Isolated approximately 20 kilometers off of Bataraza town in southern Palawan lies Ursula Island Game Refuge and Bird Sanctuary (UIGRBS), a hidden paradise that harbors thousands of wild animals.
Raul Molejon, a 44-year-old forest protection officer, started his day collecting 230 eggs of a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). A day before that, he had gathered 115 eggs from a loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta). The turtle-nesting period usually starts during the southwest monsoon (habagat) season, Molejon said, which takes up their early morning patrol in the island.
“Sometimes, we see them laying eggs. We have to gather those because if not, those will be eaten by monitor lizards. (Minsan naaabutan namin sila mangitlog. Kailangan namin ‘yon kunin kasi kung hindi, kakainin ‘yon ng mga bayawak),” Molejon explained.
Manned by two forest protection officers and one volunteer, Ursula Island is a popular nesting site for marine turtles such as hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate), loggerhead (Caretta caretta), and green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). The eggs were being kept in a make-shift hatchery at the ranger station until such time that the hatchlings would be released back into the island’s pristine waters.
Home to Wild Birds
Leozel Padrigo, protected area focal person of Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) Brooke’s Point, said that Ursula Island is also home to around 27 species of wild birds including the endemic Palawan tabon scrubfowl (Megapodius cumingii), endangered Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica), Mantanani scops owl (Otus mantananensis), sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), reef egret (Egretta sacra), and pied imperial pigeon (Ducula bicolor) locally known as “kamaso”.
“Most of the wild birds in the island only migrated from other countries. Ursula Island only serves as their shelter because there are no fruit trees in the island that can provide food for the wild birds,” Padrigo said.
One wounded Nicobar pigeon was recently rescued by forest protection officers. The rare bird was in a weak state, with a deep cut wound on its right wing and signs of infection on its left foot. The origin of injuries was undetermined but authorities have ruled out human-intervention as the remote island remained uninhabited.
“Based on our 2011 inventory of Nicobar pigeon, there were only three. However, park rangers said there are about seven recent sightings of Nicobar pigeon on the island,” Padrigo said.
With a total area of 650 hectares, composed of 21 hectares terrestrial domain and 629.626 hectares proposed marine protected area, the island sanctuary currently holds almost 28,000 pied imperial pigeons or kamaso based on their 2018 count.
“They fly to the villages of Bugsuk and Pandanan in mainland neighbor town of Balabac to gather food,” Padrigo added.
Island Paradise Not For Visitors
Visitors without necessary permits are strictly not allowed in the island sanctuary. However, there has been a notable increase in tourist arrivals on the island due to its exposure in social media. Around 700 persons have disembarked on the island in 2019, while 200 were recorded in 2018 by the local authorities.
Molejon, and the other park rangers, were trained by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) in maritime warden and patrol. However, the forest protection officers of Ursula Island are not clothed with law enforcement to apprehend individuals.
“It really can’t be avoided that people come here even without permit. What we do is we orient them of what’s prohibited in the island. Sometimes, they also can’t leave the island right away because of the strong waves, so they spend time here swimming. (Hindi naman maiwasan na may pumunta kahit walang permit kaya ang ginagawa namin, ino-orient namin sila ng mga bawal sa isla. Hindi rin agad sila makabalik lalo na kapag malakas ang alon kaya nakakapag-swimming sila),” Molejon said.
The community relations project of the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation (RTNMC) and Coral Bay Nickel Corporation (CBNC), through the collaboration with the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and BFAR, has been a great help in protecting and conserving the island sanctuary especially against the rampant illegal fishing activities, one of the biggest problems being faced by the Ursula Island.
“We were trained on the rules and regulations on how to board a vessel, how to confront boats, and how to apprehend illegal activities. (Nakapag-train kami ng rules and regulations sa pag-akyat ng barko, sa pagsita sa bangka, at sa panghuhuli ng mga illegal activities),” Molejon added.
The two mining corporations also donate monthly food provision for the rangers amounting to P20,000. The allowance also serves as the salary for the volunteer, and for the daily commodities needed by the environmental officers.
Tighter Protection Sought
Established as a bird sanctuary on April 14, 1960, through Parks and Wildlife Proclamation Order No. 14, Ursula Island is primarily under the jurisdiction of the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Padrigo said that the PAMB is seeking to declare Ursula Island as a protected area under the National Integrated and Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Law, as amended by the Republic Act (RA) 11038 or the ENIPAS Act of 2018. The move, as Padrigo explained, will fortify that island sanctuary’s protection, conservation, and preservation of its natural resources.
The three adjacent villages of Rio Tuba, Taratak, and Sarong have yet to enact a local resolution that will certify that the Ursula Island has no occupants or claimants from the National Commission for Indigenous People (NCIP).
“We are hoping that Ursula Island would soon be proclaimed as a protected area, because if not, the dangers of illegal activities may affect the corals and the island. And of course, if the island is disturbed, it may be a factor for the birds to leave the island,” Padrigo said.