Some feral African animals, including giraffes, zebras, elands, and waterbucks; alongside endemic Palawan species such as Calamian deers, civet cats, and mouse-deers, are the highlight of the one to two hours safari ride around the park. (Photos courtesy of Mark G. Rodriguez)

After absorbing a pandemic-induced loss of about P1 million, the Calauit Safari Park in Busuanga, Palawan has now reopened its doors to tourists in a bid for recovery.

The safari park’s reopening served as the gateway for other Busuanga town’s tourist destinations, striking a balance between helping the economy bounce back and maintaining health protocols to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) among tourists and locals.

The African animals were transported to the island on March 4, 1977 aboard M/V Salvador. (Photo courtesy of Mark G. Rodriguez)

“We know Calauit [Safari Park] is our main attraction dito sa Calamianes and we believe it could boost other sites like Busuanga River, Busuanga View Deck, and Black Island. (We know Calauit [Safari Park] is our main attraction dito sa Calamianes and we believe makakatulong ito na puntahan pa nila ang iba pang sites natin kagaya ng Busuanga River, Busuanga View Deck at Black Island na maaari ring pasyalan),” said Busuanga town mayor Elizabeth Cervantes.

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At least 38 tourists have visited the park since its reopening on Monday, March 8, a significant drop from around 5,000 visitors during its peak season, according to Provincial Economic Enterprise and Development Office (PEEDO) chief and Calauit Safari Park director Dr. Myrna Lacanilao.

“It is very important for our tourists to follow minimum health protocols. Face masks and face shields are required during the tour, which lasts for one to two hours,” Lacanilao added.

The 21 park rangers and other personnel, Lacanilao said, resumed operations in catering guests to see 699 feral African animals and other endemic wildlife species including the endangered Calamian deer (Hyelaphus calamianensis).

The Calamian deer dominating with at least 350 heads, can be seen roaming freely around the park alongside 21 giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis), 27 zebras (Equus hippotigris), 21 waterbucks (Kobus ellipsiprymnus), 24 common elands (Taurotragus oryx), 20 Palawan mouse-deers (Tragulus nigricans), five wild boars (Sus scrofa), two Asian civet cats (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), and one white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), among others.

The park was established through Presidential Proclamation No. 1578 signed by late dictator-president Ferdinand Marcos on August 31, 1976. (Photo courtesy of Mark G. Rodriguez)

“We don’t let the animals feed on their own at the wild. We have to feed them. (’Yong mga animals kailangan kumain kasi hindi naman namin sila pinababayaan sa ilang para kumain on its own, pinakakain talaga namin sila),” Lacanilao added.

Winston Arzaga, provincial information officer, said the Calauit Safari Park’s reopening “signals the revival of tourism in Palawan”, as the province eased its tight travel restrictions that is now only requiring negative COVID-19 RT-PCR test taken within 72 hours; valid identification (ID); confirmed travel itinerary with a DOT-accredited accommodation; and completed health declaration and QR-code registration in TRAZE app, a nationwide and unified contact tracing system.

Lacanilao added that the park, though incurring unrealized tourism receipts because of the pandemic, maintained its travel rates to encourage tourists to visit, with their entrance fee at P300 and safari car rental of P125.

The Calauit Safari Park is a game reserve and wildlife sanctuary located at Calauit Island in the Calamian Island Group, known for a substantial population of African animals, including giraffes, zebras, antelopes, and other local fauna that all roam freely in the 3,700-hectare island off the coast of northern Palawan.

The park was established through Presidential Proclamation No. 1578 signed by late dictator-president Ferdinand Marcos on August 31, 1976. The move was in response to Kenya’s president Jomo Kenyatta, during a Third World conference in the late 1970s, to help save the African wildlife which was threatened by war and drought.

The Conservation and Resource Management Foundation (CRMF), a private non-profit organization, which was first placed in charge of the forest preserve and wildlife sanctuary, chose the secluded Calauit Island which it considered as an ideal location based on its size, terrain, and vegetation.

The African animals were transported to the island on March 4, 1977 aboard M/V Salvador. The initial batch of eight species of feral African animals were composed of more than 200 families, including 12 bushbucks, 11 elands, 11 gazelles, 15 giraffes, 18 impalas, 12 waterbucks, 10 topis, and 15 zebras.

Without their natural predators in the isolated island, the population grew to 201 within just five years, with 143 animals born on the Calauit Island itself.

Particularly, the waterbuck and impala populations thrived. However, the gazelles and topis, were proven less adaptable and died out by 1999. In 2005, there were approximately 481 African animals, with the impalas dominating the population at about 150 heads.

Presently, the endemic and endangered Calamian deer was leading the park’s total head count at 350, with wild pigs trailing behind at around 100 heads, based on the park’s 2020 tally. (with reports from Ruil Alabi)

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is a desk editor and senior reporter of Palawan News. He covers politics, environment, tourism, justice, and sports. In his free time, he enjoys long walks with his dog, Bayani.