By David Quimpo
Wildlife surveys in the Philippines often require assistance from local communities. They help researchers by being guides, supplying porters, and providing information about species and their habitat.
Men in these local communities are the ones who often serve as the guides since they are more familiar with the forest. That familiarity comes from their frequent visits when they collect wood, hunt, or simply roam in the forests. Researchers also generally prefer male assistants because of their capability to carry loads of survey supplies and equipment along with their bush craft skills and experience with difficult situations.
As a wildlife researcher, it was normal for me to be assisted and accompanied by men whenever I go on a field survey. Except for the time when our team was looking for people who have knowledge about the Dulungan nests in Aklan.
We were looking for nest trees to study the Dulungan’s nest preferences and the tree species they use for breeding in Brgy. Panipiason, which covers most of the forests in Madalag and is within the Aklan River Watershed Reserve. It is home to the Aklanon-Bukidnon Tribe, as well as the critically endangered Dulungan.
Before going to the site, I contacted the barangay captain to ask for help in looking for guides who are familiar with the area and possible Dulungan nesting sites. Most of the men were already in their upland farms to collect Abaca fiber at the time, but the barangay captain assured me that he could find someone once we were at the site.
It was difficult to find a guide, either because they were unavailable or they don’t know where the nesting area was. I decided to just look for porters, go to the forest, and hope that we’re lucky enough to find the nests. My prayers were answered that late afternoon while I was at the barangay captain’s house.
An old lady, perhaps in her 60s and went by the name Nanay Gina, came by and told me she wanted to go with me to the forest. I was hesitant, but who wouldn’t be when you’re not used to having an old woman as a guide? “She’ll just be a burden to the team,” I thought at the time.
But she said something that changed my mind, “I know a nest. Probably around five hours of walking from here in an upong-upong tree.” She added that there were many holes in that tree and that the biggest one belongs to a Dulungan.
Even though it’s been a few years since the last time she was there, Nanay Gina was certain that the nest was still there and insisted on helping us. Despite the possible risk of bringing her along, I took her offer. I reckoned it is better than wandering the forest with no idea of where to go.
We began our journey the next day. When we met up, Nanay Gina smiled at me and said, “Five hours lang, sir (It’s just five hours, sir).” Off we went and after several hours of going up and down the forest paths, we stopped to take a break.
Nanay Gina took my empty water bottle and filled it up in a nearby stream. She told me to drink a lot because we were just halfway through our journey. I was surprised since she said it would only take us five hours.
“It’s because you’re too slow,” Nanay Gina teased, making us laugh. While we were resting, she said there used to be an abundance of Dulungan in that forest and that you can even find them flying around near the village. But people started hunting them for food, which pushed the species to live far from the people.
We continued our walk and arrived at our camp sometime later. For our food, we usually cook whatever we have in our supplies but Nanay Gina made our meals better. She went around and found additional ingredients like mushrooms and leaves that made our food special.
Nanay Gina clearly knows a lot of things in the forest; which plants are edible, the various bird species, the fruits they eat, and the different kinds of trees around us. Her knowledge came from when they used to stay in the forests for weeks and even months. She said the forest just provides for them, and it’s true as the forest provides free food and fresh water.
We set off to find the Dulungan nest the following day. After nearly an hour of looking around, we found the upong-upong tree standing tall at around 15 meters and bearing many holes on its sides.
Our team looked for signs if the nest is active and found that the main hole has a slight cover as well as some fresh droppings. We were certain the nest was still being used, and so we waited for the bird to return to confirm if it really was a Dulungan’s nest.
A male Dulungan arrived shortly after we hid ourselves, just so we wouldn’t disturb the nest, bringing food for his family. After the bird went away again to find more food, we came out from our hiding spot and quickly took the measurements for the nest tree profiling.
The survey was a success, but we still seem to have luck on our side as we stumble upon another nest tree on our way back to the camp. Luck only played a small role though, as it was all because of Nanay Gina that we were able to carry out our task.
We still have a few more days to finish our survey but it would have to be done without Nanay Gina’s help. Seeing that her purpose was already served, Nanay Gina told us that she had to go back to her farm to harvest root crops for her family back in the village. And so we bid our goodbyes and gave our gratitude.
In all my years in wildlife research, that field experience with Nanay Gina will always be an exceptional memory. Women’s special capabilities and knowledge are unfortunately sometimes neglected and forgotten in our field of work. But while men are perceived to be physically strong and equally capable, women have their own strengths and experiences as well.
A society with a majority rule by men leads to women being left behind, forgetting who they are and what they are capable of. But when it comes to conservation, women leaders are beginning to gain the attention they deserve and just like Nanay Gina, women should be empowered, engaged and elevated.