While browsing the internet, I chanced on a science news article on the genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia among Han Chinese. The Nature article revealed two independent studies that identified “sections of the human genome that, when deleted, can elevate the risk of developing schizophrenia by up to 15 times compared with the general population.” I won’t go into the details of the article because, aside from my lack of expertise on the subject matter, the popular version of the two articles is good enough for non-technical readers like myself.
This blog article however will share a cultural correlate to the science news article. While mental diseases are biological, these are expressed in specific cultural and historical circumstances. I take the medical anthropologist’s cue therefore of differentiating disease, which is biological, from illnesses, a cultural concept. It is within this light that I share my maternal relatives’ reckoning with pagkabuang (roughly translated as insanity). All behaviors or mental states that deviate from the “normal” is considered buang in Cebuano. Psychological illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, dementia, etc, are all subsumed under this general word category.
The family lore goes that at least one member, usually male, of every generation will succumb to a mental illness. I don’t know if there’s a biological basis to this story or whether a professional diagnosis was availed of (except for one), but as far as my mother is concerned, our “schizophrenia” simply runs in the blood–no need to question it, you just keep the grip on what’s real and what’s not and you won’t lose it. This story has been used as a warning to all my relatives to not overdo things or do drugs, because “we got craziness in our blood,” one slip and off we go to Lalaland. Like us, my mother’s generation too had been told time and again to fear this supposed “genetic tendency” and thus must learn to negotiate life’s challenges with calm and ease. I believe this is not simply an old wives’ tale that older relatives concocted to keep us in check. Aside from the logical fact that they could’ve just scared us off with the usual monsters and the roasting pits of hell, my maternal relatives saw how a grandfather, an uncle, and two cousins were blighted by this illness.
The origin of the “schizophrenia” myth started with the unusual death of my mother’s maternal grandfather who was shot by Japanese soldiers in the dying days of World War II. When the villagers heard that the soldiers were on patrol, they fled to their mountain hideout except for Lolo Pedro. The soldiers spotted Lolo Pedro on top of a coconut tree cursing at toratora or zero fighter aircrafts flying overhead. He also brought with him a long stick to swat at these flying jetfighters, flaying at them everytime they passed by the coconut tree. He was an easy target for the patrolling soldiers. They trained their rifles towards Lolo Pedro, placed him in their rifles’ crosshairs, squeezed their triggers, and took the crazed man down from the tree.
You see, the tiny island of Po’o at that time was right smack in the middle of the largest naval battle in world history, The Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was the naval war when Allied forces first witnessed Japanese toratora planes diving straight at enemy warships and gunboats. The Allied Forces however routinely defeated the Japanese forces in less than a week. For older island residents, the impact of this war was such that time and history were only divided into three episodes: before the war (wala pay gera), during the war (panahon sa gera), and after the war (pistaym). Personal events, like birthdays, are remembered more along this organizing principle of time than the actual dates.
The war was a shock to many island residents. From a sleepy fishing village, the place had been converted into a battle zone. The villagers were rounded up and their movement monitored and restricted. Many were subjected to abuses. Rumors reached that children were flung to the air and then stabbed with bayonets. Some of those who escaped the encampment were pursued and killed. A relative of mine, who was then a child, escaped a gruesome death when she pretended to be dead after getting stabbed with a bayonet. With her guts spilling out of her abdomen, adult relatives sneaked the child out of the island on a canoe. They traveled a full day to the neighboring island of Leyte where she was nursed back to health.
Those who escaped the Japanese garrison fled to mountain hideouts. While there, they lived a semblance of a normal life, far from the reach of the occupying forces. My late maternal grandfather, a Chinese immigrant tailor (whose timberland-owning family scampered out of China because of the Nationalist Revolution of Sun Yat Sen–yet another interesting story to pursue!), remembered sewing clothes from coconut fibers for the refugees (see photo on the side to give you an idea). The violence spiraled that whenever there was a chance for retribution, the island residents grabbed every opportunity for revenge–Japanese soldiers, who survived the naval battle and found themselves beached on the island, were routinely attacked and killed.
If you’ve been to the island of Po’o, you would not imagine that this place had once witnessed so much bloodshed. Your day starts with a rooster’s call and ends with the warmth of bahalina down your throat. Yet World War II was a crazy time. And, apparently, we still feel the insanity of war in our “genes.”
We started a Facebook sharing page, Resource Center for Philippine Primates, to gather information on primate conservation, ecology, and biology. The links posted will strive to share more about the primate species in the Philippines, long-tailed macaques and Philippine tarsiers, but will also include any interesting trivia that we can gather from the internet and academic journals. If you wish to know more about primates, please click below and like the page:
A 1 p.m. curfew and a 30-minute time limit on whale shark watching in Oslob town, Cebu, are among several guidelines proposed by a technical working group (TWG) led by the Provincial Capitol.
The time limit will prevent stressing the marine animals, who have been getting intense public attention from tourists and local visitors since August last year.
The group headed by Provincial Board (PB) member Peter John Calderon said they will meet before month’s end to finalize the draft guidelines.
The TWG is composed of Oslob Mayor Ronald Guaren, PB member Wilfredo Caminero, the Whale Shark Watchers Organization, Provincial Veterinarian Dr. Rose Marie Vincoy and Provincial Legal Officer lawyer Marino Martinquilla.
Under an Oslob municipal ordinance, only an accredited group will be allowed to ferry tourists to the site where the whale sharks gather.
A designated whale shark watching area was also in place with buoys within the municipal…
The previous blog has apparently ruffled some feathers. A blog of course is not a scholarly article and need not be peppered with citations. It is an opinion piece, a mere two cents in the ongoing conversation about the incident in Oslob.
We do not agree with this anthropocentric point of view, ecosystems and its components have existed for millions of years. Modern man only 200,000 years. The natural world cannot not (sic) evolve instantly and will not be able to adapt to what we are doing/have done to the planet in the past 100 years. As what has been said – we need nature more than she needs us. We need to be part of the solution to address the threats, not to be part of the problem.
The FB page admin clearly misunderstood the blog article’s point. What the blog stressed is the inseparability of our practices from what is currently happening to the natural environment. Our influence on every ecological niche is pervasive that we have become a force in the adaptation of other species.
As a consequence, we have been seeing species, both flora and fauna, devising new strategies to contend with the anthropogenic influences on their habitat. For example, tarsiers stalk freshly turned cornfields to forage on crickets and other insects exposed in the process of cultivation. There are a few other iconic examples: macaques raiding agricultural farms, polar bears and penguins losing their habitats because of the melting of glaciers, among others. Needless to say, even if the whale sharks are left alone in the middle of nowhere or dive deep into the depths of the ocean, they would still bear the mark of humanity’s impact on the planet (e.g., rising sea temperatures due to human-related factors, mercury contamination, climate change, water pollution, etc.).
What is central for any substantial change to happen is to involve people by creating conservation programs that increase the stake of communities towards the species in question. Without creating that connection, communities could spell doom to any conservation program. The previous blog article thus explored the possibility of a community-driven and conservation practices-based feeding strategy for the whale sharks because of its potential for boosting reproductive success and increasing community participation. In concert with marine habitat enhancement activities, supplemental feeding could be redirected in such a way that the feeding will be beneficial (or has minimal impact) to the animals. By actively managing tourism (and pulling it closer to conservation), the activity has to be sensitive to the dangers of habituation and to the feeding ecology and social behavior of the whale sharks.
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.
While leafing through the collected works of W.H. Auden, I chanced on a short poem that is very apt to the times we are in. Last year, we saw dictators fall one after another in the Middle East and, in the case of the Philippines, the ongoing trial of ex-Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo over the plunder of the nation’s coffers. Human rights advocates in the Philippines are also glad over the trial of top military officers for cases of human rights abuses. As mentioned in our previous blog, there were a total of 1,119 victims of extra-judicial killings under the ten-year Arroyo regime. Time Travelling is thus one with the Philippine nation in hoping that justice will be finally served.
Epitaph on a Tyrant
Perfection of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.