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Yet the Philippine Islands still teem with people as well as 12,000 plant and 1,100 land vertebrate species—a bounty that Lawrence Heaney, associate curator at the Field Museum in Chicago, calls "Galápagos times ten." Heaney and other scientists are still discovering new species in the Philippines. In 1988 his team rediscovered a rare small mammal seen only once before in the mossy rain forests near Mount Isarog, in southern Luzon. Popularly known as the Isarog shrew-rat, later named Rhynchomys isarogensis, it is built like a tiny kangaroo, with strong haunches and a pointed snout, and eats almost nothing but earthworms.

Other scientists have sought to bolster populations of endangered, endemic flagship species, those that most vividly represent the biological wealth of the Philippines. On Bohol Island the Philippine Tarsier Foundation has bred and released some 20 tarsiers, five-inch (thirteen-centimeter) tall nocturnal primates with owlish eyes and Yoda smiles.

Endemic species result from isolation, but what causes the overall immense variety of life in the Philippines? A high production of biomass from constant and abundant moisture and solar energy is one factor, as is the fact that mountainous tropical islands create a host of different growing conditions, or micro­environments, at different altitudes, where very specialized plants and animals find their niches.

More than 100 species of trees often grow on a single slope of rain forest and 500 species of coral on a single dazzling reef. The high forests, thick with gnarled trees and dense mosses, hold rainfall like a sponge and allow it to percolate gently into springs and streams. A cool fog constantly sifts through the trees, leaving vegetation dripping. These mossy forests hold the highest concentration of endemic flora and fauna in the Philippines.

What threatens species most is loss of forest cover. Of the 283 endemic species of mammals and birds in the Philippines, half are endangered. Dramatically tufted Philippine eagles, one of the world's largest, survive only in lowland forests on a few islands. A remnant population of tamaraus, elusive dwarf water buffalo, remains on the island of Mindoro. Slender-tailed cloud rats, meaty and as big as house cats, have been heavily hunted in the Visayas.

"Acre for acre," said Heaney, "the Philippines may have the most seriously threatened flora and fauna on Earth."

Many of the environmental problems in the Philippines have social roots. Colonial exploitation by Spain and then the United States, as well as homegrown corruption, has left wealth in the hands of a small ruling class.

"We have two major users of the resources—those privileged few who exploit the resources for profit and the majority who exploit the resources for subsistence," said Danilo Balete.

Many bone-poor Filipinos have fled degraded islands for relatively intact havens such as Palawan. But their desperation travels with them. Although polluting industrial plants make more headlines, much environmental damage is done in little bits by anonymous, needy people forced into the simple daily choice between conservation and food in the belly.

"Every day we get reports of illegal quarrying, illegal logging, illegal fishing," said Grizelda "Gerthie" Mayo-Anda, a 41-year-old native Palawan dynamo who founded and now heads a group of crusading lawyers called the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC). "But most of these people have fled from sheer poverty, militarization, and conflict. They need help." Offering alternative ways to survive—from ecotourism and handicrafts to fishing and food processing—must accompany conservation measures that restrict the harvesting of endangered natural resources.

Mayo-Anda, demure as a schoolgirl in prim gold-wire glasses, minces no words about the government: "The Philippines has some of the most progressive environmental laws in the world, but the government doesn't provide the money or political will to implement them. Without that, laws become mere rhetoric."

In 1996 ELAC came to the rescue of a community of indigent fishermen on Honda Bay, near Puerto Princesa. Mostly migrants to Palawan from the Visayas, they had built their shanties on a tourist boat jetty that the city had constructed from the toxic tailings of a spent American-owned mercury mine. Sickness followed, but some 2,000 people stayed. Most of them overfished and abused the waters with cyanide and dynamite until the catches of tuna, mackerel, grouper, and zuno plummeted to disastrous levels.

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