WE WERE standing along a short stretch of highway in Subic, Zambales when the first bats flew across the darkening sky.
Acerodon jubatus, the giant flying fox, known locally as bayakan, and its close cousin pteropus vampyrus, the golden crown flying fox, distinguishable in the daylight by their reddish breasts: the largest bats in the world and native to the 10,000-hectare lowland forest in Subic.
They were bigger than I thought they would be, each wing spanning a meter or more, and surprisingly graceful, compared with the frantic flitting about of the urban bats I was used to. Soon they were followed by more bats. Within a few minutes, the sky was blanketed by hundreds of them, making their nightly pilgrimage to their feeding grounds tens of kilometers away.
"The children of the night," I thought, with a Bela Lugosi accent. "What sweet music they make."
"Da best 'yan, lalo na pag inadobo" (especially when cooked as adobo), some guy ventured in the dark.
"Pampatigas ng u--n. (Hardens your, uh, member)."
That about sums up the range of uninformed opinion about bayakan: that they are somehow linked with the supernatural world of vampires, or more likely, that they are nature's Viagra. So pervasive is the latter belief, in fact, that it poses a threat to the continued existence of Subic's flying foxes.
Although they are considered an endangered species, the fruit bats' protected status has done little to discourage hunters in their quest for bigger and longer-lasting erections. Others merely hanker for a taste of the succulent, fruit-fed flesh of free-range bats, long considered a delicacy around these parts. Stalls selling cooked bats are still a common sight on roadsides around Subic.
There are only a few thousand bats left in Subic, from the estimated 100,000 in 1930. Still, the Subic bats are better off than their cousins elsewhere in the Philippines. Of the country's 56 known species of bats (which include the largest and the smallest in the world), many have become extinct. Dobsonia chapmani, the bare-backed fruit bat, disappeared from the forests of Cebu and Negros in the 1960s. Acerodon Lucifer, the Panay fruit bat, was last seen in 1892. The Philippine tube-nosed bat, Nyctimene rabori, is fast disappearing from Negros.
The triple-canopy rain forest of Subic, considered the largest bat roost in the world, appears to be the bats' last sanctuary. But the only reason the Subic forest lasted this long is, until 1992, it was part of the US Naval Base and was heavily secured. Now, although it is considered a protected area by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), illegal loggers and kaingeros (slash and burn farmers) have begun to nibble away at its edges.
There is more at stake here than just the continued existence of the bats. No less than the entire ecosystem is at risk. Fruit bats are nature's forest rangers. From their roosts in Subic, the bats range as far away as a hundred kilometers to feed, and on their return flights, their droppings re-seed the forest, far more efficiently than humans ever could. It is a true symbiosis: without the bats, the forests would dwindle, but without the forests, the bats would disappear too. For eons, nature has kept the balance, until man came along. Now, only man can restore it.
The heavy responsibility for preserving the Subic rainforest and its inhabitants rests largely on the diminutive shoulders of one man. Bonifacio Florentino, known to most of his neighbors as "Kap Bon," is a tribal chieftain of the Pastolan Aetas, an indigenous community of about 850 residing within the reservation area. He is largely credited with leading his people in negotiating the granting of a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) to the Pastolan Aetas by the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples last year. The first such title granted in Luzon, it guarantees the tribe's property rights to their land, and paves the way for the Ancestral Domain for Sustainable Development Plan, a document which will govern the area's development in the future, as well as archive the tribe's history, culture and traditions, which until now have been passed down orally.
Kap Bon is also the chief forest ranger of the Bat Habitat Restoration Project, a program conceived by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, the Pilipinas Shell Foundation Incorporated and the Department of Energy and funded by Shell Philippines Exploration B.V.. Under this project, some 20 hectares of forest area on the slopes of Mt. Sta. Rita will be reforested by planting fruit trees. In so doing, the program hopes to restore and expand the feeding area for the fruit bats, and thus increase their numbers.
Kap Bon leads a team of about 90-plus forest rangers, most of them Aetas, the rest of mixed Aeta-lowlander parentage, in planting trees, guarding against forest fires, and keeping an eye out for poachers.
It is a task to which he is eminently suited, since he was previously employed by the US Navy as a forest guide from 1986 to 1992, when the bases were finally closed down. His duties included training soldiers in jungle survival, a skill in which the Aetas are unsurpassed. In fact, when the US bases closed, his former employers wanted to bring him to the States, but Kap Boa refused to leave his beloved forest.
"Dapat huwag na sanang mapinsala yung mga paniki para dumami pa sila," he says. "Nagkakatulungan ang tao at paniki dahil sa inaabot nilang paglipad, sa dumi nila tumutubo ang seeds. Dapat maibalik ang kagubatan para hindi mapinsala ng lubusan ang ating environment. Saan mang lugar dapat mayroon ganito ang komunidad para hindi nasisira ang ating kalikasan."
("The bats should be protected so they can multiply. Bats help man because their droppings plant seeds. We should restore the forest so we can protect the environment. Communities everywhere should have something like this so nature will be preserved.")
Unlike many of their brethren, the Pastolan Aetas have been relatively lucky. The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, which displaced many Aeta tribes in Central Luzon, left their area relatively unscathed (although the ashfall did decimate the bat population). Some displaced Aetas were reduced to begging in urban areas, but the Pastolan tribal community managed to preserve their way of life.
Florentino is keenly aware that the fate of the Aetas is inextricably linked with the fate of the forest and its other inhabitants. For the Aeta, the forest is not only home and provider of sustenance: it is part of his being.
"Ang Aeta talaga sa gubat 'yan," Kap Bon waxes eloquent bout the Aeta way of life. "Hinahanap ng katawan niya yung paglalakad sa gubat. Ang Aeta kasi meron lang isang takal na bigas, maligaya na. Pupunta sa tabing ilog, pag nakahuli ng hipon magluluto, maligaya na sa pahiga-higa sa bato. (The Aeta is really of the forest; his body needs to walk inside the forest. The Aeta is happy with a cup of rice. He can catch shrimp in the river, cook and lie back on the stones.)
Forests as God's gift
"Nung bata pa ako, parati kaming nasa gubat," he continues. "Nabubuhay sa gubat, sa pagkuha ng mga herbal, sa pagkuha ng honeybee. Nasa gubat ako kasi doon malamig. Wala kang maiisip na problema. Yung problema mo nawawala sa kalalakad mo sa gubat. Nalilibang ka sa huni ng kuliglig, sa ibon." (When I was young, I was always in the forest, gathering herbs and honey. It is cool in the forest. Your problems disappear as you walk inside the forest, listening to the cicadas and the birds.)
Of course, Aetas also hunt bats for food. According to Aeta beliefs, the animals of the forest are God's gift to man, says Florentino. But Aetas only hunt what they need to survive, he adds, and only at the proper time. For example, the bamboo bats-among the smallest in the world-are only eaten by Aetas during the rainy season when they have fattened. And Aetas don't hunt bats to sell, unlike lowlanders.
One of the aims of the Bat Habitat Reforestation Project is to provide a source of livelihood for the Pastolan Aetas, to lessen their need to hunt for food.
Like most indigenous peoples, the Aeta are at a crossroads. The road to a modern way of life is open to them, but they risk losing their distinct cultural identity in the process. Much of the Aeta's way of life is tied to the forest; in the cities they are like fish out of water.
No one knows this more than Kap Bon. Although he was raised in the forest, Kap Bon left to try city life during his wild youth in the 1970s.
"Sanay ako sa labas kasi dati mahilig ako sa barkada," he says. "Umaabot ako ng Maynila. Matagal din ako doon. Naranasan ko rin mamuhay sa siyudad. Pero iba ang buhay doon kasi maraming problema. Talagang magulo sa siyudad. Sa bundok walang problema. Magtrabaho ka lang may pagkain ka na. Wala ka nang iisipin."
("I'm used to the outside world because I liked going out with friends. I used to go as far as Manila, and spent a long time there. I've tasted city life, but life is different there because you have many problems. In the mountains you have no problems. Work and you have food. You don't have to worry about anything.")
Machete and cellphone
Kap Bon is in many ways the epitome of the modern Aeta: machete on one hip, cell phone on the other. He is traditional enough that he still chews betel nut, but he jokes about it in a hip way. ("Sandali lang," he quips, taking out his betel nut case. "Dudurog muna 'ko."
But even within the relatively sheltered enclave of Pastolan, change is slowly making inroads into the Aeta community. Last year, for instance, the tribe was divided by the issue of whether to continue to select their leaders through hereditary chieftainships, or whether to hold elections for tribal leaders.
Florentino also worries about the younger generation of Aetas who, as he did in his younger days, are trying city life. He worries that unlike him, they may choose not to go back to the forest.
"Mahirap na pag natuto na silang mag rock'n'roll," he says. "Yung iba computer na ang alam. Sana naman kung ano yung inabot nila huwag nilang kalimutan yung pinagmulan nila, dahil kahit anong gawin nila Aeta pa rin sila e. Nandoon pa rin ang dugo. E bakit kakalimutan mo yung ugaling katutubo?" (It's hard when they get to know rock'n'roll and computers. Hopefully they won't forget where they came from, because whatever they do, they're still Aetas. It's in their blood, so why should they forget their native customs?)
For Florentino, the only way to preserve Aeta culture is to return to the forest, where elders can teach their children the age-old ways of hunting and gathering: fishing in streams, finding honey, listening to birds, and sleeping on the ground wherever nightfall overtakes them.
"Kailangan kung ano ginagawa mo ituro mo sa anak mo. Isama mo sila sa gubat para makita nila kung ano ang buhay ng talagang Aeta. Ituro mo kung ano talaga ang ginagawa ng Aeta para manatili sa kanila iyon." (You have to teach your children what you know. Take them to the forest so they can see how the real Aeta live. Teach them what the real Aeta do so that it will stay with them.)
But this, he knows, is premised on there still being forests to return to.
"'Pag nawala ang gubat, mawawala din ang Aeta." (If the forests disappear, the Aeta will vanish too.)
Philippine Daily Inquirer