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Monday, April 16, 2018

Zoo History: Africa Comes to the Philippines

In 1976, Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta gave a speech at a conference of developing nations, imploring the outside world to step up the challenge of saving Africa's imperiled wildlife, threatened by war and drought.  Among those who answered the call, perhaps in an unexpected manner, was Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  Marcos issued a presidential proclamation which depopulated Calauit Island (relocating hundreds of Tagbanwa tribesmen to a former leper colony) and replaced them with African wildlife, imported directly from Kenya.  There, the beasts were turned loose.

One hundred African ungulates - includes 15 Grevy's zebras and 15 giraffes - were turned loose on March 4, 1977.  Within five years, their numbers had doubled, with about three-quarters of the animals present having been born on the island itself.  Some of the species proved unsuitable to the islands and went locally extinct, such as impala and topi.  Others, such as giraffe and waterbuck, thrived.  To be clear, this is not a zoo.  These animals are wild, and no one knows exactly how many of them are running around the island.

When the African animals were turned loose, they found themselves mingling with native Filipino wildlife, some of which, ironically, is far more endangered than they species that were transported her for sanctuary.  Rubbing shoulders with antelope and zebras are endangered Palawan bearded pigs and Calamian deer; Philippine crocodiles inhabit the swamps, while binturongs lounge on the tree limbs over the heads of giraffes.  Far from being crowded out, these native species actually appear to be benefiting in some ways from the presence of the illustrious newcomers, especially from the habitat protection and anti-poaching units.

While no one can quite say how the native animals feel about suddenly sharing their homes with African imports, the native people have gotten a chance to make their feelings known... albeit after the fact.  Over 250 families had to be relocated for Marcos' vision, and it's hard to imagine that many people being evicted without being considered a human rights violation.  People have responded by poaching the African mammals which is ironic, because that is one of the exact issues that moving the animals to the Philippines was intended to address in the first place.

At any rate, some hope of a happy ending is underway.  The post-Marcos government has allowed the repatriation of the native peoples to their lands, and while some poaching has continued, there seem to be positive signs of potential peace between Filipino humans and African animals.

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