SASMUAN -- If all goes as planned, the Bangkung Malapad islet area in this coastal town will be declared as a Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area in December.
The declaration will mean that the area needs government protection and funding for further development.
Provincial Environment and Natural Resources (Penro) Pampanga officer Laudemir Salac said they are now working closely with the Municipal Government of Sasmuan to facilitate and comply with the requirements to enable the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to issue the status of critical habitat on Bangkung Malapad.
Under such status, the Bangkung Malapad will be a protected area and enjoy government funding for conservation and development programs.
Salac said they are proposing a co-management arrangement of the area in which the local government will take care of the enterprise aspect while the DENR will monitor all necessary compliance of environmental guidelines for the protected area.
Islet by the bay
Located along Sasmuan town's coastal frontier is an island that locals refer to as Bangkung Malapad (Wide Bench). The area covers the area of around 405.50 hectares of mudflats.
The area was formed from volcanic sediments, which were carried by water currents into the area by the mighty Pasak River, which drains toward Sasmuan.
While the area is technically part of Sasmuan's coastal village of Batang Dos, the island is in fact at the frontier of Pampanga Bay, which forms part of the greater enclosed sea of Manila Bay.
The island is now a focal point of conservation due to the fact that it now hosts some 13 hectares of fully grown mangroves and has been identified as a layover destination for thousands of migratory birds.
The area also serves as temporary home to more than 80 species of migratory birds from winter countries.
With the recent influx of tourists that are attracted to the serene beauty of the area, aside from the seasonal birdwatchers, local officials have realized the island's potential and the urgent need to protect it.
Important wildlife sanctuary
In 2011, Danish ornithologist Arne Jensen recorded the total number of birds sighted in the area to some 30,000 birds during the Asian Waterbird Census for that year. Among those sighted were some 2,750 Great Egrets and some 2, 133 of Redshanks.
There were also 5,300 Marsh sandpipers, 3,000 Golden plovers, 6,668 Black headed gulls, 8,600 Kentish plovers, 30 Caspian terns, 2 Malaysian plovers, two Common shell ducks and other bird species. The following census in 2017 recorded some 15,068 birds in the area.
With the number of bird sightings in past years, Bangkung Malapad has become an integral stopover for migratory birds in the East-Asian Australasian Flyway, one of the world's greatest flyway routes for migratory birds.
This is because Bangkung Malapad's mudflats are ideal feeding grounds for migratory birds as the clay-soaked brackish waters in the area are the natural habitat of arthropods that serve as food for migratory birds, according to Sasmuan tourism officer Jason Salenga.
Salac said the Bangkung Malapad had also the potential to be declared as a Wetland of National Importance in which the where the area could be included in the list of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention).
There are already six areas in the in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. These include Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Mindanao (Ramsar Site No. 1009), Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area or LPPCHEA (Ramsar Site No. 2124), Naujan Lake National Park in Oriental Mindoro (Ramsar Site No. 1008), Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Cebu (Ramsar Site No. 656), Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Ramsar Site No. 2084), and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Ramsar Site No. 1010).
The DENR had built a 300-meter boardwalk leading to the view deck in the area that provides for a picturesque view of the surrounding mangroves and coastlines.
Sasmuan Mayor Nardo Velasco said the town has taken measures to ensure the protection and continuing propagation of mangrove trees in the area.
He added that mangrove forests are among the most productive ecosystems and are especially helpful in coastal areas like Sasmuan where at least five barangays are situated along its bay area.
Coastal communities here have also realized the importance of mangroves when these served as barriers against the storm surges brought by Typhoon "Glenda" (international name: Rammasun), a Category 5 super typhoon, in July 2014. It could have been disaster for the coastal communities in the area if not for the mangroves at Bangkung Malapad.
Mangrove forests serve as breeding grounds for marine life and also help in the balance of marine ecosystems and protection of the coastlines from erosion. These facts are now well understood by residents of the coastal communities of Mabuanbuan, Batang Uno and Sebitanan which are all near Bangkung Malapad.
The sheer number of migratory birds in the area has been drawing birdwatchers each year.
This necessitated the need to provide guided tours in the area. The local government of Sasmuan helps in facilitating such visits with the aim of promoting the area as a tourism destination and to draw support for the conservation initiatives for the island.
The town earns from the tourist visits in the area as it has a share of 20 percent from P20 ecological fees collected from tourists. The share is not much, but this helps in paying for the services of a couple of people who maintain the facility at the island.
The island's proximity to Lubao Bamboo Hub and Ecopark, another eco-tourism destination in Lubao town, also benefits Bangkung Malapad. The six-hectare bamboo hub in Sta. Catalina in Lubao town had registered a total of 37,000 visitors in 2017 alone. Tours to the Bamboo Hub usually encourage a tour of Bangkung Malapad as part of whole tourist package.
Tourists would take a river cruise ride at Ecocreativa Banqueruan Port in Lubao town. The cruise would lead to Bangkung Malapad were visitors can sightsee, plant mangroves and picnic at the island's view deck before proceeding to the Bamboo Hub in Lubao. The area also provides a stunning view of the coastal areas of Orani.
At present, with renewed effort to further promote and conserve the area, more tourists are expected to visit in the coming months.