Press Release
March 8, 2021

Privilege Speech of Senator Cynthia Villar on Wildlife Protection
March 9, 2021

Mr. President, my dear colleagues, I rise on a matter of personal and collective privilege.

Last week, on March 3, World Wildlife Day was celebrated. It was designated as such in 1973 during the Sixty-sixth Session of the United Nations General Assembly in commemoration of the adoption of CITES or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The theme of this year's celebration was "Forests and Livelihood: Sustaining People and Planet". It focuses on the links between the state of our planet's forests and woodlands and the preservation of the millions of livelihoods that depend directly on them, highlighting the traditional knowledge of the communities including or particularly indigenous people. Very relevant during these times as well for our country.

This representation, as all of you here, of course support the conservation of wildlife, which is the all-encompassing goal of the World Wildlife Day. Among the efforts I have exerted as a legislator and environmentalist myself, is pursuing the conservation and protection of places such as rivers and wetlands, which are critical habitats of various species, many of which are threatened by human development and what we call progress.

What makes the issue even more important to our country is the fact that the Philippines is one of the world's 17 megadiverse or biodiversity-rich countries, which hosts two-thirds of the Earth's biodiversity and contain about 70 to 80 percent of the world's plant and animal species.

We need to not only create awareness about biological diversity, but to take action about its protection because any damage or loss will cost too much for a country such as ours. There is so much at stake and we become vulnerable to the adverse side effects if we do not commit to taking care of our environment. We need to be more vigilant against biodiversity loss, wildlife protection, conservation of their habitats and related issues or concerns.

The Philippines is biodiversity-rich but is also among the world's biodiversity hotspots or those areas experiencing high rates of habitat loss. Hotspots have lost around 86 percent of their original habitat and are also considered to be significantly threatened by extinctions induced by climate change. Many areas in the country remain under-protected, these include wetlands, marine sanctuaries, tropical forests among others.

That is why, I also pursued the amendment of Republic Act (RA) 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act which was passed into law in 1992. The Act provides the legal framework for the establishment and management of protected areas in the country. NIPAS refers to the classification and administration of all designated protected areas to preserve genetic diversity and to maintain their natural conditions to the greatest extent possible. We successfully passed RA No. 11038 or the Expanded NIPAS Act or E-NIPAS in 2018 to include more areas.

Under the operation of the original NIPAS law, 13 sites were individually legislated as protected areas. The expanded NIPAS law facilitated the legislation of 94 more protected areas, bringing the country's total legislated protected areas to 107. Eleven (11) of these PAs are internationally recognized. Eight are ASEAN Heritage Sites, namely the Mt. Apo, Mt. Kitanglad, Mt. Malindang, Mt. Hamiguitan, Mt.Timpoong-Hibok-Hibok, Mt.Iglit-Baco, the Tubbatah Reefs and the Agusan Marsh. Four (4) of these PAs are Ramsar sites, namely:Agusan Marsh and Tubbataha Reefs (earlier also cited to be part of ASEAN Heritage sites),Olango Island,and Las Pinas Paranaque Wetland Park (formerly the LPPCHEA). Also, the protected area Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary is part of the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area, which is a transboundary protected area shared by Malaysia and thePhilippines.

The more natural habitats we protect, the lesser the loss in biodiversity and the better it is for wildlife and of course people, to survive and thrive. Our population, particularly rural and indigenous people, depend on natural resources for food and income. That is relevant also to the theme of this year's World Wildlife Day. The United Nations itself cited that over 800 million people live in tropical forests and woodlands in developing countries. Indigenous and local communities, who are also considered as "historic custodians of the planet's most important reservoirs of biodiversity", rely on them for their essential needs from food and shelter to medicines among others.

The various conservationists and environmentalists who joined the celebration of World Wildlife Day on March 3 emphasized the livelihood aspect of this year's theme ("Forests and Livelihood: Sustaining People and Planet"). We share the habitat of wildlife, thus we are both sustained by them, too. Destruction of those habitats translate to loss of livelihood and economic opportunities for people. That was one of the points I cited when years ago I stood here before you also defending the destruction from a planned reclamation of a critical habitat in my home city of Las Pinas--LPPCHEA or the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area what we know call the Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park. It threatened to disrupt the livelihood of thousands fisherfolks and urban poor who depend on the wetland for their daily sustenance.

Back then, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), cited a study conducted by the National Fisheries Development Institute that cited LPPCHEA as a "hotspot for spawning is in the Eastern part of Manila Bay and the volume of (fish) eggs laid is the highest in that area. Ayon mismo sa mga mangingisda at mga fisherfolks groups, napakaraming yamang-tubig ang kanilang naha-harvest sa LPPCHEA. Ilan sa mga ito ay mga tilapia, tahong, hipon, alimango, alimasag, talangka, kanduli, dalagang bukid, banak, halaan, tulya, gulaman (sea weeds), salinyasi at iba pa. Ang mga ito ay bumubuo sa suplay ng isda sa Cavite at Southern Metro Manila at iba pang yamang tubig sa buong CaMaNaVa region (Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas and Valenzuela City) at pati na rin sa Bulacan. Kung nagkataon, hindi lang mga mangingisda ang apektado, pati na rin ang mga tao sa mga nabanggit na lugar dahil maaari itong magdulot ng shortage of fish or seafood supply. I just wanted to cite that as an example of the link between livelihood and natural habitats.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources - Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB), which is the CITES Management Authority of the Philippines for terrestrial species, implements a program that deals with the conservation and protection of wildlife, and/or maintenance, restoration, and enhancement of their habitats pursuant to RA 9147. Priority activities under this program are the following: Sustainable wildlife resource use; management of invasive alien species (IAS); and Enforcement of wildlife laws, rules and regulations which include the operations/mobilization of Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Units (WTMUs); deputation and mobilization of Wildlife Enforcement Officers (WEOs); operations and maintenance of Wildlife Rescue Centers (WRCs); establishment and management of Critical Habitats; and conservation of threatened wildlife species such as, but not limited to, the marine turtle, dugong, tamaraw, Philippine eagle, freshwater and saltwater crocodiles, tarsier, Philippine cockatoo, and the Visayan spotted deer. DENR-BMB sees the need for stricter laws on wildlife conservation and protection

Last week, Mr. President, in time for the observance of World Wildlife Day, I have filed Senate Bill No. 2078 or the "Revised Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act of 2021". This bill seeks to strengthen the wildlife conservation and protection mechanism in our country by amending the 20-year-old RA No. 9147.

The Philippines joined and ratified the CITES in 1981 and as such, the Philippine government has the obligation, among others, to adopt its own national laws applying the provisions of the CITES, such as prohibiting the trade of wildlife in violation of the convention, imposing penalties for violations, and confiscating illegally traded specimens. All of which are under Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act that was passed into law in 2001.

RA No. 9147 is as a measure that provided the necessary environmental policy enabling Philippine government to manage and conserve the wildlife resources of the country comprehensively. RA 9147 included a list of illegal acts that are considered detrimental to wildlife with corresponding penalties, such as imprisonment or fines, or both, that are intended to serve as deterrent for violative acts against wildlife and their habitats

In fairness, since its implementation of RA 9147, the Philippine enforcement authorities were able to apprehend perpetrators of wildlife offenses. The more recent ones reported in the news include: the seizure of 447 exotic animals in Mati City, Davao Oriental, valued at PHP 50 million in April 2019; the seizure in March 2019 of 1,529 live exotic turtles inside an abandoned luggage at the NAIA Terminal 2; and in July 2018, a truckload of banned wildlife meat, composed of 21 frozen pangolins and 16 sea turtles was confiscated at a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) checkpoint in Puerto Princesa.

But admittedly while there were successful arrests of wildlife violators and confiscation of wildlife specimens over the years, there are many other violations that remain rampant and even undetected. Furthermore,the incidence of wildlife crimes has evolved and grown, violators have become more equipped, organized, and syndicated or with international connections.Likewise, the trade and transport of wildlife species have become wide-scale and transnational in nature. Thus, we need to give more "teeth" so to speak to existing policies and laws to further empower enforcement authorities to apprehend violators. And that's what Senate Bill 2078 seeks to provide--to fortify the mechanisms in place to afford better protection to our wildlife resources.

The need to protect our wildlife resources finds critical relevance now as we continue to battle the ill-effects of the COVID-19 virus. We have gathered that there were researches indicating that the constant exploitation of wild fauna and their habitats, mostly through human actions, had the effect of raising the risk of zoonotic disease transmission (or the transmission of disease from animal to human). For instance, when human destroy the natural habitats of wild animals, the latter may be constrained to transfer to locations where humans live. Destruction of natural habitats has been linked to the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola, HIV, swine fever and avian flu. More than two thirds of these diseases originate in animals, and about 70% come from wild animals, or what is referred to as zoonotic diseases.

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, habitat loss forces animals to move to areas populated by people, who become exposed to the pathogens of animals that in turn spread viruses. Scientist cited as example the Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia in the late 1990s. Deforestation drove fruit bats to transfer from their natural habitat to trees in pig farms. The pigs came into contact with bat droppings and became infected. The pigs then infected farmers.

Another example is the hunting of wild animals and eating them afterwards. And third, the interaction of humans and wild animals is greatly increased in cases of illegal wildlife trade. There were studies suggesting that COVID-19 virus may have originated from bats and that the first people infected were traders in bat meat, who may have subsequently visited the Huanan seafood market, where the virus spread was first traced.

Mr. QU Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization or FAO cited that: "The growing demand for wildmeat, especially in urban settings, is increasing humans' exposure to zoonotic diseases and hunting pressure in forests. Wildmeat is an essential source of food for millions of indigenous and rural people, accounting for more than 50 percent of protein intake in many tropical and subtropical regions. But unless hunting and consumption are conducted in a sustainable manner, that supply will gradually diminish, with serious implications for food security. Already, recent studies estimate that 285 mammal species are threatened with extinction due to hunting for wildmeat."

Indeed, illegal wildlife trade and unsustainable hunting and consumption are just two of the main threats and challenges that confront wildlife protection all over the world. Many countries have in fact tightened their own policies and laws to protect and save their own wildlife, from extinction and other threats. Most of their efforts and actions have been successful and effective in fact.

The Philippines, a mega-diverse or biodiversity-rich, should be leading the way or the most proactive and vigilant in the area of conservation and protection. Our wildlife protection law is over two decades old and as such, needs to be amended and revised to be more attuned to the needs and challenges of the present times. As I cited earlier, there is so much at stake for a country such as ours and we run the risks of irreparable damages, consequences and losses. Our concerted and timely actions will save not only wildlife, but our lives too, because we share one home, one planet.

As legislators, the best we can do is to pass relevant and proactive laws as well as to keep on reviewing or assessing the relevance of existing laws such as Republic Act No. 9147 or "Wildlife Resources Conservation And Protection Act Of 2001". As this representation has done, the amendments to which are proposed on Senate Bill 2078. The proposed bill will provide timely or relevant amendments to RA 9147. These include the following, among others:

  • It recognizes the jurisdiction of Palawan Council for sustainable Development (PCSD) and the Bangsamoro Government over wildlife species in their respective territories;

  • It addresses the crime of "wildlife trafficking" by providing its definition and commensurate penalties, and other strategies to deter the devious schemes of wildlife syndicates that are large-scale and transnational;

  • It provides the definition of "wildlife laundering", considers it illegal with and assigns a corresponding penalty for its commission;

  • It includes control and management mechanism for invasive alien species, that threatens the survival of our local plants and animals;

  • It provides guidelines on the collection, possession and transport of wildlife, its by-products and derivatives;

  • It provides increase in the penalties (imprisonment and/or fines) for illegal acts to serve as deterrent for the commission of wildlife crimes; and

  • Provisions on the applicability of the disputable presumption that wildlife offenses have been committed.

As in any environmental issue, problem, concern or goal, our concerted efforts are crucial. It is good that people, now more than ever, are realizing that progress need not be at the expense of the environment and those who inhabit it. That is really worth emphasizing. We owe it to the future generation. It part of our duty to leave this world better than we found it. Let us make sure that the future generations will still see real wildlife or animal species, not just in pictures, because the rate of extinction and decline in their population is really alarming.

My guiding philosophy in carrying out my environment advocacies is a Native American proverb that says: "We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children". Protecting this planet we call home in the best of our capacity is a legacy that we can and we should all leave behind. That truly matters more than anything else. Thank you Mr. Senate President and dear colleagues.

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