Rare Window

by Juan L. Mercado

Will the pork barrel scam spiral into a march by the millions next week? The theft shoved to the back burners other equally critical issues from “nutritional black holes” to loss of keystone species.

“He who plants trees benefits another generation.” After 12 years of below-radar-screen efforts, research has paid off. Another rare tree in Cebu has won international recognition. But Cynometra cebuensis is critically endangered.

Journal Blumea declared the tree as “scientifically described” on Nov. 24 last year. The decision appeared on the Net this month.

“This brings island-endemic tree species to three,” notes botanist Franz Seidenschwarz who tracked Cynometra from seed to fruit-bearing. All three cluster within the Tabunan forest slivers. “Germany has zero endemic tree species.”

Cynometra Cebu bears no local name, unlike the other two. Discovered in 1922, Arthrophyllum cenabrei is named   Bingliu—the area where it sprouted. Cinnamomum cebuense Kostermans, recognized in 1986, is called Kalingag  in Visayan.

Degraded habitats and limited numbers will insert Cynometra Cebu into “Critically Endangered” tables of the 2001 “Red List” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

A  University of Munich graduate, Seidenschwarz led the University of San Carlos (USC) Botany Research Group. Fluent in Cebuano, he authored various studies, including “Plant World of  the Philippines—An Illustrated Dictionary of Visayan Plants.”

He married Cebuana Elizabeth Cinco who teaches German in a language school she established. Their eldest son is a New York hospital internist. Franz Jr. is a resident physician at Perpetual Succor Hospital in Cebu.

Today, Seidenschwarz juggles the duties of Germany’s consul in Cebu with research in a private Maria Luisa Park tree farm. “It is my garden and a secret area where I plant the critically endangered species of Cebu.” That fills a gap in research  material.

USC researchers, in November 1998, discovered a new damselfly. Scientifically described by Dr. Matti Hämälainen, it is now known as Risiocnemis seidenschwarzi. But in July 2000, the damselfly population dwindled. It was last seen in March of 2001. New populations were spotted in Badian, then Tabunan. The Zoological Society of London included this damselfly on a list of “100 most endangered species of the planet.”

Starting in 1999, Seidenschwarz tracked 17 Cynometra Cebu trees whose seeds came from one mother tree. The species thrives in dry forests on limestone at altitudes of 400-600 meters. Flowering occurs at the onset of the dry season. But they last only for a few days.

The tassels of young trees are bright pink; in older trees, they are creamy greenish yellow. They attract butterflies, dragonflies and other insects. The woody fruit pods fall in July.

The new species differs from the Cynometra in Sibuyan Island. Its leaves are much larger. Its habitat is different. Sibuyan trees sprout on moist fertile wooded flats along rivers. All Indo-Pacific species of Cynometra grow under ever-wet climatic conditions. In contrast, Cebu is seared by a dry season from the middle of March to early June.

“It took me over a decade to prove that it is a new species,” Seidenschwarz recalls now. “I waited for the flowers. But the blooming was very irregular.”

Today’s trees bear the imprint of history. Cebu is one of the country’s two most deforested provinces. Indiscriminate logging interlocked with unrelenting kaingin  or clearing of trees by fire. This pillage led the Spanish colonial government, in 1870,  to shred all special licenses to cut trees on Cebu. The Spanish governor-general, in 1873, appointed 12 officials to prevent countrywide deforestation. They were tasked to hold on to depleted forest stands.

They failed. So did the US colonial administrators and Filipino officials who took over after the grant of independence in 1946. Less than a quarter of Philippine rainforests are left.

Deforestation threatens also the birds. The Cebu Flowerpecker or Dicaeum quadricolor, for example, is extinct, despite the crossed fingers of conservationists.

In 1917, President Sergio Osmeña opened Cebu’s Camp 7 reforestation project. It still exists in a province where the key project of his grandson, former Rep. Tomas Osmeña, is a treeless, 296-hectare reclaimed South Road Properties.

In Central and Southern Cebu, tree-covered tracts remain only in higher and less accessible mountains. Paradoxically, this remaining 0.2 percent fragment of natural forests is unusually rich in endemic plant and animal species. Many of them are rare and endangered.

The largest remnant is the 145-hectare spread within the Tabunan forest. It is hemmed in by farms. And pressure on the land and trees ratchet up from population growth, inflow of migrants and poverty.

Habitat deterioration is caused by timber harvesting, specially by fires during the dry season, says Seidenschwarz who has monitored Tabunan since 1994. That threat is compounded by encroachments.

The nearby Cantipla forest was once “a habitat of the new species,” Seidenschwarz notes. On paper, the area is well protected. The reality on the ground is different. The forest area should be delineated soonest, so  protection measures can follow.

That gut issue lands on newly elected Cebu Gov. Hilario Davide III’s lap. It provides him with a rare window of opportunity for lifetime achievement. Few dare to tally the price tag for failure.

E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com

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