Protect our caves

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The geological features of the Philippines have provided numerous landforms and other formations that are unique, from high and stiff cliffs, various land and stone forms, to caves, just to name a few.

Some of these formations make beautiful background to our landscapes and seascapes. The geographic conditions of the country also provide some smaller and tiny islands comprised of scenic sites and a good number of which are made up of limestone karsts. The Philippines is gifted with a lot of caves spread across the country and many of these are still unexplored and found in remote and isolated areas. However, there are caves that become so dried and they seem to be “lifeless” as the former natural inhabitants of these sites were already gone because of human activities and interventions. This is quite unfortunate since our caves have numerous ecological services that supposedly will give benefits to the people.

One of the most popular tourist destinations for caves in the country is the underground river that is within the Puerto Princesa Underground River Natural Park. This protected area has beautiful formations of stalagmites and stalactites that were formed from water drippings, most likely, millions of years ago. There are also numerous bats and other species that dwell in the area. The tourism in the PPURNP is one of the largest sources of income of Puerto Princesa City.

During my last visit to the underground river a few years ago, I noticed that the bats are no longer as many as I observed during my first visit almost 15 years ago. There are claims that the mass tourism in the area may have affected the population of bats in the underground river.

In Negros Occidental, there are also several caves that can be found in southern and northern parts of the province that are host to numerous species. For instance, the Negros cave frog, a species endemic only in Negros, has been discovered in the forested limestone forest in southern Negros Occidental. It is also a cave-dwelling species. There are also various flying foxes inhabiting the caves of Negros.

In a recent development, I was surprised and even shocked to read a news item of the Philippine News Agency that features the lighting of another famous cave in the country, the Sohoton Cave in Samar Island. The news claimed that the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority already completed the installation of lights inside the Sohoton Cave in the municipality of Basey in Samar. It is within the Samar Island Natural Park. The article further elaborated that the lighting will add attractions to the site, and it will make the cave tour more convenient as the guests may no longer bring flashlights to see the natural wonders of these caves.

Such notions are actually contrary to ethical and scientific standards when it comes to caves.

I shared the article in my Facebook page and it generated several comments. Cris Rivero, a former protected area superintendent of the Mount Isarog Natural Park in Bicol, who was able to visit the site, said the cave was beautiful then, and there was a portion of it when the tour guide turned off the only lamp they brought inside. That was for the purpose of savoring the experience of being in the cave to smell and hear what was inside.

Ver Pacete, former tourism officer of Silay City, commented that the caves should remain wet to maintain its natural moisture. It should not be lighted so as not to distract insects having their sanctuaries in caves, which for Pacete should be treated as sacred sites. Boboi Costas, one of the experts in ecotourism in the Philippines, asked why develop caves for tourism in the first place, we can just leave them alone.

Meanwhile, some residents of Samar were outraged by this development, because it will destroy the natural features of the caves. The natural dark atmosphere in a cave has its main purpose, to serve as habitat and safe refuge for nocturnal species, like bats. I also agree with Pacete that the lighting will affect the moisture of the cave that will eventually impact on the growth of stalagmites and stalactites inside. I had the opportunity to visit the site when I was facilitating the preparation of the first management plan of the Samar Island Natural Park more than a decade ago.

This is the problem of tourism development that doesn’t consider our natural environment. In fact, this lighting of the cave is already an alteration of the natural features of the Sohoton Cave. I am hoping that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, particularly its Biodiversity Management Bureau, will take action on this, because such development is not only practically and technically inappropriate, it will entail damage and destruction to the otherwise beautiful and scenic Sohoton Cave.*

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