Angelique Songco in Frankfrurt, Germany as she receives the KfW-Bernhard-Grzimek-Preis biodiversity award. Songco is the first-ever female to win this award. (Photo courtesy of Stefan Daub//KfW Stiftung)

“Mama Ranger” has a certain ring to it—it connotes the supreme comfort—the perfect balance of warm nourishment and hostile overt protection that only a loving and concerned mother can give.

Angelique Songco, formerly of Surigao, served in the Philippine Army before getting involved with Tubbataha. She started working for the Tubbataha Reef National Park (TRNP) in 1996 as a representative for an environmental non-government organization (NGO), the World Wide Fund Philippines (WWFP), and later moved to the park’s Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) in 2001.

Called to serve

Since 1982, Mama Ranger has been diving in Tubbataha primarily as a divemaster to local and foreign visitors of the park. Her exposure to WWFP’s policymaking made her conscious of the rising threats against the marine park.

“In 1982 after being declared as a national park, 52% of the corals disappeared—which was ironic. Nakikita ko yung mga nangyayari, outsiders bringing their destructive activities to the park—mga taga-Quezon province with drums of cyanide to catch fish; mga Taiwanese fishers na may longline; mga kumukuha ng turtle and bird eggs,” Mama Ranger said.

In 2001, when the board was looking for someone to lead the first Tubbataha management office, she said that it felt like it was a calling.

At the time of her appointment as the board directress, there were only two persons manning the park with virtually zero resources. The government did not allocate funds for capitals and law enforcement so they operated based on the tourism collections they had.

“Tubbataha was a park only in paper for many years. Parang for the government, it was ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Ang layo-layo nya at ang gastos pamahalaan. We were sitting ducks from the continuing destructive activities,” Songco said as she looked back on Tubbataha’s worrisome past.

She instinctively wanted to protect the place. She knew then that she had to do something.

“That was the perfect chance for me to do something that I’ve always wanted to do. It is an honor to be allowed to do something, to have a chance to do something,” Songco said.

“When I close my eyes at night to sleep, I see the corals of Tubbataha instead of stars,” Mama Ranger when asked what keeps her going.
“When I close my eyes at night to sleep, I see the corals of Tubbataha instead of stars,” Mama Ranger when asked what keeps her going.

Imperfect servant

Mama Ranger is not a perfect person. In her early years of servitude, she said that she committed mistakes that she later learned from.

Bird Islet is one of the park’s renowned islands and is famously known home to the Black Naddie—an endemic bird that can only be found in Tubbataha.

“Ang nakakatakot about sa environment, down the road, lahat ng ginagawa mo may epekto. I remember when we first went to the Bird Islet, ang daming Ipil-ipil and it is an invasive plant species, so pinatayan namin lahat ng Ipil-ipil. We then realized that it was a mistake kasi after a few months, nawala naman yung mga tree-breeding birds and it affected the other species. Marerealize mo talagang nature has an intricate design that exists in interdependence,” Songco recalled.

She said that this kind of experience shaped her juridical decisions on better managing the marine park. She also said that she is now more careful in her choices of what to do and what not to do for Tubbataha to thrive.

“It’s frustrating but we have to prevail. I know we have to prevail kasi hindi ka pwedeng umayaw. Life is spicy because of all these challenges,” Songco said.

Managing for resilience

Mama Ranger has now contributed decades-worth of efforts in marine park preservation and conservation. She acknowledges that her time is running out as she no longer has the same youth vibrance that she used to have.

“These high scientists that come to the park, most of the time, they give us data and recommendations that make me think na parang I don’t really know anything. How do you take care of Tubbataha? Hindi lang sya one-man job so we plan for resilience. We manage for resilience so yung mga environmental pressures that the reefs will face, they can overcome,” Songco said.

Mama Ranger encourages everyone to be more conscious of consumerism citing how drinking from a plastic cup affects the marine debris that threatens Tubbataha.

“Maybe that was the plastic cup that caused the bird to die dahil nakasumbrero sa kanya yung cup at hindi sya makahinga or makakain. You contribute the most of it and Tubbataha suffers the most,” Songco said.

We should all be able to do something to protect not just the marine park, but also the environment as a whole. We are faced with so much problems, but it is not impossible.

“If you see something so beautiful, you want to protect it. I think it’s human nature that you feel possessive of it. You want to keep it like that. Just take care of the ocean near you and you’re already taking care of Tubbataha,” Mama Ranger said as she serves lunch signaling the end of the interview.

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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.