The lush island province of Palawan is a last frontier for conservation in the Philippines. The island boasts half of its original primary forests, some of the oldest and most diverse in Southeast Asia, and was identified in a November 2013 study published in Science, as the world’s fourth most “irreplaceable” area for unique and threatened wildlife. The forests of Palawan remain understudied and are diminishing quickly, however, prompting ASA to help local partners the Center for Sustainability and the last members of the Batak tribe to create, over the next year, Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve, to safeguard over 40,000 hectares of lush forest and dozens of unique species.

The unique blend of endemic species on Palawan can be explained by the fact that the island was once connected to Borneo, resulting in a mix of influences from Sundaland and the Philippine Archipelago. Unique or threatened species include the Philippine Cockatoo (Critically Endangered), Palawan Forest Turtle (Critically Endangered), Palawan Bearcat (Not assessed), Palawan Horned Frog (Endangered), Palawan Toadlet (Endangered) and Philippine Flat-headed Frog (Vulnerable). Approximately eighty-five percent of the long list of Palawan’s endemic mammals and birds can be found around Cleopatra’s Needle and together with the Underground River National Park, this is their last safe haven.

Other species of interest in the area include the Palawan Monitor Lizard, a 7-foot lizard recently described as a separate species, the Palawan birdwing, one of the largest butterflies in the world and only found on Palawan. In total, four Critically Endangered, two Endangered, 17 Vulnerable and 12 Near Threatened species are known from the forests of Cleopatra’s Needle, while many species of reptiles, small mammals, insects and plants have yet to be assessed.

The forests surrounding Cleopatra’s Needle are home to the last 200 members of the Batak tribe. This tribe of hunter-gatherers, the first inhabitants of the Philippines originating in Papua New Guinea, still live in balance with the forest, with their main source of livelihood being the collection of resin, rattan, and honey, which they sell to traders.

The Batak are semi-nomadic and move within the forest from camp to camp to give them better access to the forest resources. As the forest is very important for the resources they rely on, they try to protect it. However, with the decline in forest cover and the influx of outsiders the Batak have difficulty sustaining their livelihoods.

Despite receiving international recognition as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve containing two World Heritage Sites, Palawan remains relatively understudied, and its forests are diminishing as a result of a variety of pressures. Puerto Princesa municipality, in the center of the island, contains 65% forest cover and one National Park: Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. The eastern boundary of the 22,000 hectare National Park follows the most west flank of Cleopatra’s needle, the highest and most pristine peak in northern Palawan. Key habitats, population strongholds of endangered species and the presence of tribal people were not fully included when designating the park boundaries and this has left about 80,000 hectares of forest, including the peak of Cleopatra’s Needle (the source of many rivers that wind through the forests), unprotected.

Commercial logging is banned in Palawan, but other threats to the forest loom large, including illegal logging, charcoal production, conversion for agriculture, mining and unsustainable tourism and related development. Without swift action it is likely that the forest home of the Batak and myriad species would be lost in the coming years and decades.

In order to protect these unique forests in perpetuity, ASA are supporting the creation of Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve in partnership with local group the Center for Sustainability and the Puerto Princesa local government. The project has the full support and involvement of the Batak.

Through the course of 2014 our partners will implement a delineation program to identify and mark the remaining forest and other valuable habitat on and around Cleopatra’s Needle to be included in the Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve and safeguard over 40,000 hectares of prime habitat. An efficient management plan will be created for the proposed reserve, with input from a comprehensive research program and the efficiency of law enforcement in the area will be enhanced by capacity building with existing municipal forest wardens. Sustainable livelihoods will be created for the Batak through ecotourism activities.

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Fast Facts

Location
Palawan Island, Philippines

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Goal
Create new 40,000 Hectare Cleopatra’s Needle Reserve by end of 2014; develop and implement management plan; train and hire patrols to enforce protection

Habitat
Tropical rainforest

Forests of Cleopatra's Needle

Flagship Species
Palawan Horned Frog, Philippine Flat-headed frog, Palawan Toadlet

Other Species
Palawan Bearcat, Palawan Leopardcat, Palawan Forest Turtle, Philippines Cockatoo, Palawan Peacock Pheasant

Threats
Illegal logging, land grabbing and poaching

Local Partner
Center for Sustainability, Puerto Princesa Government

CS

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