A hundred years ago, there were no roads to Bunawan

Sunday, July 1, 2012
Rafe Brown

River from the air

Half way through our expeditionary celebration of a century of KU Herpetology in the Philippines, I left the team on the beach near Gingoog City, in Misamis Oriental Province, Northern Mindanao.  After Mt. Hilong-hilong, some much needed R&R—plus a chance to clean and dry moldy clothes and tents—was just what the doctor ordered.  As I travelled back to the states for a brief hiatus, I again reflected again on how different my experience is compared to that of KU Professor E. H. Taylor, Father of Philippine herpetology.  When he first travelled to the archipelago a century ago, he put down roots and stayed in a small village called Bunawan for several years.  A hundred years later, I regularly zip back and forth, sometimes for just a few weeks.  Reaching these same remote locations that Taylor studied in 1912, in just a matter of days, is still something that still astounds me; I still cannot quite believe how much bigger his planet was than mine.

Of course, today Bunawan is not so remote.  As I landed today in Butuan City on my return flight to re-join the team (now in the mountains above Cagayan de Oro City), I was afforded a breathtaking view of the mouth of the Butuan River and the eastern arc mountains of Mindanao in the background.

When Taylor arrived at the same spot a century ago, it was by ship.  I can only imagine what the Port of Butuan was like back then, how much slower-paced life was for everyone here.  A hundred years ago, Taylor spent several days negotiating passage up river and then travelled by smaller boats inland to Bunawan. He described the trip in exotic, dreamy terms; there was a lot more forest back then and the only means of travel was by riverboat. A hundred years ago there were no roads to Bunawan.

Stationed in the small village where he was tasked with teaching in a small government-run school, Taylor began his herpetological explorations in his free time.  His first publications describing new species appeared in the Philippine Journal of Science a few years later.  This year’s expedition is, yes, as always, geared towards discovering new species and documenting resident biodiversity.  But also we hope to “rediscover” many of the species that Taylor first named 100 years ago.  Only a few herpetologists have searched for many of these in the past century, often with limited success.   Now that there are paved roads to Bunawan, my excitement necessarily combines with my anxiety about the loss of forest over the past century.  With so much of that original habitat now converted to rice fields, palm plantations, and pineapple groves, just how many of Taylor’s species are still around?