The mysterious Agusan Marsh-A A +A
Monday, February 25, 2013
AGUSAN Marsh is again in the news as its former “resident,” the one-ton crocodile – named Lolong—was declared dead a few hours after flipping over with a bloated stomach in a pond at an eco-tourism park in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur.
Last year, the Guinness Book of World Records proclaimed Lolong as the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity, measuring 6.17 meters (20.24 feet). The reptile dislodged Australian crocodile named Cassius that measured 5.48 meters (17.98 feet) from the top spot.
Lolong – named after the man who led the hunt – was captured in one of the creeks of Agusan Marsh on September 3, 2011. Two months later, Australian crocodile expert Dr. Adam Britton of “National Geographic” came and sedated then measured Lolong in his enclosure.
Actually, I had been to Agusan Marsh once. And that was the time when the news of a girl eaten by a crocodile which, according to some reports, was Lolong. Rowena Romano and her cousin Jennifer Daga-as were reportedly rowing their wooden “banca” (outrigger) home in Lake Mihaba – one of the 56 lakes of Agusan Marsh – when the crocodile suddenly attacked them.
News accounts said the crocodile bumped the “banca,” causing it to capsize, and caught the 12-year-old Romano by the head, before bringing her down into the water. A fisherman, who was following the two young girls, rescued the other girl.
“When I was a kid accompanying my parents, the crocodiles then were even afraid by the mere sound of human voice and engines of motorboats,” Manobo tribal leader Bae Ligaya Daga-as told newsmen who visited the area after the incident. “Now, they are not afraid anymore.”
Now going back to the trip. When Sonny Dizon asked me if I wanted to join the group in a nature trip going to Agusan Marsh, I had a second thought. But then, he is the chief executive officer of Davao Crocodile Park, and so I decided to come along.
After more than four hours of travel from Davao City to Agusan del Sur, we finally arrived at the town of Bunawan, the starting point our trip to Agusan Marsh. Rey O. Calderon, president of the people’s organization that monitors some parts of the marsh, welcomed us and provided us some necessary information.
“There are several lakes found in Agusan Marsh,” Calderon told us. “But we will be going to the most nearest lake – Lake Mihaba.” Hearing those words made my spine tingling. “What if the killer crocodile attacks us?” I thought.
The perilous boat trip following the chocolate-laden Cebulao River (which seems not flowing at all) to Agusan Marsh took us about one hour and forty-five minutes. The voyage may be boring but I tried to marvel at the floating houses built along the riverbanks and alluvial junctions. It was also on this trip that I got a closer glimpse of the first hoard of exotic and migratory birds gracefully flapping their wings as they transferred from one tree to another in search for their food.
Hours passed and we finally arrived at Lake Mihaba. There, I met people living on top of the waters. There were children who looked at us while we entered the school. We also had the opportunity of seeing the “banca,” which Rowena had ridden.
Agusan Marsh is said to be similar to the Everglades of Florida. It “acts like a sponge,” to quote the words of the 106 scientists who attended a consultative meeting held in Butuan City some decades ago. It buffers “downstream towns and cities from devastating floods.” This wetland soaks up excess water from a yearly rainfall of four meters plus nine rivers that slice through the provinces of Agusan del Sur, Agusan del Norte and Compostela Valley.
The marshland, which covers an area of 14,835.989 hectares, was declared as a protected area by the former President Fidel V. Ramos. The area harbors unique and pristine habitats like the sago and “peat swamp forest.”
In Lake Mihaba, you get to see several square kilometers of lily pads, hyacinths and other aquatic plants spread out like an enormous green quilt. The dark tea-colored waters are home to untold numbers of catfish, carp, soft-shell fresh water turtles called “dinata,” and sailfin lizard.
According to those I talked with, the water rises during the rainy season to create large lakes. It is during this time that vast numbers of ducks come to Agusan Marsh to nest.
My source said the wetland also serves as the refuge of the rare Oriental darter (“Anhinga melanogaster”), purple swamp hen (“Porphyrio porphyria”) and the threatened Philippine hawk eagle, spotted imperial pigeon and rufous-lored kingfisher.
In the dry months, thousands of birds come from as far as Japan, China and Russia to escape the chilly winter winds of Northern Asia. Over 200 individual species have been known to spend at least part of the year in the marsh, making it one of Asia’s most important transit points for wild birds.
More importantly, Agusan Marsh harbors the most diverse assemblage of reptiles and amphibians and supports the largest remaining population of the estuarine crocodile (“Crocodylus porosus”) and the endangered Philippine crocodile (“C. mindorensis”).
The United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared some 42,000 hectares of the marshlands as a “world heritage center” due to “its floral and faunal diversity with seven habitat types.”
As the protected area is so huge, we were not surprised to see several floating communities within its lakes. Most of those who have made their permanent homes deep within the marsh, living on floating homes, are mostly ethnic Manobos. The small houses made of bamboo and nipa lashed to hard wood logs, freely rise or fall with the level of the marsh itself.
By the way, have I told you that Agusan Marsh is one of the largest and the most contained freshwater catch basin wetland in the Philippines? It stores more than 15 percent of the fresh water resources in the country.
Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on February 26, 2013.