We all received the news that a team of herpetologists has been scouring the Philippines for new lizard species in the past ten years. LiveScience reported that the researchers went on a two-month expedition in Luzon after seeing photographs of local hunters with a six-foot long lizard. Named after its local name (bitatawa), the fruit-eating komodo-like saurian is now known in the scientific community as Varanus bitatawa.
BioOne revealed there were four other new lizard species discovered by the team: a limbless species of a scincid lizard of the genus Brachymeles from Mt. Labo, Bicol Peninsula; a medium-sized Sphenomorphus from the island of Palawan; a new species of Luperosaurus from Mt. Mantalingajan of southern Palawan Island; and another scincid lizard of the genus Brachymeles from the Luzon Faunal Region of the northern Philippine region.
While I am glad that new species have been brought under the scientific gaze, I noticed an obvious disparity in the reporting of the event. The international news credit the discovery (of bitatawa) to Dr. Rafe Brown and his graduate students in the University of Kansas while the local news (i.e., Philippines) give more space to Dr. Arvin C. Diesmos of the Herpetology Section of the National Museum of the Philippines. This differential treatment of the news agencies (reporters and, yes, bloggers) on whom to quote betray their construction of what constitutes “scientific authority.”
If we briefly scan through the reports of the bitatawa discovery, one can glean the representation of the Filipinos in the mind of the reporters. The only Filipino ‘voices’ we have are as lizard-eating tribal hunters and exotic bearers of knowledge of the lizard’s location. Here is a news report’s quote on Rafe Brown: “People had taken photographs of hunters from the resident tribespeople as they were carrying the reptiles back to their homes to feed their families in 2001.” I am not disputing the fact that this did happen. Many Filipinos do consider lizard meat as an alternate protein source–one could say, a more varied protein diet than what you have in many cultures. What I take issue however is the failure to put this food practice in context, which I believe further alienates and exoticizes the already marginalized Sierra Madre indigenous groups.
Another point is the muting of the Philippine researchers’ voices in the international media when even a University of Kansas graduate student can have a say on the discovery. Nowhere can you find expert interviews from local scientists–who, truth be told, know more about the habitat of Varanus bitatawa and the conservation needs of the species. The only place you hear from them is in the Philippine mass media in spite their knowledge of the discovery. Consider this interview of Dr. Diesmos, a local expert, over at Inquirer.net, a local Philippine newspaper:
Diesmos said his group had yet to determine whether the species was in danger of extinction. “We are concerned about the fact that it is found in low-level forest areas that are prone to encroachment by humans.”
“It is an important species for the Philippines, especially since it is a forest species. It highlights the need for us to preserve its habitat. Otherwise, we might lose it as well as the other species. It highlights the fact that the Philippines has a very unique and very complex biodiversity,” he said.
The politics of science is all too clear in the reporting of this discovery. Truth be told, I am a huge fan of international research collaboration projects, having been involved in some similar (though smaller) endeavour. I admire scientists working as one, rolling their sleeves, to advance public knowledge. My beef really is when science (or the reporting of it) mirrors the same global inequalities we find everywhere.
Perhaps, the unreported skink and geckos are apt metaphors for the Filipino scientist’s position in the global stage. They exist but news agencies find them uninteresting.
To read more about the other lizard species, click here:
Welton LJ, Siler CD, Bennett D, Diesmos A, Duya MR, Dugay R, Rico EL, Van Weerd M, & Brown RM (2010). A spectacular new Philippine monitor lizard reveals a hidden biogeographic boundary and a novel flagship species for conservation. Biology letters PMID: 20375042