Conserving mantas and ‘flying rays’ on the conflict-ridden islands of Tawi Tawi is best done with the help of the locals, writes Isabel Ender of the Manta Trust, an SOS grantee.
From the south of the Philippines, the more than 200 islands of Tawi Tawi drip like green jewels all the way across the Sulu Sea until they almost touch Sabah, the province of Malaysia that lies north of Borneo. This region is a key local fishing ground with major landing sites.
It is very difficult to conduct research in Tawi Tawi because of the long-standing conflict in this southern part of the Philippines. Kidnapping is one of the main tactics used by local guerrilla groups, so for most outsiders, especially foreigners, the islands have long been considered a no-go zone and are shrouded in mystery. We have, however, been assured that Tawi Tawi itself is peaceful and most of the conflict is limited to the peninsula to the north.
So it was with excitement and some trepidation that Maita and I – team Manta Trust Philippines – set off to learn more about the mantas and mobula rays, also known as ‘flying rays,’ in Tawi Tawi, kicking off the first ray- specific project in the local community.
We wanted to learn more about the fisheries and the trade of mobulid rays in this hotspot, since trade is the biggest threat to these species particularly in South and Southeast Asia. This project aims to increase our understanding of the distribution of mobulids, and set the path for education and outreach work to conserve these species in this very remote region of the Philippines..
We chose to work in partnership with local researchers and institutions; although it takes longer to build research relationships than the alternative of parachuting in for survey work, the advantages are many. Forming relationships with local scientists not only gives you access to areas that are unsafe for foreigners, such as the very southern part of the Philippines, but also builds a network of researchers who are invested in the species, opening up the path for conservation.The data are richer too, as fishers are less reluctant to provide sensitive information as to what they catch and where to local researchers. And, importantly, working together helps to build research skills and the capacity of smaller institutions that are at the frontline of fisheries work, as well as creating avenues for education and outreach in this very remote area.
We are very lucky in that we have been able to partner with the eminent marine biologist Dr Filemon Romero and his experienced team of research assistants at Mindanao State University for this work.
Upon arriving at Tawi Tawi, the beauty and uniqueness of this place immediately struck us. This island-studded province lies between two countries – the Philippines and Malaysia. Goods are imported from both Malaysia and Indonesia, and Muslim and Catholic communities live side by side.
The area is also widely known as the home of the Badjao people, known as the “sea gypsies,” who live entirely on the water in boats and stilt houses, in some cases on sandbars miles from any island. Their livelihoods completely depend on the sea as expert fishers, deep sea divers or navigators. This means they are also extremely vulnerable to changes in the environment such as habitat destruction or climate change as these will have a severe effect not only on their livelihoods but also on the survival of their culture.
Our initial surveys, including visits to the fish markets, fishing communities and interviews with the local community, confirm that traders in mobulid ray gills and dried skins from Malaysia were buying in the area. This didn’t surprise us, as Tawi Tawi is often called the ‘backdoor of the Philippines’, a hotspot for the smuggling of drugs, wildlife and the like.
Gaining more information about this illegal trade is crucial for understanding the flow of mobulid products in this region and internationally, and helps direct enforcement and trade monitoring measures.
The Manta Trust survey work in the area is the first of its kind, and promises to lead to some interesting information as our local team will continue to collect data and expand this project over the next months. We are already looking forward to our next trip to this remote outpost of the Philippines.
This is just one of many community oriented marine species conservation projects supported by IUCN’s SOS initiative. With your continued support we can continue to support frontline conservation tackling a number of high-priority issues such as habitat degradation. Please donate now and help SOS save more species.
To learn more about this Global Mobulid Conservation project, explore the links on the right hand side.