TO ENSURE that the ecotourism activity in the southern town of Oslob is sustainable, the US Government has taken steps to help improve the whale shark-watching and feeding experience for both the tourists and the local fishermen operating the tours.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is also assisting the Provincial Government in stopping wildlife trafficking in Cebu, which is a known transshipment point for different wildlife species.

Joe Foltz, deputy chief of USAID’s Office of Environment, Energy and Climate Change, said they are discussing the whale shark-watching activities in Oslob with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) Biodiversity Management Bureau in Manila. Technical assistance is being provided to find ways to make the activity more ecologically sound and sustainable.

Continued debate

“There are opportunities to look at the way tourism is done there with regards to interaction with the whale sharks that would be more ecologically consistent with the best practice in ecotourism… We’re also looking at the ecological impact of having that high volume of tourists there,” Foltz said during the US Embassy’s seminar on marine conservation for the regional media last Thursday.

The seminar was held in Coron, Palawan, where the USAID has several marine conservation projects.

Barangay Tanawan in Oslob has become a popular destination for local and foreign tourists for the whale shark-watching and feeding experience, despite the environmentalists’ calls to stop it.

Conservation groups have argued that feeding and touching whale sharks alter their behavior.

The debate on whether the tourism activity should continue prompted the US Embassy to discuss the matter with DENR and to look at the ecological impact of the activity and the benefits to the local community, particularly the fishermen who run the whale shark-watching tours.

Models, practices

“We want to provide as much information to have the best possible outcome. We recognize that there are people’s livelihoods at stake but there’s also an ecological role… It’s an ongoing conversation with DENR,” Foltz said.

He said they are studying other sustainable ecotourism models and best practices in other parts of the country and the world so they can recommend what can be replicated in Oslob.

Among the areas they are looking at is how to maximize the revenues generated from the tourism activity, such as segmentation pricing, where tourists are charged different rates, depending on what they want to do there.

Foltz said, though, that it’s up to the Oslob Municipal Government and the Provincial Government to decide whether they would change anything in Oslob’s tourism activity.

For his part, national scientist and biologist Dr. Angel Alcala said that whale sharks should not be fed as this exposes them to risks of being killed when they reach other places and encounter people who do not give them food.

“From the point of view of a marine biologist, it is not good to feed whale sharks… but the second idea is it’s good for the people because they are also getting money. Whale-watching is okay but feeding probably is not fully justified,” he said in an interview after the seminar.

Talks

Meanwhile, the US Embassy has also initiated talks between Cebu Gov. Hilario Davide III and Tawi-Tawi Gov. Nurbert Sahali regarding the prevention of wildlife trafficking.

Cebu, Foltz said, has been used as a transshipment point for different wildlife species.

Last month, Foltz and Sahali were in Cebu to discuss with Davide the enforcement of laws on wildlife trafficking and coordination with agencies in apprehending violators.

They received reports that shells, corals and wildlife smuggled in Cebu are from Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

“We just played the convenient role of starting the talks on the issue. Part of it was about enforcement and ways to cooperate in enforcing the law… What is actually done in Cebu, whether wildlife species are processed here or how it’s managed from there, is an enforcement and management issue for the Provincial Government and the national law enforcement agencies to deal with,” Foltz said.

Last year, Capitol’s environment task force rescued several Philippine hawk eagles, umbrella cuckatoos and other endemic or endangered bird species from vendors of caged birds in Talisay City.

The same unit also seized banned thresher shark meat and rare Triton and Helmet shells from smugglers last year.