the fiddler crab concurs
that the mangrove is an anarchist,
perfect in its defiance
from that liminal place
between the land and the sea:
trunks bent close to the ground,
roots interlocked like arms in protest
in this creeping war against the tides.
when the sea appears to be winning,
a million middle fingers
shoots through mud,
giving more life in time.
While taking an afternoon walk, a white egret stood by the road parallel to where I was. I inched closer, crept on the bushes, and aimed my camera at the bird.
The bird noticed me of course: its long neck extending above the grasses, eyeing every movement I made. A few seconds later, the egret flew away. The spread of its wings was a nice contrast to the pale that the overcast skies gave to the landscape.
Cebu Daily News recently reported two injured whale sharks in the seas off a coastal barangay of Oslob, Cebu. One whale shark had a spear driven to its body and another got struck in the head by a motorboat’s propeller. The incident had drawn widespread condemnation from all sectors of Cebuano society. A local officer of the World Wildlife Fund laid the blame on the “domestication” of the whale sharks or butanding as the reason for the incident and thus called for the stopping of whale shark-feeding activities due to its effect on the species’ “natural hunting and feeding patterns.”
The risk that habituation presents is troubling. Once animals are habituated, they drop their guard and are more vulnerable to a wide range of human activities. According to Mark Orams (2002:285):
An animal has few cues about whether a human approaching it has good or bad intentions and, unfortunately, not all humans are wildlife lovers.
…(A)nimals that become accustomed to receiving food from people tend to frequent areas where there is a lot of human activity. These areas tend to present greater risks to animals that are not adapted to avoid such things as cars, boats and aeroplanes.
It is in a wild animal’s best interest therefore, for them to remain wary of people. Of course, when they are being regularly provisioned with food they lose this wariness, they become habituated to human contact and, as a result, they are at greater risk of injury from someone who wished to do them harm.
Some experts posit that dependence on human-sourced food reduces the chances of a species to survive in the wild. Species that are heavily dependent lose the skills needed in the search and pursuit of prey and may die if supplemental feeding is stopped. Although the literature on whale sharks is silent on this topic, I think that the volume of a whale shark’s food requirement is too high to be completely dependent on hand-feeding. For the whale sharks, people are alternative food sources–one among many in a whale shark’s array of foraging strategies. Similar to the fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and the dolphins frequenting Australian tourist spots, the whale sharks might also have retained their foraging skills despite getting human-sourced food from tourists.
So, should the municipality of Oslob continue with the practice of whale-shark feeding? The typical knee-jerk reaction is to implement a total ban and just let the animals be “wild and free.” Aside from the obvious challenges of enforcement, this would also set back the gains of many NGOs that encourage fishers to shift from exploitative fishing to sustainable wildlife tourism. Historically, southern Cebu was the seat of commercial fishing in the Visayas, renowned in the past for the destructive muroami fishing technique. It is therefore imperative that communities and fishers in Oslob reexamine their relationship with the sea and allow them to explore alternative connections with the marine fauna and flora.
The municipality of Oslob should also learn from the practices of institutions involved in endangered species conservation, where supplemental feeding is a cornerstone activity in population recovery strategies. If done properly, food provisioning could help increase a species’ reproductive success (i.e., although no specific studies have been conducted on supplemental feeding and its impact on whale shark population, i think it’s worth a try). The Philippine Tarsier Foundation, for example, conduct habitat enhancement activities to increase tarsier prey population. In Africa, “vulture restaurants” have been opened up in various sites to extend the chances of population recovery for critically-endangered birds (see TIME article). Perhaps, the propensity of tourists and tour guides to feed whale sharks can be redirected to boost breeding and reproduction albeit in a controlled and carefully-managed setting (i.e. sensitive to the dangers that habituation may pose to the animals).
People are part of the natural environment. We shape and influence the environment around us and thereby present challenges to other species. Every habitat, migration route, ecological niche bear a mark of humanity’s impact (e.g., from climate change to predatory fishing). We are the ‘facts of life’ that other species learn to negotiate and adapt. The problem with a total ban (i.e., “of leaving animals alone”) is the implicit assumption that we can separate ourselves from the lives of other species. We are part of every species’ reality and the primary driving force in their survival or extinction.
Also posted also in Anthropology Corner.
Orams, Mark B. Feeding wildlife as a tourism attraction: a review of issues and impacts in Tourism Management 23 (2002) 281-293.
This blog article can also be accessed at my other blog site, Anthropology Corner.
The southern end of Puerto Rico is a place one could easily associate with old Western films because of its crusty and brown rolling hills. The mighty central cordilleras, a rugged spine of verdant forest across the island, trap the moisture that should have been reserved for these parts, rendering the terrain dry and desert-like.
The 2-hour drive from San Juan to Guanica is a good trip for understanding the impact of the central cordilleras on the Puerto Rican natural environment. Starting from Salinas, the surrounding topography turns yellow and brown, different from the usual tropical green valleys we associate with islands around the equator. Instead of trees dominating the landscape, what you see are grasses, shrubs, short scraggly trees, and cacti while a flock of migratory turkey vultures hovers above.
The situation of being at the wrong end of the central cordilleras (with seasonal rainfall averaging only 860 mm annually) does not stop life from blossoming at this southwestern part of Puerto Rico. The unique topology and microclimatic conditions created a biome that has been described as the “best preserved and best example of a tropical dry forest in the Caribbean.” This United Nations Biosphere Reserve is home to nine of the fourteen endemic bird species of the island and a host of other flora and fauna.
This 4000 ha. forest reserve however is sandwiched in tourist, agricultural, and urban development zones. The main road leading to the Guanica State Forest shows a landscape bearing its story of human occupation. A cursory look by the roadside would show that certain portions of the land are devoted to cattle and horse grazing. The plains are turned into fields of banana, papaya, and vegetables–the primary cash crops of Puerto Rico. Back in the day, historians recorded that the southern area also had a thriving sugar industry like the rest of the island but was abandoned when the world prices of sugar dropped to record lows (Guanica ending it in 1981). Vestiges of that sugar culture can still be gleaned from the artisanal production of guarapo, a sugarcane juice drink, and ron cana, a toxic sugarcane rum that burns your insides.
The seaward edge of the Guanica dry forest is a winding road that threads the series of hotels and beach spots along the coasts. Sightseers and tourists go to this area primarily because of the beach and Gilligan’s Island, an islet just across the forest. From the road, footpaths go deep into the forest reserve where hikers climb the rocky hills and explore the remarkable flora and fauna. Occasionally, a Santeria shrine of a saint could be found bearing offerings of fruits and flowers.
I don’t know how much of an impact human activities contributed to the Guanica Dry Forest. I tried searching through the literature and found that studies along this line have been wanting. What I saw instead was a comprehensive study of the influence of hurricane winds on the dry forest cycles. Apparently, dry forests are resilient enough to confront winds as strong as 152 knots. But droves of people? Who knows.
What is it with hermit crab these days? I find them by the mangroves, the sandy beach, decaying trees, and across various spaces on this little island. I literally trip over them and sometimes hear a crunch under my boots whenever I search for my monkeys. Many of them prefer to hide under the shade to escape the glare of the sun and, if you lift a decaying log, there they are in clumps, one over the other, packed like cars on a junkyard.
Nothing is more poetic than the union of an abandoned ivory shell and a crustacean in need of a home. The hermit crab, devoid of its shell, has a belly so soft that a little squeeze can spread its guts out. It looks ugly and walks like a drunk pirate when left out “naked” in the open. Once it meets the shell of the proper size and condition, it wriggles itself in, making the shell a part of its anatomy until the crab outgrows it and has to find another shell again. The shell is the toughest armor in the crustacean world; after all, if the previous owner was safe in it, so will the current occupant be.
The shell is the central axis of the hermit crab’s defensive repertoire. A little movement and they retreat to their shells, shutting the entrance with their claws, and never to come out unless the danger has gone. Too slow to run because of the weight of their shell, they embrace themselves tight that in the process they close off the world outside. They’d rather fall from a higher ground and come down hard to the beach floor than fight off intruders. Their claws, while capable of slicing a finger, are designed more to be impenetrable doors than weapons.
If you wish to elicit a response from the hermit crabs behind their shell fortresses, try knocking on the bigger ones, especially those that have grown bigger than your fist. Every knock is answered back with a complaint. They scratch the insides of their shell, emitting a sound like a cross between the grinding of a pencil sharpener and the turning of a rusty wheel sprocket. When everything is still, the hermit crab slowly emerges from its hiding place, stretching its spindly legs, one after another. The antennas poke out of the shell like copper wires and then the rest of the head emerges. The eyes, matchstick black, scan the surrounding and in a rush the hermit crab lumbers to the nearest thicket. Once it feels safe, the crab curls back up again inside its shell.
Back home, we call the hermit crabs umang. They are way smaller than the ones on the island. Children in fishing villages collect them and put the umang inside a tin can. Sometimes, they would play with the critters: two hermit crabs are held face-to-face by the back of their shells to make them fight. As expected, they don’t fight. They didn’t evolve much for fighting. The umang merely push each other out of the way and then pinch the skin of the holders’ finger to escape. I think what excites the child’s curiosity is not so much the “fight” but the sword-like movement of the legs, almost like a samurai’s katana in hypnotic movement. When they fall from the child’s grip, the umang are picked up again for another round of “fighting.” This will only stop when the children smash the shell with just enough force, breaking the shell but leaving the hermit crab exposed. Then, the tender and soft belly is separated from the rest of the body. For these child-fishers, hermit crabs are fish baits.
So if I ask again what is it with the hermit crabs today? Tell me it wasn’t smashed for fish bait this time. Tell me that I am squishing them under my boots.
I’ll be writing back here in Time Travelling after a rather long blogging hiatus. What has become of the other blogging site, Anthropology Corner? Well, I wrote one post there and never get to writing anything. I think Anthropology Corner will stay there in its non-space in the internet, like an hermit’s cave, a place of contemplation, of silence, of not writing nor thinking of anything–frozen in cyberspace yet forever pregnant with potentialities. Of course, I’ll still maintain Anthropology Corner as a monument of sorts. A token of what it is like not to blog at all and just fling myself into the rough-and-tumble world of behavioral data collection–constantly stalking monkeys in sweltering heat, recording every bit of scratch, bite, mount, sleep, eat, gurney, etcetera while being preyed on by annoying majes (insects no bigger than a ballpoint dot yet relentless in their bloodsucking ways).
After almost two years doing this, I am still fascinated by monkeys and caught in the day-to-day ordinariness of their world. It’s almost like a meditation in its ordinariness–me, staring at the monkeys with a minicomputer on hand (Psion), them, immersing themselves in their monkeyness. In the world of mass information, the respite that I get in following the monkeys in silence is golden, somewhat similar to a monk’s religious epiphany when flower petals slowly unfold before him. In the best of days, behavioral data collection is like dreaming wide awake–all senses tuned in to what the monkeys are doing yet you hear yourself think, really think, and admire, really admire. This silence must be the same silence that poet-philosophers like Lao Tzu pursue when they go to the mountains, live in caves, and sleep under the trees; and when they feel like they’re settled already, then they move again, just wandering aimlessly, savoring the breeze and scenery for its visual, tactile, and auditory pleasures, like going to another fiesta where nature is the host.
Of course, it’s not all ordinary. I perk up whenever the monkeys perk up. Their excitement becomes my excitement too. Just a few days ago, huddled together with the monkeys (okay, not huddled but pretty close to them, like 4 meters from the next monkey) , I had the chance to see a primiparous mom in labor. I saw her heaving, reclined on a rock jutting out of the bushes. Whenever the labor contractions came, she would squat and then stand, raising her hands to balance herself while trying to force out the infant inside. The contractions came in intervals and she rested in between, visibly exhausted, the hairless patch of skin red due to hormones. Her brother, a two-year old juvenile, would come and hug her. When the hugging stopped, the brother groomed her (grooming is what primatologists call that behavior where a monkey combs–and sometimes pound like a drum!–through the hair of another monkey, as if searching for parasites or dirt, but is actually more than that). Or take for example an old male monkey which I was very fond of (thus some of the staff named him after me), slowed by age, walking gingerly with its back arched like a turtle shell. Once a middle to high ranking monkey weeks before, he was now left at the edge of the troop and at the receiving end of attacks from other monkeys whenever he ventured close. Then one cold and dewy morning, I found him frozen in rigor, partially hidden by the grasses he once ate.
Here’s a poem for him:
kamatayon sa unggoy’ng tiguwang/death of an old monkey
pagkaupos sa imong katiguwangon /when your senescence is at its end
inanay kang mitikuko sa kasagbutan– / slowly, you bent like the grasses where you now lay–
tuhod sa siko, palad sa ulo–/knees on elbow, palm on your head–
puya nga kinulipad/a child spat out
sa tagoangkan. /from the womb.
hilom ang pag-abot sa katapusan:/the coming of the end is silent:
hoyohoy’ng gisabak sa dughan./a breeze nursed in your chest.
sa yanong pagpanghupaw,/in a simple sigh,
nahimugso ang imong pagtaliwan./birthing your death.
So, what more can I say. Time Travelling is back.
The skies in the southeast coast of Puerto Rico were burning red this morning as the sun showed a hint of itself across the horizon. While the surrounding was as yet dark and the grasses covered with fog, the familiar bluish tinge of the skies started appearing when the sun’s rays, in full reddish regalia, marched on towards its westerly course.
From where I was standing, right by a sandy beach, the sun began its slow ascent from the Caribbean sea, changing the surroundings from grey to orange to pink. The palm trees that lined the coast were silhouettes, assuming form and color only as the rays touched them.
The breeze, a gentle blow from the seas, was of the hue as the sun commanded it. It was today that I could say I breathed color. A stray dog, Tigger, accompanied me to witness earth’s transformation.
At the farthest end of the dock, a group of men cast their fishing lines to the seas. Their fishing poles, fastened at the wooden fence, stood at attention by the edge of this dock. In a little while, the poles will bend seaward to a familiar tug that the fishers are waiting for.
From afar, a solitary yacht sliced through the glassy sea. A few minutes earlier, a couple of yachts anchored near the island of Cayo Santiago. The white-haired captain of the smaller yacht, busy with tying the ropes by the fairlead, glanced momentarily then waved at our passing boat.
Disturbed by my ruminations, two pelicans flew and roosted on a nearby boat wreck. My eyes stopped following them and I started the first focal observation of the day.