Calauit Island Game Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary (Busuanga, Palawan)

Calauit Island

After my trial dive,  we booked ourselves on an optional half-day tour of Calauit Island Game Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary, located just off Busuanga Island’s northwestern coast and opened to tourists since 1985.  Cost, including permit and boat ride,  was to set us back US$30 per person.  We left right after lunch at the resort.

An eland

This 3,700-hectare, DENR-administered Strict Nature Reserve was, in response to an appeal made by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), was established as a repository for 108 African animals endangered by the 1977 drought and Kenya’s civil war on August 1976 by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 1578 issued by the late Pres. Ferdinand Marcos.  Its original 250 island families were relocated, 40 kms. away, to Halsey Island and compensated with land titles.  Since 1994, it was managed by the Office of Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, a  government body dealing with environmental issues in Palawan.

On our way to Calauit

We, together with other resort guests, left the resort by 1 PM on the resort’s motorized outrigger boat.  The trip took about 45 mins.  Upon arrival, we first logged in at the sanctuary’s office.  Then, accompanied by a guide, we ushered to the back of the sanctuary’s only “safari” vehicle, a converted 6 x 6 truck which resembled a huge open cage.  From our slow-moving and somewhat dilapidated truck, we got up close and personal with these herbivores as some fed near the road we were traveling while zebras grazed under shading trees.  Bushbucks (Tragelaphus sylvaticus), Grévy’s zebra (Equus grevyi), Common Eland (Taurotragus oryx), Topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela), Impala (Aepyceros melampus), Thomson’s gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii),  Reticulated Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) and Waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) can be seen, in pairs or in groups, as they feed or gracefully gallop at the sign of our presence.

A short necked giraffe

Graceful giraffes, with their somewhat shorter necks (maybe because trees here are shorter), were unmindful of our presence as they continued  feasting on the branches of their favorite acacia trees.  Our vehicle halted when these tall “jaywalkers” crossed the road.  Others stayed put for a short while as if purposely posing for our cameras.   Too bad we weren’t able to bond or interact with the giraffes by feeding them (it is discouraged), truly a highlight of any trip to the sanctuary.  Such an experience would probably  come second to swimming beside a whale shark or butanding off Donsol (Sorsogon).

Zebras in the wild

From the original 108 African animals brought here in 1977, 3 or 4 generations of offspring have increased the animal population to 570  heads comprising 8 species, all herbivorous.  At the time of our visit, there were now 43 giraffes, 155 impalas, two Thompson gazelles, 122 water bucks, 78 zebras, 50 elands, 14 topis and 16 bushbucks. Together with indigenous animals, they range freely around the island in an environment that loosely approximates their original environment.

The Palawan bearcat

The guided tour includes stops at pens holding many of Palawan’s indigenous species.  The sanctuary has saved from extinction, by  successfully breeding in captivity, the foot-high The Philippine mouse-deer (Tragulus nigricans) or pilanduk, the smallest hoofed animal found in Asia; the largely nocturnal and endangered Calamian Deer (Hyelaphus calamianensis)  and the Philippine reshwater crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis) which now lives along the mangrove swamps.  Also bred in captivity are the Palawan bearcat or Binturong (Arctictis binturong), Palawan bearded pig (Sus ahoenobarbus), tarsier or mago (Tarsius philippensis), scaly anteater or balintong (Manis javanica), leopard cat or maral (Felis bengalensis), Philippine porcupine (Hystrix pumila) or landak/duryan  and monitor lizard (Varanus salvator).  I had a very close encounter with a forever hungry binturong.  Too close, in fact, that he snarled when I tried to feed him a banana.

An encounter with a snarling bearcat

There are also over 120 species of birds, endemic and transient and, as a boon to birdwatching enthusiasts, the personnel here are quite capable of identifying these birds.  There are also protected rearing and egg-laying areas for giant sea turtles or pawikan (Chelonia mydas). The project also includes a 7-km. marine sanctuary which protects the highly endangered 16-20 dugongs or sea cows (Dugong dugon) that feed along the offshore sea grass beds, and  7 species of clams including what is believed to be the largest live giant clam shell (Tridacna gigas) in the world which weighs as much as 300 kgs..  As fishing is prohibited, commercial fishes, crabs and lobsters now breed here in undisturbed .  The coral reefs around the island have shown a 75% recovery rate.

Scuba Diving Palawan

Trial dive with Mike Olondriz

The next day was the anniversary of the EDSA Revolution.  I woke up by 5:30 AM for my morning stroll with my videocam.  It turned out to be an educational tour as I had my first close encounter with the endangered Calamian hog-deer (Axis porsinus calamianensis).  Introduced in the early 1990s, it is now said to number more than a dozen.  The sounds of colorful exotic bird life is also evident among the trees as the island is home to orioles, kingfishers, turtle doves and imperial pigeons.  It also has a resident baruray or Rufous Night Heron.  Although I didn’t see any, there are also monitor lizards (Varanus salvator) and green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas).

Attending pre-dive lecture

After breakfast, it was off to my first trial dive.  It comes free with the travel package.  Tellie and my mom (for obvious reasons) begged off.  Our divemaster was Mike Olondriz.  At first I mistook him for a foreigner, but any notions I had were dispelled after he spoke Tagalog.  Later late-evening conversations with him revealed him to be a resident of Magallanes Village in Makati City.  His brother was a barkada of my friend (and SPED teacher of my son Jandy), Inaki Martinez.  Small world.  

Getting into the water

Before the actual dive, I had to undergo a lecture on the use of the scuba gear as well as breathing techniques.  Then it was off to the beach with Mike.  I looked silly as I walked backwards to the beach wearing my fins, but once in the water, I was fitted with my tank, weight belt and mask.   The 15-min. dive was easy at first, but when we got to the 15-ft. depth, my ears began to hurt as they felt like popping.  We ascended to the 10-ft. depth where Mike handed me bread crumbs to feed the fish.  I was soon surrounded by them, large and small, and some of the large fish (probably a Napoleon wrasse) took nips at my bare legs.

Suiting up in the water


“Is it ethical?”  Books that I have read later have revealed that this fish feeding craze which brings the fish closer for underwater photography also makes them tamer and ideal spear gun targets.  Also feeding leftovers could also be fatal as these fish sometimes die of indigestion.