Photo Essay: The biodiversity of Palawan, Philippines
Community, Conservation and Natural Climate Solutions: Mantalingahan Landscape Conservation Project
Made possible with support from P&G
Conservation International is proud to share an intimate portrait of the elusive and rare wildlife of the Philippines, thriving in their natural habitats. The Philippines is one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth and home to a variety of species found nowhere else on the planet. The photos included below offer a glimpse at the 120,457-hectare Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape — a vital habitat located on the Philippine island of Palawan that is home to more than 1,000 plant and animal species. The landscape also provides for more than 12,000 Indigenous people, many of whom rely directly on nature for their livelihoods and are among the world’s most climate-vulnerable communities.
Despite its protected status, the Mantalingahan Landscape continues to be threatened by deforestation and forest degradation, and 10 percent of its species are considered threatened, including the Palawan pangolin and the Philippine cockatoo. In 2020, Conservation International and Procter & Gamble (P&G) launched the Mantalingahan Landscape Conservation Project, a five-year project to restore and protect the landscape. We are working to ensure that this ecosystem can support local communities while contributing to the reduction of global emissions through forest and mangrove conservation. This project was the first to be developed as part of the Natural Climate Solutions Initiative in support of P&G's nature and climate targets.
The photographs highlighted below were captured by local photographer and filmmaker Jessie M. Cereno, as well as by members of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development and Conservation International staff. The photos appeared at the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Montreal, Canada, where nearly 200 countries discussed the implementation of new global biodiversity goals for the next decade.
Captions by Trond Larsen, Senior Director of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Science at Conservation International.
From rugged coast to mountain peaks, Palawan boasts a tremendous variety of marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. The island not only harbors unique and endemic species, but also provides essential goods and services to people.
Mangroves grow along coasts and estuaries in the Mantalingahan Landscape, the largest terrestrial protected area in the Philippines. Palawan has the most mangrove cover in the Philippines, spanning approximately 60,000 hectares. These mangroves protect coastal communities by buffering against storm surges, serve as nurseries for fish and other marine species, support local food security, and absorb and store enormous amounts of climate-warming carbon.
“What really stands out about the Mantalingahan Landscape is the tremendous variety of ecosystems and species that are concentrated in this relatively small area, with habitats ranging from steaming coastal mangroves to cool montane forest around the peak of Mount Mantalingahan. While Indigenous people have long revered and depended upon this biodiversity, scientists are only beginning to understand the incredibly unique wildlife that is found here.”
Trond Larsen, Senior Director of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Science, Conservation International
The Palawan pangolin (Manis culionensis), known locally as balintong, is a reclusive and gentle animal found only in Palawan. They spend much of their time in the treetops and use a long, sticky tongue to feed on termites and ants. Like other pangolin species, they are illegally hunted for their scales, organs and skin, which are used in traditional medicine in some parts of the world. The species is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, and its continued survival depends on reducing illegal poaching and protecting forests such as those in the Mantalingahan Landscape.
The Palawan Forest Turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis) is another Critically Endangered species found only in Palawan. Though this mysterious and elusive species lives in streams, rivers and swamps, it lays its eggs on the forest floor, where it covers them with leaves. Palawan forest turtles are highly sensitive to disturbance and require intact forest to survive. For much of the twentieth century, the species was not seen in the wild, until they were officially rediscovered in 2004. Unfortunately, since then the population has declined, primarily due to the pet trade.
The Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia), also Critically Endangered, prefers lowland forests with adjacent mangroves. Threatened by habitat loss and wildlife trade, only an estimated 430-750 individuals are believed to remain in the wild. The Mantalingahan Landscape supports healthy mangroves that are essential for this large parrot, as well as many other species, making it one of the most important bird habitats in the Philippines.
The stork-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) is named for its unusually large and brightly colored beak, which it uses to catch fish, frogs, rodents, young birds and crabs, such as the one pictured here. These large kingfishers thrive in forested areas along rivers and other wetlands.
The Asian emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica) is a brightly colored pigeon species that inhabits mangroves and tropical forests in the Mantalingahan Landscape. Like some other pigeons, they tend to be relatively unafraid of people. We are only beginning to understand Palawan’s incredible avian diversity – in 2007, Conservation International and partners discovered a species of finch (Erythrura prasina) that is new to science.
The Philippine long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis philippensis) is a subspecies of the long-tailed or crab-eating macaque that is most commonly found in mangrove and swamp forests, such as in the Mantalingahan Landscape. Like most other primates, they are omnivores, eating a variety of fruits and animals, including crabs. Each group sleeps huddled together at night for warmth in a preferred tree, usually along a river. While they adapt well to the presence of humans, the species is considered Endangered by the IUCN Red List due to a variety of threats that include habitat loss, hunting and wildlife trade.
The Palawan porcupine (Hystrix pumila) is another species found only in the Palawan region. While they are relatively tolerant of habitat disturbance, the species is declining, especially due to hunting and wildlife trade, and is considered Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. In most places worldwide, it is rare for scientists to find mammals that haven’t been previously described. The Palawan region is a notable exception to this rule. Here, Conservation International and partners have discovered several species that are new to science, including a species of pouch bat (Saccolaimus saccolaimus) and a species of shrew which may be endemic to Mount Mantalingahan. In addition, we rediscovered the Palawan soft-furred mountain rat (Palawanomys furvus), a species that had not been seen by scientists since it was first recorded in 1962.
Abundant streams, wetlands and rainforests in the Mantalingahan Landscape provide habitat for a stunning diversity of amphibians and reptiles. This includes the Palawan horned frog (Megophrys ligayae), whose striking appearance provides excellent camouflage in the leaf litter of the primary forests where it lives. Its tadpoles mature in small forest pools adjacent to streams and are sensitive to changes in water quality. This species is considered Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List due to its restricted distribution and declining population. Ongoing research and conservation efforts are providing fresh insights into Palawan’s diverse herpetofauna – in 2007, Conservation International and partners discovered a new species of forest gecko (Luperosaurus gulat).
Palawan’s rich ecosystems and unique species diversity are also essential for the people that live there. The Mantalingahan Landscape hosts important ancestral domains that are home to over 12,000 Indigenous peoples called Palaw’an. The Palaw’an, along with the Tagbanua, Molbog and the Batak Indigenous communities, are known to be some of the island’s oldest inhabitants, and their traditional ways of life are closely tied to nature. This picture shows the cone of an almaciga tree (Agathis philippinensis). The tree’s resin provides a high-value product for the Palaw’an culture and is traded for industrial uses. Many other plant, animal and fungus species provide food, medicine, building materials and other uses to local communities. The sustainable management of Palawan’s ecosystems will help to ensure the continued preservation of its unique biodiversity as well as the countless benefits they provide to people.
View of the Aribungos-Ipilan portion of the Mantalingahan landscape threatened by numerous mining permit applications.