Keep the bird sanctuary

One of Metro Manila’s last nature reserves, which serves as home and resting spot for dozens of bird species, is under threat. Covering 175 hectares of salt marshes, tidal flats and three small mangrove-covered islands, this natural avian sanctuary form a lagoon on the coast of Parañaque and Las Piñas in Metro Manila. A presidential proclamation declares this vast expanse as a critical habitat and ecotourism area.

The Aquino administration is now studying the scrapping of this proclamation purportedly because of possible bird strikes on airplanes taking off from or landing on nearby Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia). No less than Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. was quoted by journalists as saying it was very likely that Presidential Proclamation 1412 (as amended by PP 1412-A) would be revoked.

The proclamation, issued in April 2007, ordered all relevant departments to “ensure that any reclamation in the periphery of the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area shall not impede the ecological function of the lagoon and its small islands’ mangroves, salt marshes and tidal areas as breeding, feeding and roosting place for marine and terrestrial wildlife.” It was based on the three-year database of bird records provided by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, showing that the coastal lagoon hosts up to 5,000 birds during peak periods of the migratory bird season. More than 80 species of birds have been recorded (the highest number of species in any site in Metro Manila) in the area.

The proclamation prevented the Philippine Reclamation Authority from proceeding with its P14-billion plan to reclaim 635 hectares for the creation of a new business center behind the bird sanctuary. Former Rep. Cynthia Villar (wife of Sen. Manny Villar) filed before the Supreme Court last March 16 a suit seeking to stop the project.

Opponents of the planned reclamation project feared that while most of the coastal lagoon would remain intact, the bird sanctuary would be cut off from Manila Bay. Rey Aguinaldo, a biologist who manages the coastal lagoon for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, had pointed out that “the critical habitat would be penned in, and eventually the mangroves would die because saltwater would not be able to circulate. The saltwater mud flats would also eventually dry up.”

As the case against the reclamation is expected to languish in the Supreme Court, now comes these reports on the alleged threat to human lives of possible bird strikes due to the proximity of the protected habitat to the Naia.

The local bird watchers group says that there isn’t a shred of evidence that the critical habitat has been in any way connected with any bird strike in Metro Manila. It says neither airlines nor airport authorities have given any information as to the species (if migratory or resident) involved, or whether they happened during takeoff or landing and at what time of year. Interestingly, the group also notes that several airports around the world coexist well with sanctuaries and large bird populations close to them, like London’s Heathrow and Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi Airport, which are among the busiest in the world.

The club’s records committee chair is ornithologist Arne Jensen, who for 11 years worked professionally as bird strike adviser for authorities of Copenhagen Airport, the biggest in Scandinavia and located next to two major bird sanctuaries. This is what he said of the government plan to remove the sanctuary: “You don’t solve potential bird strikes in Naia by trying to vacuum-clean the coastal lagoon. There are more than 100,000 wetlands birds in Manila Bay moving from and back every day and every season, and they can’t be eliminated. Further, each bird species/family requires different bird strike adaptation and mitigation strategies, which Naia has not fully developed yet. And if you don’t know the location and altitude of strikes and what species are causing problems, any extirpation attempt becomes absurd and a waste of money.”

So far, there have been no human fatalities in locally reported bird strikes. In 2008, Naia was said to have recorded bird strikes involving three international air carriers and that, nationwide, the record jumped to 120 bird strikes in 2010 from 42 in 2009.

The recent reappearance of news reports on the danger posed by bird strikes is suspect. We hope that the government will not rush to any decision on this important issue and that the bird sanctuary will not fall victim to the maneuverings of vested groups wanting to further their big business interests.

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Tags: airports , bird sanctuary , bird strikes , ecotourism , editorial , Metro Manila

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