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Hotspot: The Philippines
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The Philippines

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By Priit J. VesilindPhotographs by Tim Laman

Amid poverty, coral reefs rocked by dynamite fishing, and once lush islands stripped by logging, conservationists rush to preserve endemic species.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Sun and rain poured down together as the storm passed on the Poyuy-poyuy River, drenching the forest in gold. The leaves of the mangrove tree leaped and sparkled in the downpour, revealing the branch where the python lay. Coiled in ten feet (three meters) of ready muscle, it merely cocked its head as we slipped by in our outrigger canoe.

The Poyuy-poyuy strains through a towering mangrove forest on the west coast of Palawan, the westernmost province of the Philippine Islands. The river eases into the South China Sea through the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, where another river flows for five navigable miles (eight kilometers) inside a cave filled with bats and theatrical limestone formations.

The 15-square-mile (40-square-kilometer) park encloses 11 different ecosystems, from the dark mossy forest of the mountain heights to the blue-water ocean beyond the reef. It shelters a multitude of endangered endemic animals, including the glorious Palawan peacock pheasant. Flying foxes, Oriental small-clawed otters, bear cats, civets, and stink badgers root about its thickness.

To reach this wilderness heart, photographer Tim Laman and I drove north from Puerto Princesa, the muggy capital of Palawan, on a highway that quickly degenerated into a rough gash between rice fields and coconut palms. Smoke rose from piles of burning rice husks; chickens and yellow dogs wandered in the ruts. Limestone karst bluffs loomed like forgotten megaliths, part of a coastal range that slices through the park’s protected acres.

Dark clouds bullied in as we reached Sabang, a frontier depot with a grocery store and a few dirt-floor karaoke bars. A water buffalo carted our gear a half mile to the cottages of a “beach resort,” where I lay hot and moist beneath the mosquito netting as rain pelted against the thatch, until the house rooster rallied us to a pastel dawn.

I had to rub my eyes. Paradise surrounded us.

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The designation of “hotspot” is given to some of the richest and most threatened biospheres on the planet. Is calling attention to such places an effective way of preserving biodiversity? Are there better ways? Share your thoughts.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Bird’s nest soup, a Chinese delicacy, is actually made from birds’ nests.

The nests used for this gourmet dish are the homes of baby white-nest and black-nest swiftlets. Translucent and rubbery, the nests consist largely of bird saliva that hardens when exposed to air. They are most often found on the upper parts of cave walls in the Philippines, as well as in Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Generations of men have risked their lives climbing fragile trellises of bamboo and vines to harvest the nests.

Although it’s debatable exactly how long the swiftlets’ nests have been collected and eaten, some experts believe the practice goes back only as far as A.D. 700.

Top chefs prefer white-nest swiftlets’ nests for their pure saliva. (The black-nest swiftlets’ include feathers.) The nests are most commonly blended with chicken stock to produce the famous soup. If you’re curious, try this recipe from

Bird’s Nest Soup
Serves 6

3½-ounce (approx.) dried bird’s nest
6 cups plus ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons rich chicken stock(divided)
1 large chicken breast
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon salt
2 green onions, minced
1 tablespoon minced Smithfield ham

Soak bird’s nest in cold water overnight. Drain and rinse. Spread softened nest pieces on plate; pick out prominent pieces of foreign matter (e.g., feathers, twigs) with tweezers. Debone chicken breast, remove membrane and muscle fiber, pound meat with cleaver handle to break down tissue, and mince chicken until it is pulpy. Make medium-thick paste with cornstarch and 2 tablespoons chicken stock.

Bring 6 cups chicken stock to boil. Immediately add bird’s nest; simmer 30 minutes. Mix dry sherry and remaining ¼ cup stock; dribble slowly into minced chicken. Lightly beat egg whites with a fork; fold gently into chicken so they are not completely blended. Add salt to soup. Bring soup back to boil, and add chicken mixture slowly so soup does not cool. When soup returns to boil, it is ready to serve. You can hold it at this point on low heat. Pour into serving bowl, garnish with green onions and ham.

—P. Davida Kales

Did You Know?

Related Links
Conservation International
Read about Conservation International’s main focus for biodiversity conservation: hotspots. The site lists the 25 richest and most threatened reservoirs of animal and plant life on Earth and explains the strategy being used to tackle the overwhelming problem of biodiversity loss at the global level.

Philippines Department of Tourism
An official site for detailed information about the Philippines. Learn about the country’s history, read about the 7,107 islands and their people, and check out what the Department of Tourism calls the country’s top destinations.

Environmental Legal Assistance Center, Inc.
Formed in 1990 and mentioned in Priit Vesilind’s article, ELAC is a group of human rights lawyers who focus their efforts on legal advocacy for communities in the Philippines affected by environmental problems. Visit this site to read more about ELAC and its various programs.


Heaney, Lawrence R., and Jacinto C. Regalado, Jr. Vanishing Treasures of the Philippine Rain Forest. The Field Museum, Chicago, 1998.

Mallari, Neil Aldrin D., and others. Key Conservation Sites in the Philippines. Haribon Foundation and Birdlife International, 2001.

Mittermeier, Russell A., and others. Hotspots: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions. CEMEX—Conservation International, 1999.

White, Alan T. Philippine Coral Reefs: A Natural History Guide, 2nd ed. The Bookmark Inc., 2001.


NGS Resources
Lyon, Eugene. “Track of the Manila Galleons,” National Geographic (September 1990), 2-37

Graves, William. “Corregidor Revisited: 43 Years After the Siege,” National Geographic (July 1986), 118-131.

Philippines, National Geographic Map Supplement, July 1986.

Zich, Arthur. “Hope and Danger in the Philippines,” National Geographic (July 1986), 76-117.

Kennedy, Robert S. “Saving the Philippine Eagle,” National Geographic (June 1981), 846-856.

Moser, Don. “The Philippines: Better Days Still Elude an Old Friend,” National Geographic (March 1977), 360-391.

Singh, Anne de Henning. “Sea Gypsies of the Philippines: Life Ashore Beckons the Bajaus,” National Geographic (May 1976), 659-677.


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