Ecotours - Palawan


Calauit Island Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary

by Robert Gardner

Half-way between the cities of Manila and Puerto Princesa you can find a piece of African savanna replete with grazing giraffes, zebras and other exotic creatures roaming freely on their own island preserve.

How these animals came to inhabit a place thousands of miles from their home in Africa is a story full of legend and rumors.

The facts are that in the mid-1970's during the heyday of the Marcos regime, a latter-day Noah's Ark embarked on a voyage from an African port to escape a flood of civil unrest, illegal hunting and habitat destruction.  It landed on a sparsely occupied island within an hour's flight from Manila but a world away from the paths and byways of civilization.

The how and why of this translocation of about a dozen species has been obscured in the mists of time and memory.

Some say it was President Kenyatta of Kenya who requested other countries to provide refuge for animals threatened by wars and drought.  None of these species were particularly endangered.  Others suggest that Marcos wanted a private hunting preserve for his family and cronies.  Maybe in a time when environmental consciousness was growing, the administration felt it could establish its conservation showcase. 

But why banish the 200+ families who called Calauit home?  Most were subsistence farmers and fisherman scattered along the fringes of the island and all were forced to resettle on nearby islands.  This created a 3,700 hectare wilderness home for the giraffes, zebras and about a half-dozen antelope species.  What adds to the mystery is that it was all done without fanfare and with little public knowledge until the People's Power revolution toppled the Marcos oligarchy in 1986.  In the ten years since they were introduced, the herds thrived and lacking the usual predators, their numbers quadrupled.  

It was a strange experiment for a country that has little money to fund efforts to conserve it's own natural resources.  Its success has more to do with the dedicated caretakers who must have operated on, at best, a shoestring.  It was funded through the Office of the President and is currently administered through the local Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).  Besides the imported animals, the sanctuary has started conservation programs for some of the native wildlife which are truly endangered.  Along with the change in government, some of the families who once called Calauit home have returned to reclaim their land.

What hasn't changed is the remoteness of the island.  Off the beaten travel path and the usual shipping and air routes, it takes a special effort to reach this wildlife haven.  Two jump-off points are the town of Coron and the Club Paradise Resort on the island of Busuanga.  Club Paradise is actually on the smaller Dimakya Island just north of the Busuanga (YKR) airfield.  This is the easiest option but the more expensive since the resort charges more than $100/day.  If you're there for scuba diving, taking a side trip to the game preserve would be a nice diversion.

In Coron, the PCSD has an office that issues visitor permits and arranges trips.  You can also enquire at the larger resorts, lodging houses or dive shops.  Most of these trips are overnight boat excursions that require a minimum number of passengers.  When I was in Coron, the PCSD office was closed so I decided to try a "do-it-yourself" journey.

Calauit Island is just off the northwestern tip of Busuanga Island.  On the map, it looks like if you could reach the end of Busuanga you could literally just hop across to Calauit.  The main road from Coron follows the coastline nearly to Calauit.  I took a jeepney from Coron to the town of "Old Busuanga".  It's a rough, dusty route that took nearly three hours.  My map had a couple resorts in the area and a sign led me to one called "Rio Playa".  I was the only guest but the caretakers helped arrange a boat to Calauit for the following day and that evening I took a tour up the Busuanga River in a small pumpboat.

The hired boat arrived early the next morning.  It was a large outrigger that could have easily carried a dozen passengers.  Captain Serrano had his son as a deckhand and three daughters came along for the ride.  The weather was good as we followed the coastline towards Calauit.  From Old Busuanga, the trip was two hours. 

This two-day trip cost nearly $100: $50 for the boat and another $50 for transportation, lodging, food and entrance to Calauit.  The game preserve charged P300 ($6) entry fee and another P300 for the truck tour.  One of the packaged tours from Coron charged $125/person.  I traveled alone.  A group could share some the costs, especially the boat hire.  And instead of staying at a resort, there are lodging houses in the larger town of Salvacion where the boat I hired was from.  Here's the trip in photos.  

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