The third class town of Donsol in Sorsogon had made a name for itself because of the “butanding” (whale sharks) that congregated in its waters at certain times of the year, so much so that its very name became almost synonymous with the gentle giants.
Local and foreign visitors set out in boats to catch a glimpse of or “interact” with the butanding, the largest of all fish. Some of the creatures became veritable stars: “Putol” with the missing tail fin; “Nognog,” a stand-out by dint of being darker than the others; “Kuping” with the folded back fin; and the obviously-named “Puti.”
This come-on resulted in revenues for Donsol (pop.: 47,000) and lessons in self-sufficiency for its residents, who not only serve as guides and “butanding interaction officers” (BIO) but who also open their homes to tourists under the home-stay program. The Donsol folk came to rely heavily on tourism revenues of some P35 million a year. And the once-sleepy seaside town enjoyed certain developments in the form of resorts and restaurants to cater to the tourists, as well as a now-paved main road. “We were once a fifth-class town,” Donsol tourism officer Nenita Pedragosa recalled at one point during the boom. “Now, we are a third-class town and we are actually applying to be classified as first-class.”
That was then. From reports, butanding sightings have been steadily declining since 2011, and the four stars appear to have gone missing. Says Donsol BIO chair Alan Amanse: “The bigger ones measuring 14 meters long are nowhere in sight.” What has caused this regrettable turn of events? Pedragosa scoffs at the suggestion that the whale sharks have taken off for Oslob in Cebu, where they are fed by hand: “Those who want to see butanding come to Donsol first. They only go to Oslob when they fail to see one here.”
The theory is that the disappearance of Donsol’s butanding is due to a killer combination of global warming and bad sanitation. Amanse notes that the sea temperature has risen from 26-27 degrees Celsius in 2012 to the current 29-30 degrees. Donsol Councilor Rey Aquino says fishermen have overgathered the plankton that the butanding feed on, and, more urgently, the waters have been contaminated by the dangerous E.coli bacteria as a result of the building of household toilets on the riverbanks. And one more significant thing: According to Amanse, the butanding are suffering from stress because of too much interaction in BIO-coordinated events from December to May. (During a standard interaction event, some 40 boats loaded with six tourists each come close to the whale sharks.)
Fewer butanding sightings have resulted in fewer visitors. Per Amanse’s count, the number of tourists has dropped by 2,000 in the first half of the year, from the average of 25,000. Thus, tourism revenues are slipping.
A review of Donsol’s tourism program is clearly in order. The absence of the “regular” butanding is worrisome enough. Donsol BIOs say only two whale sharks—“Curly” and “Lucky”—are regularly seen in the waters. The way things are going, they may also soon vanish.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature Philippines, which had helped build the ecotourism project in Donsol, once sounded the warning that the town’s growth required careful handling. “The popularity of Donsol as a major destination for [butanding-watching] needs to be handled with care to ensure the sustainability of the whale shark interaction activities. The unprecedented increase in tourists wishing to experience an encounter with the whale sharks brings with it much risk and potential danger to these gentle giants,” it said. It also noted that the increase in the number of visitors had led to a parallel rise in noncompliance with butanding interaction rules, and that the habitat of the whale sharks needed to be managed properly.
The story of Donsol and its star butanding is all too familiar, hewing as it does to the now-common narrative of tourism boom, unregulated development, and neglect of ecological imperatives. Let’s hope that it does not end in tragedy: a case of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Let’s hope that there’s still time and space to turn things around.