Philippines – Northern Sierra Madre Mountain Range

Loading
Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit
The Philippines is one of the world’s most diverse countries due to its exceptional concentration of endemic species. Unfortunately it is also able to claim one of the world’s highest threats to endemism from habitat loss. Irrespective of legislation, illegal logging continues to threaten biodiversity. A haven for this rich biodiversity is the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. Still retaining primary forest and home to much of the endemic genera, this range is a key biodiversity corridor in the northern reaches of the Philippines.  Stretching across the eastern side of the Northern Island, Luzon, it encompasses a large number of protected areas. The largest of which is the Northern Sierra Madre National Park (NSMNP). Connecting to the north of the NSMNP is the Peñablanca Protected Landscape and Seascape (PPLS), forming a large expanse of protected rainforest. Within each resides communities of Indigenous people, including the Agta, Itawes, Ibanags, Ilocano, Tagalog Pampanguenos and Visaya, concentrated primarily around the narrow coastal strip.

Study site in the Northern Sierra Madre National Park
Study site in the Northern Sierra Madre National Park

Found dwelling within this Mountain range is a large, colourful and enigmatic monitor lizard. Unusual in its diet for monitor lizards as it is known to feed on fruits of the forest. Although locally known to the indigenous communities this lizard had managed to elude the scientific world and was only identified as a new species in 2010. Known locally as either the ‘batikaw’ or ‘bitatawa’ this new lizard was christened with the scientific name Varanus bitatawa. Spending most of its time within the dense branches of the rainforest canopy and avoiding any contact with its human predators the batikaw does not make itself an easy animal to study. So the challenge was set. What exactly does the batikaw eat? Which trees in this vastly diverse rainforest does it depend upon? Where and how does the batikaw move through its habitat?

Wild Varanus bitatawa, Sierra Madre Mountain Range, Philippines
Wild Varanus bitatawa, Sierra Madre Mountain Range, Philippines

Over four months, in collaboration with the conservation organization Mabuwaya, I embarked on an adventure to answer some of these questions. Using a simple technique developed and recommended by monitor lizard expert Dr. Daniel Bennett, a series of cotton reels were attached to the tail of a batikaw and the ensuing thread trail left behind followed. One may now begin to ask, how do you catch such an elusive lizard to attach the cotton reel? The answer: the Agta. Indigenous people who are completely at home in what often seems an inhospitable environment. Ordinarily my guide Escobar would capture the batikaw as a delicacy for himself, his wife and his two growing boys. Using his trusty dog to pick up the scent of the lizard and then, without a second of hesitation, to climb nimbly up the tree identified as harbouring the target. Such trees were often over 30m high, yet there was no stopping Escobar scaling these trees using only his bare hands and feet. On such occasions the lizard was spared from the dinner plate. Instead, quickly and carefully cotton reels were fixed and the lizard released to be on its way.

Spot Escobar searching for the Batikaw
Spot Escobar searching for the Batikaw

With a keen eye to follow the thread, and perseverance scrambling on the forest floor through dense vegetation and down precarious landslides, the hidden life of the batikaw began to become apparent. The fruits it fed on, the large dipterocarp trees it would bask in, the unusual straight line motion from tree to tree, its movement through the canopy and ability to jump from high distances to the ground. This study provided just a glimpse into the life of one of the forests most remarkable creatures.

Sierra Madre Mountain range from the coast