Flashback to January 2014: For someone born and raised in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, it was my first time to hear of a mountain called Cleopatra’s Needle. As a typical Palaweño, I only knew of the famous sites such as the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Underground River), and the Tubbataha Reefs National Park and World Heritage Site. Turns out, Cleopatra’s Needle’s jump off point is just over an hour away from where I grew up in the city. It has always been that mountain you’ll see on a clear day on any bay at Puerto Princesa!
The same month I started with the Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve Project at Centre for Sustainability in 2014, I went on a trek all the way to the peak of the mountain together with our team. The trip lasted four days—crossing rivers and trekking at least 6-8 hours a day (or should I say bushwhacking!) through dense vegetation, sleeping on hammocks and makeshift shelters out of rice sacks, and hanging on to yantok (climbing palm species) and roots of big trees on steep parts of the climb. I remembered feeling tired and challenged, but being very inspired after that trip. To date, I have visited the peak twice and frequented its forests more times than I can count on my fingers and toes.
On that hiking trip, we were guided by the community members of the indigenous communities that live in the foothills of Cleopatra’s Needle. They were from the Batak tribe. Now, three years after that hike, those same guides and community members are not just people I work with, they are my friends. Many of the older community members I even regard as Nanay (Mother) and Tatay (Father). I can safely speak on behalf of the Centre for Sustainabilty team in saying that we have seen a lot (and learned A LOT) about their tribe in the span of three years: from newborns and children growing up, deaths, triumphs and heartbreaks. I feel really fortunate to have been able to witness how they are able to live in balance with nature, while keeping their culture and tradition despite the various pressures outside their community.
The moment that I set foot on Cleopatra’s Needle, I knew that it is indeed a very special place. One cannot argue with how special it is when it comes to the rich biodiversity that thrives in this pristine forest. The more that we witnessed endemics in all forms—birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles—the interest and drive built up into working harder to achieve the goals of getting this beautiful place declared as a Critical Habitat. I feel that the designation speaks so much to me on many levels. As team members at Centre for Sustainability are mainly local, we feel that this is the critical time to protect the remaining forests of our province. Deforestation and unsustainable practices have devastated other forests in the Philippines. Palawan is such a special place and so the perfect time to secure its natural resources is NOW!
Being part of this project is no easy task. I am super thankful that I work with the most dedicated people I have ever worked with in my career. The patience to endure non-stop communicating, organizing and lobbying are a few of the exemplary traits of the Centre for Sustainability team members. I have learned so much from them in this experience! We may all seem young, but I am proud to say that our dreams for these forests are limitless—one small step at a time, we intend to be a small part of molding the future of Palawan into a sustainable one.
Furthermore, working with other project leads like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, Puerto Princesa City Environment and Natural Resource Office inspired me to believe that if agencies of different levels and categories all work together, projects that benefit the common good will always win!
Also, the amount of support we got from agencies like Global Wildlife Conservation and Rainforest Trust really inspired me as a young conservationist to strive for more knowledge and experience, and become a champion for areas like this in my home province. Home will never be the same again because we were able to conserve 41,638 hectares of land as a Critical Habitat for this generation to enjoy and for the next to flourish. I strongly believe that HOME just got better—for wildlife and humans alike. With everyone’s help, I am very thankful to be a small speck in this big picture of conserving this amazing area. Here’s to many more conservation projects: POWER TO THE FOREST!
This project has received generous support from Andrew Sabin and the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, Sangreal Foundation and Fund II Foundation.
Top photo: Cleopatra’s Needle as seen from Honda Bay (a major bay of Puerto Princesa, on the east side). (Photo by John Christian S. Yayen)