The Busa Mountain Range (BMR) straddles the provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato in southern Mindanao.

According to Kier Mitchel E. Pitogo, resident wildlife biologist and Project Development Officer of the PASu AVPL, “it is one of the last remaining primary forests in the region.”

A primary forest is a forest whose ecology hasn’t been disturbed by human activity and thus, contains flora and fauna native to the region.

Pitologo recently assisted Aljohn Jay Saavedra, resident botanist and Forest Extension Officer of the Protected Area Superintendent office of the Allah Valley Protected Landscape (PASu AVPL) in DENR-PENRO South Cotabato, in a research expedition to catalogue amphibian and reptile species in the area. They encountered so many orchid species during this time that they also ended up publishing another paper called “Richness and Distribution of Orchids (Orchidaceae) in the Forests of Mount Busa, Sarangani, Southern Mindanao, Philippines” in the Philippine Journal of Science Special Issue on Biodiversity.

READ: 108 orchid species found on Mt. Busa, southern Mindanao

Both scientists were hired by the PASu AVPL [Office of the Protected Area Superintendent of the Allah Valley Protected Landscape] of PENRO [Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office] South Cotabato to work on the Protected Area Suitability Assessment of the Allah Valley Watershed Forest Reserve. The results of the study will be “used to support the proclamation of the AVWFR as a Protected Landscape.”

Protected on one side, not so protected on the other

While Mt. Busa is protected on its South Cotabato side by virtue of being under the  National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) as well as within the protection zone of the Allah Valley Protected Landscape, which is still under proposal, its Sarangani side is not.

Aljohn Jay L. Saavedra exploring Mt. Busa

Saavedra adds, however, that “the southern slope of the BMR in Sarangani was declared as a Local Conservation Area by the Provincial Government of Sarangani in 2020.”

He states, however, that this is not enough to help preserve the area in the long run. “Although this designation helps for the time being, we found it insufficient in the long-term considering the naturalness, irreplaceability, uniqueness, and vulnerability of its biodiversity that is needing a lot of resources the PLGU [provincial local government unit] might not have in the long-term. Thus, a stronger level of protection- under national law- is most suitable should we want to maintain what’s left of this mountain range.”

Needless to say, conservation efforts would be easier to coordinate if the whole BMR were under protection. “The designation as PA [protected area] would mean more conservation, scientific, and public attention to the BMR, which hosts one of the last remaining intact primary forest areas in southern Mindanao and home to the critically endangered Philippine eagle and other endemic and threatened wildlife,” Saavedra says.

The dangers of human activity

Time is of the essence in declaring the area a protected zone, especially when curbing human activity is concerned. As Saavedra notes, “Several small-scale threats are present in the BMR but may have irreversible effects if left unabated and unregulated.”

He cites two agricultural practices as an example, discussing their traditional roots versus the amount of irreversible damage they have the potential to wreak on the mountain range. “For instance, the kaingin practice or slash-and-burn agriculture is a pressing threat to the BMR,” he says. “While we acknowledge that this has been the traditional practice for generations, the practice of kaingin would result in fragmentation and further degradation of the forest habitat, which displaces many native and endemic wildlife, extirpating species that have a low tolerance to disturbance such as orchids. Forest thinning for abaca farming is also widely practiced in the BMR.”

According to Saavedra, “The PASu AVPL office is now working for this proclamation, which includes the northern slope of the BMR inside the Strict Protection Zone.”

Conservation efforts

There are conservation efforts in BMR’s southern side as well.  “On the southern slope, several stakeholders are working together to push for its inclusion into the NIPAS. This would cover the whole southern slope of the BMR under the Municipalities of Maasim, Kiamba, and Maitum in Sarangani Province,” he adds.

Kier Mitchel E. Pitogo doing research in Mt. Busa

The scientists have allowed their papers to be used as part of the documentation to help secure the area as protected. “We were able to provide our biodiversity data to this group for their perusal, which should help support their efforts for the protection of the BMR. We are so happy that we are on this stage where we get to see that our biodiversity data, the results of our hard work and perseverance, is being used on its intended purpose,” Saavedra says.

One does not have to be a scientist or conservationist to be concerned or get involved in BMR’s study and conservation. Saavedra offers some tips for citizens to get involved.

“I think the first step is to be aware. As the saying goes, ‘we cannot protect what we don’t know.’ I believe that the public’s indifference to biodiversity is caused by the lack of awareness. So knowing our local wildlife and biodiversity helps us know the problems and possible solutions. It helps us engage in the discussions. And in the process, it helps us develop a positive attitude and behavior towards biodiversity,” he says. I acknowledge that we have different interests and views about biodiversity, but when we know what we are conserving and what’s at stake then I believe that in our own simple ways, we can do something to protect it.”

Photos courtesy of Aljohn Jay Saavedra