The protection couldn't come soon enough. Just last year, for example, 4,400 freshwater turtles - the majority of them the critically endangered Philippine forest turtle - were seized in southern Palawan. They were collected from the northern part of the island and were being readied for sale in the pet trade and for consumption.
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Jessa Garibay, project manager of The Center for Sustainability in the Philippines, told Seeker that the Batak tribe of hunter gatherers can still hunt, as permitted by The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act. "Lowlanders" (non-indigenous people), however, cannot collect or hunt threatened plants and animals as part of the new declaration.
Garibay added that "there will be a Wildlife Enforcement Officer training for the community members around Cleopatra's Needle to ensure monitoring and strict implementation of the law."
Already The Center for Sustainability has started to train some Batak to be ecotourism guides. 17,290 acres of the Cleopatra's Needle Critical Habitat came from ancestral lands belonging to these and other indigenous Palawan people. Their livelihood has been largely dependent upon the collection of resin, rattan and honey, which they sell to traders.
In recent years, however, the Batak's way of life has been challenged by illegal logging, charcoal production, land conversion for agriculture, quarrying and other activities.
It's now hoped that the Batak may benefit from the ecotourism opportunities. An "Eco-Tourism Livelihood Program" launches this week. In January of next year, a forest management plan will be implemented involving patrol officers who will work to enforce the conservation measures.
"The first half of the year (the summer season in the Philippines) is the best time to visit the area," Garibay said. "Rivers are relatively easier to cross and the trails are dry and easier to hike."
The area's newly protected status was spearheaded by the Center for Sustainability, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, City Environment and Natural Resources Office of Puerto Princesa and the Batak tribe, with support from Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), Rainforest Trust and the Amphibian Survival Alliance.