Lawak Island in Kalayaan town, West Philippine Sea. (Photo from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff)

In Palawan, officials are emphasizing the importance of protecting Lawak Island in the West Philippine Sea due to its status as a critical habitat for three species of vulnerable migratory birds, crucial for both maintaining the country’s biodiversity and global ecological balance.

Situated about 300 kilometers off Palawan’s mainland, Lawak represents one of the nine territories claimed by the nation in the West Philippine Sea, a region where tensions with China persistently escalate. Spanning 7.93 hectares, this area is home to a rich variety of ecosystems, from coastal forests and grasslands to wide stretches of sandy beaches.

The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), responsible for fostering sustainable growth in the province, has cautioned that damaging this vital ecosystem might have disastrous effects on worldwide biodiversity.

Atty. Teodoro Jose Matta, executive director of the PCSD Staff, emphasized that delegating the duty to the Kalayaan municipal government on April 5 to safeguard the island and implement environmental regulations, is a significant measure.

The initiative is vital not just for the protection of avian species but also for preserving the comprehensive ecosystem of the entire islands group.

Sooty tern, brown noddy, and greater crested terns—migratory birds of Lawak Island in Kalayaan town, West Philippine Sea. (Photos from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff)

Up until July 2022, there were no formal studies conducted on the bird populations across the islands of the Kalayaan Island Group, including Lawak Island. As a result, they deployed their team to undertake an avifaunal survey of seabirds.

They learned that aside from hosting three species of birds classified as vulnerable—sooty terns, greater crested terns, and brown noddies—the island also shelters small populations of little egrets, great egrets, and barn swallows. As of 2022, Lawak is a sanctuary for approximately 4,300 migratory birds.

Among the three vulnerable bird species, the sooty terns (Onychoprion fuscatus) boast the largest population on the island, numbering 4,190 individuals, according to the avifaunal audit that year. They are followed by the brown noddies (Anous stolidus) with a population of 45, and the greater crested terns (Thalasseus bergii) with 32 individuals.

Lawak is where the second-largest Philippine sooty tern colony can be found, following Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) in Cagayancillo town, and also serves as the third recognized breeding ground for brown noddies, alongside TRNP and Meander Reef.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) Biodiversity Management Bureau and the Tubbataha Management Office identified the bird sanctuary as one of the Philippine Sentinel Sites for Seabird Conservation at the 1st National Seabird Forum and Action Planning Workshop in 2021.

Matta stated that protecting Lawak Island is crucial for preserving the migratory birds that travel from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere, reaching destinations as far as Brisbane and the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland’s coast in Australia.

“Their migration pattern includes Lawak. This highlights how integral Palawan is to global ecology and the world’s bird populations. Endangering this critical habitat would have a significant impact on global biodiversity,” he said.

“No studies yet; it’s merely a theory; it’s a research question, which I have already posted to the Australian authorities. And we’re going to propose a verification study on this,” he added.

Matta said that the Philippines’ rise on the international stage is also contingent on its commitment to protecting natural resources. If Lawak is destroyed and its birds are lost, the Philippines’ image also gets tarnished in the eyes of the world.

Lawak Island (Photo from the Philippine Navy)

Threats
In the past, seabirds faced threats from military personnel collecting their eggs as food supplements and from dogs preying on them. The construction of a helipad in 2022 on the island, however, emerged as the most severe threat, causing habitat destruction and adversely impacting their populations, as stated in the bird study.

A military source, who requested anonymity due to not being authorized to discuss the matter, said that the helipad has since been abandoned, acknowledging the dense bird population on the island and the associated risks of accidents.

“It’s not in use because of the need to protect the birds,” the source claimed.

Matta noted that the government’s January 2024 proposal for an ₱800 million port and a 3-kilometer runway was deferred, with the decision made in consideration of the birds’ welfare.

He said he spoke with DENR Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga two weeks ago and informed her that the projects couldn’t proceed. She then connected him with Department of Transportation (DOTr) Secretary Jaime Bautista to express his concerns.

“I talked to Sec. Bautista, I gave my concerns, and he told me to do a survey and find out alternative sites. They’re on hold right now until we can come up with alternative project sites. That’s basically where the projects stand right now,” Matta said.

Ma. Vivian Soriano, a senior ecosystem management specialist at the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office of the local DENR, concurred, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive study to assess the impacts of both minor and major developments planned for Lawak before proceeding.

She said birds play many roles in ecosystems diversity, including as predators, pollinators, scavengers, seed dispersers, seed predators, and ecosystem engineers.

“Before any construction begins, studies must first be conducted to address and mitigate impacts on the birds,” Soriano said.

The PCSD Staff and teams from DOTr, the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), and the military will go to Lawak Island to do a second round of bird population survey in May this year.

The management of Lawak Island is turned over to the representatives of the Kalayaan local government unit in an agreement signing on April 5. (Palawan News photo)

Law imposition
Jovic Fabello, spokesperson for the PCSD Staff, stressed that there is a critical need for stricter enforcement of environmental regulations in the Kalayaan Islands Group, where Lawak is, stressing its role within the Philippines’ territorial boundaries, where the nation bears the responsibility to safeguard avian treasures.

“It’s important that we enforce environmental laws strictly in Kalayaan, not just on mainland Palawan, because some of these birds are already vulnerable,” he said.

He explained that the island is indispensable for these birds because if it were to disappear, they would lose a crucial layover site. Their migratory route would be directly affected, as they are instinctively programmed to stop at Lawak before continuing to other destinations.

Fabello said that is why an agreement was made that gave Kalayaan town more power to protect the island. The island has been named a critical habitat for migratory birds since September 2022 by Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) Resolution No. 22-827, which is in line with Republic Act 9147, also known as the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act.

He added that as Kalayaan town starts to enhance its tourism industry, featuring Lawak as one of its main attractions, carefully managing the flow of visitors becomes essential to avoid disrupting the daily routines of the birds.

“Visiting bird sanctuaries can be a rewarding experience, offering unique insights into the lives of birds and the ecosystems that support them. However, policies must be enforced, such as not making loud noises, designating bird watching spots, not feeding the birds, no littering, and others,” Fabello said.

Currently, the Ayungin Shoal is prominently featured in media reports as a focal point of geopolitical tension, primarily due to the continued aggressive actions of China. These actions include the employment of water cannons as a means to obstruct the resupply missions undertaken by the Philippines, spotlighting a major angle of the ongoing territorial disputes in the region.

The other islands there, like Parola, Patag, Likas, Kota, Panata, and Rizal Reef, are not as widely known, perhaps because there is no observed lingering presence of China Coast Guard (CCG) ships and maritime militia vessels.

However, Matta emphasizes that they should not be overlooked due the valuable natural resources they harbor