Who would have thought shells would turn into contraband objects to smuggle out of the country?
The valuable contraband is taklobo, or giant clams (scientific name: Tridacna gigas), said to be worth as much as P20,000 per kilo. Just a few days ago, authorities in Cordova City thwarted an attempt to smuggle 1,600 kilos of the taklobo. In September it was an even bigger catch, supposedly 300 tons (I don’t know if the reporters got the figures right—that’s 300,000 kilos) in Surigao City; and in August, in Escalante, Negros Occidental, involving P28 million worth of clams (supposedly sold at only P1,000 per kilo).
The taklobo made international news in 2010 when six pairs were donated by the Philippines to the La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, as holy water fonts. Those giant clams weren’t smuggled out, but were a totally legitimate donation that involved the University of the Philippines’ own Marine Science Institute and our Department of Foreign Affairs.
Surrounded by the sea, we Filipinos have learned to tap shells for every imaginable use. We eat the inhabitants, actually the foot muscle inside the shell. Abalone is an expensive favorite in Chinese restaurants.
We fashion them into spoons and forks and ladles. We convert large shells into musical instruments, the tambuli in particular. For windows and dividers, we use capiz shells, the English name being windowpane oysters! We fashion them into buttons and garment accessories, jewelry (remember the puka shell craze) and all kinds of boxes. Already out in the market are shells made into Christmas décor, including little Christmas trees.
Then there’s mother of pearl, which refers to the shells that yield pearls. The pearls are actually cheap compared to the products made from mother of pearl, like the inlay for baul, or clothing chests.
As you pay for these baul, you’ll be counting out P1,000 notes that feature a pearl oyster, complete with a pearl.
I started out with the giant clams; at the other end of the size spectrum, we have those tiny shells for sungka, which my kids love playing on a Maranao sungkaan with mother-of-pearl inlay, a bargain I spotted in a dusty corner of a shop selling ceramic planters and vases.
Whether you want to start collecting shells or studying them, you can claim to be a conchologist. But be careful if you want to be a collector—the government has strict restrictions on the types of shells you can pick up on the beach. Besides the taklobo, there are many other kinds of shells that are considered endangered.
People don’t realize that even if the shell’s original inhabitant might have long died, there are other marine life that “reuse” these shells. Algae and barnacles, for example, anchor themselves on these shells. Hermit crabs, with a soft body, “borrow” shells as protection.
On the internet, I found a copy of “Rizal’s Conchology,” a book by Jose Fadul. Rizal was apparently an avid shell collector while he was in exile in Dapitan—more of the conchologist as scientist. He would send specimens to a German scientist friend, Adolf Bernhard Meyer, who turned over the shells to the State Ethnological Museum of Dresden, where the shells are still on exhibit, including samples of susong papaitan, or shallow water edible sea snails.
Fadul also features a letter from Rizal offering to sell his shell collection to Meyer: “I have my own collection of seashells with more than 200 species, already classified and arranged. Do you want it? How much would they give me for it? They are all shells of the district of Dapitan. I have no rifles yet.”
Rizal might have been offering to sell the shells to the Dresden Museum, through Meyer. The last line in the paragraph is intriguing: Did Rizal want to sell his shells for rifles?
My fascination with shells is a recent development, coming out of frequent trips to La Union. Give me time to save and buy books on shells so I can write more.
If you can splurge, then visit lulu.com for “Rizal’s Conchology.” Also check the most authoritative website on Philippine shells: conchology.be, a website of Guido and Philippe Poppe, who are prolific with publications. There’s a one-volume “1000 Shells—Exceptionals from the Philippines,” five volumes of “Philippine Marine Mollusks,” and several issues of a journal called Visaya devoted to shells.
What I would like to see are basic publications for use at different levels in our schools, using shells to teach biology, environmental conservation, arts and crafts, even history, if you want to consider Rizal’s conchology!
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