What happens to an ecotourism town when the wildlife doesn’t show?

Since the mid-1990s, the town of Donsol in the Philippines has based its economy around tourists viewing migratory fish called whale sharks. But their numbers have become highly unpredictable in the past decade for reasons still unknown.

butanding whaleshark
The "butanding" or whale shark in Donsol, Philippines. Image: I, Schuetze77, CC BY-SA 3.0 via IFPR Flickr

Omar Nepomuceno is looking for the whale sharks, as he has for over 20 years. Ask him what the odds are of finding one, and he’ll answer with “Swertehan”: a Filipino word for “a game of luck.”

On the boat, it doesn’t present as luck, but as labor. He uses one forearm to protect his eyes from the sun, the other to level his vision. He peers through the sliver of space in between like binoculars. The whites of his eyes have darkened over the years, likely from sun damage.

As a butanding (whale shark) interaction officer with the local government, Nepomuceno’s job is to guide tourists and protect the sharks, so that they can swim together in Donsol, a coastal town on Luzon, the Philippines’ main island.

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are only observed here during certain months of the year. But “swertehan” is always Nepomuceno’s answer, even when the sightings in his hometown take steep falls, affecting his — and the entire community’s — income. According to records from the Philippine office of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines), sightings in Donsol fell from 1,790 in 2017 to 589 in 2018, a 68 percent drop. Whale sharks are highly mobile, so sightings tend to be erratic, but the discrepancies year on year (sometimes even month on month) have gotten increasingly unpredictable for Donsol, a town that in 1998 had more shark sightings than they could care to count.

The sharks can be seen by eye in silhouette when they are within 3 metres (10 feet) of the water’s surface. At tourist sites with more developed infrastructure, like Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, technology alleviates the hard labor of searching for them: scouts in planes spot sharks from above. Here, though, the roof of the boat is the highest viewing point, where a second spotter has fashioned a T-shirt into a mask protecting his head from the heat and wind. Only his eyes remain uncovered.

On this day, luck isn’t present. A single shark comes and goes within the span of 10 minutes. Nine other boats, all carrying tourists, come swarming from all directions. The shark dives deeper than the eye can see.

Wildlife tourism can be a lucrative industry, when it works as expected. Whale sharks make up around one-third of the $300 million global shark-viewing industry, which is growing globally. Even so, luck remains its mistress. There are fewer than 10,000 whale sharks in the world, with a declining population trend, and entire communities like Donsol depend on them to show up.

Unpredictable whale sharks

WWF-Philippines reports that at least 653 known individual whale sharks have been documented off Donsol since 2007, the largest concentration of the endangered animal in Southeast Asia.

The town’s decline in sightings from 2017 was steep, but not a unique occurrence. Whereas whale sharks showed up in reliable numbers during the first decade of Donsol’s venture into shark tourism, which started in the mid-1990s, numbers have proven highly unpredictable in the past decade.

In 2013, there were only 53 sightings the entire year, an anomaly that has yet to be explained. That started a steep decline in tourist arrivals, impacting the community’s then-steady stream of revenue: an estimated $300,000 annually from whale shark interactions alone, at its peak.

As a coastal town, fishing is a primary source of income in Donsol. But a fisherman’s daily wage ranges anywhere from a few dollars to nothing at all. An interaction officer can make $10 on a single three-hour boat trip, plus tips.

“We had the highest number of tourists in 2012,” Desiree Abetria, the town’s tourism officer, told Mongabay. “But that was also when the decline in sightings started. So, the following year, the tourist arrivals declined as well. 2018 was our lowest record for arrivals.”

The impact is felt throughout the town.“So many things changed because of tourism. It uplifted this town. Before the tourists, we had no roads. We rode boats to get to the city center. Now, even the wives of the fishermen have jobs,” said Imelda Montaño, who has lived in Donsol all her life. She works as a cook in a backpacker’s hostel. “Things have changed again,” she added, referring to the town’s economy.

You can’t just protect whale sharks from your backyard. You have to protect them [from the] whole world.

Carina Escudero, marine cinematographer

Those who previously shifted to tourism as a sole source of income have started going back to old jobs; they take on part-time work as fishermen, construction workers or drivers.

The whale shark capital of the Philippines

“I don’t need to be a scientist to know that things are not right,” Nepomuceno said, referring to more than the day at hand. He claimed the water is much colder now than it was when they started two decades ago; the tide, not right for sharks.

There isn’t a lot of scientific data to prove or disprove his observations. Back in 1998, when Donsol’s tourism industry was just starting, the whale sharks’ status on the IUCN Red List was “data deficient.” No one had reason to keep tabs on the sharks; only the fishermen, who considered the big fish pests for breaking their nets and ramming into their boats.

WWF-Philippines, the sole NGO that has an official partnership with the local government, only began monitoring sightings in 2007.

But the counting had begun, unofficially, in 1998. Carina Escudero, a marine cinematographer based in the Philippines, was pursuing a book project about Philippine marine life and received the tip about the large population of whale sharks in Donsol. She started calling the office of the local government every day to ask for the number of sightings, and kept a log of what she heard. According to Escudero, the numbers back then could go up to 23 sightings in a single day.

“During that point in history, a whale shark was a really rare thing,” she said. “No one [in Donsol] believed me at the time, but I knew what I was seeing was earth-shattering. To them, it was just normal.”

Escudero is credited with pushing the development of the tourism industry in Donsol; many interaction officers still refer to her as their “mother.” “It’s a miracle that the sharks even survived,” she said. “People were offering 600,000 Philippine pesos [$11,700 at current rates] for three dead sharks in a place where people are earning less than 100 pesos [$2] a day.”

In 1998, a national ban on whale shark hunting took effect almost simultaneously with the burst of tourism in Donsol. Unlike the sudden ban, the transition on the ground was slow.“No one was interested in tourism,” Nepomuceno said. “They didn’t understand what it was.”

But in time, through a partnership with WWF-Philippines and with support from other organisations, the local government trained the community to believe whale sharks were worth more to them alive than dead. Rules and guidelines, such as how close tourist boats could get to whale sharks or how many tourists could swim near them, were established to ensure the influx of visitors didn’t harm the sharks, and the interaction officers were charged with upholding them.

Luck, gambles and guarantees

The recent scarcity of whale shark sightings has had a profound, almost existential, effect on the community, one with a learned pride in its sharks. Most of those who work in tourism (vendors, tour officers, boatmen, and the like) gather in the mornings to send tourists off, promising to keep their fingers crossed for sharks or, in some instances, keep them in their prayers.

But, like Nepomuceno with his principle of answering with “swertehan,” they make no guaranteesIt’s a well-integrated standard, as dictated by the ethics of responsible wildlife tourism.

“We can’t give an advisory that declares sharks are present in our waters, until such time that there have been sightings for three days straight,” said Abetria, the tourism officer. “That’s when we inform the Department of Tourism that they can start ‘advertising’ that our season is open. We don’t want to give a ‘false’ tourism, we don’t guarantee. It’s a wild animal.”

It’s when times are hard that the principles become blurry: “The interaction officers feel a sense of ownership over the sharks because they are the ones in the water with them every day,” said Alessandro Ponzo, executive director of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE). “It’s good, but it also means they regulate one another. And right now, the interaction officers are the ones pulling the tourists closer to see the shark.”

Rules are broken more often when the sightings are scarce and the money thin. And not just by the interaction officers and boatmen; Sali Salahudin, 61, migrated with his son from a southern island to sell pearls to tourists. On average, he said, he makes roughly $14 a week, usually selling only one or two items. Salahudin said it’s not enough.

He has started making guarantees, adapting to a system that no longer works for him, selling his intuition along with his wares. “Just make sure you go out the time I tell you to,” he said, “then there will be one.”

These changes happened, not at once, but over time, in the face of a decline in income from tourism. But wildlife tourism, by nature, is susceptible to biodiversity loss and changes in animal behavior; it places host communities on a thin line between profit and loss. Though they make no guarantees, making apologies to tourists for these losses has become a part of their job.

Donsol’s new normal

No one has figured out why the number of whale sharks in Donsol has been fluctuating so greatly of late. Researchers only have theories: the plankton they feed on may have been affected by changes in the water, luring them outside the designated interaction areas; they might also be lurking deeper underwater for some reason.

The lapses in information are many, including where the sharks go when they’re not in Donsol. WWF uses a global archive of photos, Wildbook.org, to give the community some idea of where its sharks have been. Every time a shark is discovered or re-encountered, it’s registered. But the record is far from complete, because not all tourism sites participate. A shark can “disappear” for years if it migrates to an area where people aren’t looking; worse, to an area that still practices hunting.

“You can’t just protect whale sharks from your backyard,” Escudero said. “You have to protect the whole world.”

In Donsol, at least, they continue to be looked for, beloved, even prayed for. There’s too much at stake.

“This should be a good year because sightings started early, but we never know for certain,” Abetria said. She’s working on a plan to entice tourists to stay even if there are no sharks. At the moment, the only other attraction is firefly watching and diving in waters much farther out.

Tourist arrivals have begun to increase: this year’s number has already surpassed last year’s.

It is impossible to say for certain if this will last. For better or worse, though, Nepomuceno refuses to leave Donsol, despite the offers he receives for better-paying jobs abroad. “I am happy here. In the beginning, people thought we were crazy for believing in tourism. But now, I make good money. I make people happy,” he said.

He remains hopeful, as always, for the next year. In 2019, already 104 new sharks have been registered in the archive. It’s a strong start, but still a gamble, a game of luck.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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