The last frontier of the Philippines” is truly the best preserved island in the archipelago. More than 50% of territory is covered by rainforests, including vast areas of intact primary old-growth. Woods are home to an extraordinary wildlife and to some of the last gatherer-hunter tribes in Asia.
A breathtaking nature
Palawan is a long and narrow island (500km long per barely 50km at widest point) which lies right between Borneo and the Philippines. While politically belongs to the later, the island’s nature has indeed much more to do with Borneo than with the oceanic archipelago. The small strait separating both islands got emerged several times during glacier periods, thus being Palawan connected by a land bridge with the Sunda Shelf and mainland Asia. As a result, Palawan is nowadays inhabited by some typical Malesian fauna, such as pangolins (Manis culionensis), porcupines (Hystrix pumila), otters (Amblonyx cinereus), bearcats
Arctitis binturong), leaf turtles (Cyclemys dentata), and Dark-Eared Treefrogs (Polypedates macrotis). Likewise, some birds found in Borneo and Palawan, but absent in the rest of the Philippines, are the Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella), Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa), Chestnut-breasted Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus curvirostris), and the large woodpeckers Mulleripicus pulverulentus and Driocopus javensis.
Moreover, the prevailing currents and winds ended up littering the island with castaways coming from the neighbouring Philippine archipelago. There are also many examples of this among birds, being cockatoos (Cacatua haematuropygia), racquetails (Prioniturus platenae), Philippine Ducks (Anas luzonica), and Tabon Scrubfowls (Megapodius cumingii) some of the most notable.
But aside from links with neighbouring territories Palawan is, and has been for a long time, an island. Insulation periods have thus yielded an outstanding array of endemics, ranging from bizarre pitcher plants (Nepenthes palawanensis, N. mantalingajanensis, N. attenboroughii) to majestic flying foxes (Acerodon leucotis). Also unique to the island are the Palawan Stink Badger (Mydaus marchei), Palawan Horned Frog (Megophrys ligayae), Palawan Toadlet (Pelophryne albotaeniata), Philippine Forest Turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis), and the purple freshwater crab Insulamon palawanense, as well as a number of birds such as the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant (Polyplectron emphanum), Palawan Hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei), Yellow-throated Leafbird (Chloropsis palawanensis), Palawan Tit (Parus amabilis), Palawan Flycatcher (Ficedula platenae), Blue Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone cyanescens), and Palawan Flowerpecker (Prionochilus plateni).
Palawan’s biological richness melts with the most scenic landscape one may imagine. Dominated by a mountain range raising more 2,000 m (6,500 ft) from the sea level, topography crumbles dramatically into the ocean. Rain feeds hundreds of rivers that flow hasty into endless deserted beaches surrounded by jungle and some of the tallest mangrove forests of the planet.
The last gatherer-hunters
Little has changed since their ancestors inhabited the Tabon Caves, aside from the few odd visitors that from time to time now come to the village. Whether in the thickets around Cleopatra’s Needle or in the remote Singnapan Valley, the gatherer-hunters of Palawan still leave like thousand years ago, knowledgeable of but voluntarily oblivious to the technologic racing going on out there, as they did in the past with the Chinese, Arab and Malay traders.
The native peoples of Palawan, like wildlife, colonized the island from neighbouring Borneo. Both ethnical and culturally are related with the Dayak tribes and, like them, live fully integrated in nature. The Batak, who share physical appearance with the negrito group of central Luzon (the Aeta), live off itinerant kaingin (slash and burn), subsistence agriculture, and the trade of rattan, almaciga, and honey with the lowlanders. They are animists and their beliefs are deeply rooted on their relationship with the spirits of nature. Nowadays there are just about 500 Batak left in Palawan, with their numbers gradually decreasing as they are absorbed by surrounding communities (the Batak rarely marry within their own group).
The case of the Tao’t Bato, literally “the people of the rocks”, is even more dramatic. This small Palaw’an tribe is restricted to a tiny valley in southern Palawan which is seriously threatened by mining concessions. The Tao’t Bato have a similar way of life than the Batak, basing on
cultivation of cassava and sweet potato for livelihood, and trading forest products such as rattan and almaciga in exchange of fish and rice. Their culture, including arts and dressing, is pretty primitive and during certain periods of the year live in shelters of the forest rocky outcrops, which they secure with rattan and bamboo structures.
The Tao’t Bato, the Batak and the other surviving gatherer-hunters are not just the heritage of Palawan or the Philippines, but a legacy of all humankind, as they are the last communities on Earth still living in harmony with nature.
“The waterworld”, the other nickname for Palawan, also makes justice to the place. Its 2,000 km whimsical seashore is comprised by some of the most beautiful seascapes on Earth. The famous limestone cliffs of El Nido brought Palawan to the centre stage of international tourism few decades ago. But the island waters have indeed much more to offer, such as the breathtaking scenery of Malampaya Sound, the pristine beaches of Aporawan, or the hundred desert islands of Northeastern coast.
The island’s underwater is even more outstanding. The best (and somewhat last) coral reefs of the Philippines are those found in Palawan. They are home to an extraordinary diversity of hard and soft corals, reef fishes and invertebrates, including the endangered giant clam Tridacna gigas. Likewise vast areas of the continental shelf are covered by seagrass meadows, which are major feeding grounds for Dugongs (Dugong dugon) and Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas). Far beyond, in the deep waters surrounding the island, dwell the gentle giants of the sea, the manta rays (Manta birostris), whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), and Minke Whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata).
Little details that make the difference
Palawan has pretty good infrastructures for the region standards. It is traversed from tip to tip by carefully maintained highway and counts with an international airport that is stopover for more than one million travellers a year. Its narrow shape itself favours tourism very much, as it makes all areas accessible from the coast. Yet, with El Nido and the Underground River attracting most of visitors, one can still feel quietness and all over the island. Good safety, which is quite rare within the Philippines, and especially the extraordinary charm of local people end up making the difference.
It is worth ending with a mention to the fact that national government, through the PCSD (Palawan Council for Sustainable Development) and DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources), and also the regional and local authorities, are in Palawan fully engaged in implementing sustainable development policies. Their innovative approach has led a number of environmental NGOs and eco-friendly corporations, such as Malampaya Ecotours, to come and settle in the island. This is all together contributing to lay the foundation for a promising future for Palawan.