GROWING up in a family of hunters, Pedro Villarte spent part of his youth catching, for leisure, wild animals that roamed the forests of Alcoy, Cebu.
Young Pedro’s favorite catch was the hawk owl. While he didn’t hunt for food, Pedro admitted feeling an adrenaline rush every time he left the house right after sunset or just before daylight broke to catch the nocturnal creature.
But it wasn’t until Pedro left his hometown for the city that he realized the value of preserving nature and how oblivious his young self was to how his hunting activities have disrupted the forest.
“Adto gyud ko nakarealize nga dili gyud diay to maayo. Mao nga nakadesisyon ko nga tabangan nako mabalik ug ampingan ang kinaiyahan (I realized what I did wasn’t good and decided to give back and help care for the environment),” Pedro said.
Years later, the boy who used to hunt now works as a forest warden, keeping watch on some 1.6 hectares of natural forest in his hometown to protect the animals he once hunted for fun.
The 46-year-old Pedro still leaves home at ungodly hours to visit the forest and call out the hawk owls that rest atop trees, only this time, it’s not to lull them into a trap, but to let visitors marvel at the bird he once took for granted.
Bird ecologists had revealed back in 2012 that the hawk owls, which are endemic in Cebu, were on the verge of extinction, given the massive deforestation in the province.
In Alcoy, about 200 hawk owls live in the dense forest, which is now conserved by the local municipal government.
Widely known as monogamous creatures, each pair of owls occupies an estimated territory of 800 square meters. Since they feed on smaller animals such as rats, insects and snakes, the birds play an important role in keeping the balance in the ecosystem.
Aside from the owl, hundreds of other endemic bird species like the Cebu flowerpecker, Cebu white-eared brown dove (alimukon) and the Cebu black shama (siloy) have been living in separate parts of the natural forest in Alcoy.
Early mornings in the forest are filled with a symphony of tweeting birds feeding on the array of small fruits, flower buds and wild strawberries that are also endemic in the area.
As a measure to protect and, at the same time, let others enjoy the beauty of the birds, the Alcoy Municipal Government in partnership with the Cebu Provincial Government is set to open a natural park in the mountain Barangay of Nug-as, which will include bird-watching activities.
The park, which is a 20-kilometer drive from the local municipal hall, is scheduled to open two months from now.
In an interview, Alcoy Mayor Michael Angelo Sestoso admitted that while they still have yet to fully implement legislation to protect the endemic birds, he is happy that the locals are taking the initiative to protect the forest by volunteering as wardens.
“It would be a challenge, but if the locals themselves care for the environment, I’m sure those who wish to see the animals will feel that this is everyone’s responsibility as well,” he said.
Cebu Province, for its part, is working on developing the natural park to serve as one of the top five ecotourism spots in the province. Joselito Costas, tourism and heritage council head, said the Provincial Government is working on promoting biodiversity through conservation and tourism.
The local government is developing the park so that it can cater to campers who wish to spend the night watching the hawk owls and witness the shamas, alimukons and flowerpeckers during the day.
“Tourism is one of Cebu’s major sources of livelihood so we are seizing the opportunity,” Costas said.