clear, azure waters. It was one of the island’s lagoons and in it grew a variety of mangrove trees. A particular thicket has been found to be very old, much to the excitement of botanists (yet another endearingly odd and patient group of people that flock to Danjugan).

It was the cannonball mangrove (Xylocarpus granatum) though, that caught our attention. Plump, softball-sized fruit that was more seed than pulp. Its interlocked seeds are uniquely shaped, and fit together like puzzle pieces. (How does one keep entertained without using electricity? This is how.)

We shared that side of the island with just two other small groups, both return visitors bringing friends and family. Activities on the island were largely dependent on our pace as travelers. Some were content to find a hammock to laze on and read in, others made use of the island’s canoes, and took to paddling around the areas: Tabon Beach, the North Lagoon, a sandy beach reachable only during low tide.

Chaz and I chose to snorkel, and I watched as he swam out with ease, with a kick of his fins and a quick dip of his snorkel. This was only my second time snorkeling. More importantly, it was my first time to swim in open water. Alone. Being more of the mountain-camping sort than a beach person, I’d grown up with a gentle horror at unseen things in the water brushing against my legs while I did a funny, frantic frog stroke to keep afloat.

Believe me when I say that the best way to conquer that fear of what lies beneath is this: to go under, and deeper. After spitting into my mask and securing it on my face, snorkel in mouth, I took a breath and lowered myself into the water. It is a different world beneath the waves, and even just a few meters from the shore, Danjugan’s healthy coral reefs are teeming with life. There is nothing else to do, except to keep swimming the best you can, and keep looking around you, in stunned and wide-eyed wonder.

My brain was frantically trying to recognize fish from the posters from the learning center: white and orange striped clownfish, flirting with a frilly bed of anemone. Luminous parrotfish, slowly swimming through the coral, a very long, ribbed white organism which turned out to be a sea cucumber, sea snakes (there is no screaming underwater, only calm and determined swimming away), a very placid porcupine fish, which I followed for some time, butterflyfish with their spots that one mistakes for eyes. Scores and scores of coral, brightly-colored starfish line the seagrass floor.

It was a slow, slow swim; my eyes were greedy for the sights. At one point I floated above a giant clam, a product of the restocking program for the endangered Tridacna gigas that was implemented in collaboration with the UP Marine Science Institute. I lost track of time, just watching it open, spew a stream of bubbles and dislodged sand and grass.

There are two rafts anchored a distance from the shore to rest on, and each, I used for every time I got a little further. One could happily sunburn the skin off one’s back swimming around the island, in a constant state of wonder. I swore I’d secure a diving license for the next time. Danjugan has a good concentration of dive sites, and manta rays, blacktip sharks, and even whale sharks have been seen passing by.

The island is alive.

“In a way, environmental education explains to us, introduces to us the biology of science. Of life, and how to take care of that life.”<callout-alt-author>Mark dela Paz<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

"We saved a Philippine Island. Now we invite you to explore it,” a flyer proudly proclaims. In 1994, Danjugan needed that saving. The communities around it were suffering from the effects of a mismanaged sugar industry and the closing of a copper mine nearby. Intense poverty had brought about destructive fishing practices. Compressor spear fishing, cyanide poisoning, and dynamite fishing were depleting the fish population and doing severe damage to the reefs.

Danjugan has been running marine camps since the ’90s. Back then, a group of scuba divers leased the area which is now known as Typhoon Beach for recreation and research on diminishing fish stocks and coral cover as a result of destructive fishing. Having observed the lack of enforcement of fisheries laws from the part of the local chief executives from Cauayan, and seeing the ignorance of marine and wildlife conservation, the group piloted the first marine youth camp in 1991 with their children, as well as the children of like-minded friends and family. These camps eventually included youth from the village of Bulata, and to this day continue as the Youth Marine and Wildlife Camp and with DEEP, Danjugan's Environmental Education Program.

While this was going on, the original owner of the island continued his activities, quarrying and selling whatever he could produce from the island. A lot of trees had been cut down to make way for goats, the hardwood lumber sold to buyers. One day he approached Gerry, and said, “There’s this tree that’s good for furniture. I can sell it you for $800.”

By creating marine protected areas and involving the next generation of locals in the work, the community remains invested in conservation.

The tree in question was home to a pair of white-bellied sea eagles. That might have been the last straw for Gerry, who was already learning the ropes of conservation from his friend, the late William Oliver (a staunch advocate of conservation of Philippine biodiversity and founder of the Biodiversity Conservation Center in Bacolod), and understood that one does not simply take away eagles’ nests. He realized though that it was an opportunity to put the the conversation in another direction: “Why just sell us a tree... why don’t you sell us the whole island?”

The amount will go unnamed, but suffice it to say, Gerry didn’t have that kind of money. He was in the sugar business, but he couldn’t shell out that much. He was, however, determined to raise it. But this was 1994. Fundraising online was not an option. Email was in its early ages. Physical legwork was their only option.'

In what very well might have been the first environmental loan for Landbank, they were provided a bridging loan. The money was to be raised by World Land Trust, another organization based in the UK, which helps purchase land for conservation all around the world. The fundraising was done in the UK, and the project was called the Philippine Reef & Rainforest Project, aiming to raise £250,000. They made posters, inviting World Land Trust supporters to an opportunity to “Save a little island in the Philippines,” and become a “founder owner” of the tropical paradise Island of Danjugan, saving it from housing development by purchasing “green shares” for a set amount.

In the years since, several people have actually showed up on the island with their certificates, amazed to finally see the island whose rescue they pitched in for many years ago.

They were able to raise the money, and purchase the land from the individual titleholders. All titles are now in the hands of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. (PRRCFI) who runs the nature tourism and environmental education programs in Danjugan Island. Coral Cay Conservation (CCC), an expedition project that brings British students on their gap year to do marine biology work used Danjugan as their first site in the Philippines, doing basic surveys on coral species, fish and studies of the bats on the island, as well as making a film on the wildlife on the island.

Besides imparting knowledge through classes and exploration, Danjugan’s best lessons includes giving a damn about the environment.

Thanks to CCC’s work, they were able to gather enough data to assess the damage to the reefs and declare their status as critical in 2002. They were able to secure their status as marine protected areas, safe from fishing from the communities, by the local government.

“Gerry took time to make people in the surrounding communities understand. Understandably, at first they were against the marine sanctuary and the creation of no-fishing zones. He made them understand, step by step, what he was aiming to do for the island,” says Celso Cañete, who worked as a scuba instructor and chef for the island from 1995-2001.

“May mga nag-dynamite fishing dito dati. Even I, as a child, used to enjoy stepping on corals and crushing them. I didn’t know any better. Imagine my horror later on when I found out how long it actually took for them to grow to that size. That’s why the work they do is important. They’ve taught us the value of the things you find on the island. They should be treated as if they could disappear anytime.”

During this period, Danjugan didn’t have any tourism value, as it was so difficult to get to. It was only in mid-2000’s when they started accepting guests, of course with a little reservation as it really wasn’t quite a resort. It was, however, seeking to support and sustain itself. Danjugan continues to operate without outside investors. Eventually, they got solar panels from sponsors, and secured partnerships with local brands.

Twenty-fourteen was the year that they really started promoting Danjugan as a destination and it was only in 2016 where they fully embraced their place in the hospitality industry. They still maintain that the island is not a resort, but people are welcome to apply for a visit.

Staying in Danjugan is a pleasure; it feels like a privilege. Here, we are able to see the island and its inhabitants in their natural state, flourishing in peace. Andrew Salut, a Manila resident who’s currently working in the island, manning their newly opened Nudibranch Bar, tells us (with matching video proof) about seeing an octopus gliding among the rocks just by the shore. Earlier that day, one of the visitors reported seeing a pair of blacktip reef sharks. On one of our excursions, we came across curious little tracks on the sand. I showed a photo to Dave, who broke into a smile. “Baby sea turtles!”

“We saved a Philippine Island. Now we invite you to explore it.” <callout-alt-author>Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation, Inc.<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

It’s these little proofs of life that makes one feel, in turn, alive and part of things. You fall in love with the wonders you encounter as you make your way through the island, and maybe even feel a little twinge at the idea of how rare this kind of conservation success actually is. That evening, we took a boat ride to Typhoon Beach from Moray Lagoon, which was lit mostly by the sky. As we sat there I turned my attention to its shores, I noticed the stillness of the island, taking in how big and alive it is. It makes one feel quite small.

The island showed me its face, many times over during the course of our stay. And in that blessed quiet, I felt it staring right back at me.

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This story was originally published in GRID Issue 13.