EuroFilipino Journal Jan-March 2007
Environment
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Compiled by Jun Terra

Cebu's Ice Age carabao

Bubalus cebuensis, a name new to science, is the one that was recently given to the pygmy ancestor of the present-day carabao or water buffalo that stands 6 feet tall and weighs up to a ton. Bubalus cebuensis was only 2.5 feet and weighed a mere 160 kilograms.

Its fossilized bones were found in a cave-like depression in a remote mountain in Cebu 50 years ago in 1958 by mining engineer Michael Armas who was looking for phosphates. He kept the bones, then in 1995, he showed them to a friend, Dr, Hamilcar Intengan, a Philippine-born physician at Chicago’s St. Bernard Hospital who was visiting his family in Cebu. Intengan took the bones to Chicago’s famous Field Museum for identification.

It took Larry Heaney, the Field Museum’s curator of mammals, only 15 minutes to recognise that the bones were those of a mammal and were those of a pygmy and not a baby’s and one which had never been found on Cebu. By examining the pattern of the teeth Heaney, a specialist in Philippine fauna, established that the bones came from a smaller version of a buffalo.

Heaney is a world authority on the biological phenomenon called "island dwarfism" which traces size reduction to limited food supplies. Smaller animals would be more successful breeders under such conditions.

Heaney, lead author Darin Croft of Case Western Reserve University, paleontologist John Flynn of the American Museum of Natural History, and archeologist Angel Bautista of the National Museum of the Philippines, document their findings in the Journal of Mammology.

Heaney dated Bubalus cebuensis to the Pleistocene during the Ice Age, some 100,000 years ago. He said that the Cebu buffalo lived 100,000 years ago when most of the island was covered by tropical savanna, a collection of grassland and scattered trees that formed an ideal habitat. He surmises that it probably disappeared when the Ice Age ended and the savanna disappeared as it got warmer and wetter.

Heaney says the Philippines is a treasure trove of natural history. Of the country’s 200 species of mammals, more than two-thirds are found nowhere else in the world. Only Madagascar has a higher percentage of endemic mammals, he adds.

He is at pains to point out that "The concentration of unique mammal species in the Philippines is among the very highest in the world, but so is the number of threatened species."

The Bubalus cebuensis is one of only two known species of dwarf buffalos that have evolved in the Philippines. The other is Bubalus mindorensis), popularly known as tamaraw, which is 20% bigger and is found on the island of Mindoro. While bubalus cebuensis has been extinct for a long time, bubalus mindorensis is on the verge of extinction due to the destruction of its forest habitat. If the present rate of destruction continues, it might not be long before the tamaraw goes the way of its relative, Bubalus cebuensis and the next generation of Filipinos would know the tamaraw through only photographs and bones preserved in natural history museums.

Biodiesel from coconut

Fuel from coconut? Now, why did it take them this long to even consider this? Haven’t the locals been using coconut oil for lamps and other small energy equipments? Biodiesel from coconut is a Philippine initiative and its research and study for fuel application had been conducted by the Asian Institute of Petroleum Studies (AIPSI) with the support of leading coconut methyl ester manufacturers in the Philippines — Chemrez Inc. and Senbel Fine Chemicals Inc.

It was initially undertaken to provide a long-term, high volume, and sustainable alternative domestic market for coconut oil. To ensure its acceptance, AIPSI funded the first laboratory test conducted in the United States in 2001. The excellent results became the foundation that led to the development of cocodiesel in the country.

Chemrez a Filipino-owned company based in Libis, Quezon City, has begun producing fuels extracted from coconut. According to Chemrez president, Leon Lao, the company now has a capacity to produce 60 million liters a year to cover local demand and even export to other countries. The Philippines is one of the worlds biggest producers of coconut and the many products derived from it. One cannot disagree with Lao when he says that biodiesel extracted from coconut which is cheaper compared to biofuels extracted from grape seeds or corn.

With the issue of global warming on top of the international agenda, the development of biofuels and other "clean" alternative energy sources other than fossil fuels such as oil has come to the forefront. Lao said that the use of biodiesel will help reduce air pollution with lesser smoke emission from vehicles using biofuels.

Chemrez has invested P650-million to construct a biodiesel plant in Quezon City and the firm has allocated P350 million for the acquisition of raw materials and operating expenses. Chemrez wants to increase the production of biodiesel in the coming years to be able to export to France, Germany, The Netherlands and Italy.

The Philippines Senate has approved a biofuels bill that will encourage the research on and production of biofuels.

Chemrez is among the young new and pioneering companies to go headlong into this new industry. Lao says that with the Senate approval of the biofuels bill, the use of biodiesel is expected to increase and help the country save money from the importation of crude oil. With biofuels, the Philippines - a largely agricultural country rich in natural and biological resources – can save money on energy and go green.

Wonder grass

Vetiveria zizaioides L. Nash is the scientific name of a grass species found by scientists of the Farm and Resources Management Institute (FARMI) of the Leyte State University (LSU) in Baybay, Leyte to have properties of controlling soil erosion and rehabilitating poor uplands. Led by Dr. Edwin Balbarino, they came to this conclusion after testing various plants (including grasses) as contour hedgerows in barren and less productive upland farmers’ fields in the Leyte towns of Baybay, Hindang and Matalom.

Popularly known as vetiver, the grass is a densely tufted perennial clump (clustered) grass with long and stiff leaf blades. Its leaf sheaths are closely overlapping, strongly compressed and keeled, creating a dense physical barrier at the ground surface. As the grass grows dense, it forms a thick hedge, making it a strong natural barrier to control soil runoff. It has a strong and dense root system that firmly holds the soil, making them withstand erosion even during heavy rains and intense flooding.

Scientists also noted that the grass is versatile, growing well in both alkaline and acidic upland soils and could survive long periods of drought. Apart from that its sharp leaves and aromatic roots repel snakes, rats, and other pests. Vetiver requires minimal maintenance and does not spread to valleys since it does not multiply by seeds or rhizomes.

From their researches, the LSU-FARMI research team devised the use of the grass as contour hedgerow and came up with the Vetiver Grass Technology (VGT) which they are now promoting. Farmers who were involved in the LSU-FARMI research project, particularly those who have decided to adopt the technology, claimed that with the use of vetiver as hedgerows, their crop production has dramatically increased.

The use of VGT has spread to many parts of the country, not only in upland agriculture but also in road, irrigation, and dam projects to control siltation and stabilize slopes, hillsides, road canals, and embankments.

But guess what. Vetiver is found in many parts of the country and has been traditionally used by rice farmers to strengthen rice paddies and stabilize canal embankments. This only confirms that there is a lot that could be learned from traditional farming practices and that new technologies can be evolved from them for the modern age.

Manta Rays help eco-tourism

Manta rays are numerous in the mid-water reefs of Sitio Tacdogan, Barangay Bagahanglad, off San Jacinto in Masbate. Now known as "manta bowl," the site is the play, feeding and mating area of these giant fish locally called pasa-pasa, which has a wingspan of more than six (6) metres. A relative of the shark species, these plankton feeding fish are themselves a prey to hammerhead and thresher sharks with which they share their habitat.

A study by Tristan Paylado, a researcher of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources reveal that manta rays are naturally friendly and enjoy the company of humans in their water world. They welcome "friendly connection" such as direct eye contact. Some manta rays enjoy the bubbles exhaled by divers on their undersides. They are not bothered by flash photography or video.

However they do not like being disturbed when courting, mating and feeding and do not enjoy being mounted on their backs, in other words, too close a physical contact.

Their presence in this coral reef area, has certainly added a big attraction to divers and other eco-tourists who frequent the site. With the rise in the number of tourists, however, come the threats and disturbances to the feeding and mating activities of the manta rays.

The BFAR cited the need to put up a tourist zone marine reserve to avert the detrimental effects of the growing ecotourism industry on the manta rays. It also recommends putting up a preventive buoy system in Bontod-Tacdogan to regulate fishing activities, stop the use of drift gill nets, and minimize damage to the reef system.

Limiting the number of tourists and divers is also proposed to minimize disturbance. The BFAR says closing of the reef during the mating season is needed to allow for successful mating among the manta rays.