Tess Gatan-Balbas

Let's take a look at the Philippine crocodile 🔍 (Crocodylus mindorensis), a species endemic to the Philippines and known locally as Buwaya.⁠

These critically endangered reptiles used to be found across the Philippine archipelago. But their population has been in decline and there are estimated to be fewer than 137 mature individuals in the wild. This relatively small and shy freshwater crocodile will only resort to eating local livestock if their source of natural prey or habitat has been disturbed. There are many factors which cause habitat disturbance such as mangrove bark poaching, dynamite fishing and other interactions with humans.

Unfortunately, this crocodile has had been given a bad reputation in the Philippines. Their Tagalog name 'Buwaya' is often used to refer to corrupt politicians, and despite only attacking humans when they are provoked, they are are viewed as dangerous and monstrous creatures.⁠ Shifting the cultural perception of the Philippine crocodile is an important step towards conservation. And luckily for this croc, there are passionate conservationists working to protect its declining population. 

Marites Gatan-Balbas (friends call her Tess) was born on the island of Luzon in the Philippines where she currently works as the COO of the Mabuwaya Foundation. 🐊But Tess wasn't always passionate about the Philippine Crocodile, or 'Buwaya'.⁠ Tess started her career in conservation in 1996, working in one of the largest protected areas of the Philippines, the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. One day in 1999, a fisherman turned over a young creature to her team. It was the most critically endangered crocodilian species in the world, a Philippine Crocodile.⁠

"This was a major discovery" says Tess, "as it was thought that the Philippine crocodile was extinct on Luzon, with only very small populations remaining in southern Philippines. Even now, the total World population is estimated to be less than 150 mature individuals in the wild."⁠ Like many people, Tess had previously feared the Buwaya, but upon seeing the shy nature of this small freshwater crocodile, she recognised how misunderstood this Filipino species is.⁠ Tess then began working for the Mabuwaya Foundation to help implement a research and conservation plan for this crocodile. It was in 2004 when she truly became passionate about the Philippine crocodile. "I learned how special it was because it can only be found in the Philippines and this species also badly needs attention if it is to survive in the wild."⁠

Her specialisation as a community organiser meant that Tess knew how she could change the negative perceptions that people had of the crocodile.⁠ "I knew that if I was convincing enough, I could change their mind from fearing and killing the crocodile to loving it... and the crocodile could become something that they can be proud of!"⁠

The Mabuwaya Foundation was organized in 2003 by Filipino colleagues and Dutch volunteers. Mabuwaya is a contraction of 2 words: Mabuhay 'long live' and Buwaya 'the crocodiles'. ⁠When Tess joined the Mabuwaya Foundation, they were looking for a community organiser to help change the local perception of Philippine Crocodiles. "I was hesitant at first as I knew that there would be a lot of difficulties and I would have a very big responsibility. How to convince the people to love crocodiles?"

The Mabuwaya team focuses on community-based conservation; from lectures and school excursions, to training local people in environmental stewardship and guiding them to farm land more sustainably.⁠ Community-focused conservation has not only benefited the crocodile, but it also has positively impacted their surrounding environment. "We have helped communities set up 8 crocodile sanctuaries and 13 fish sanctuaries and trained local sanctuary guards to enforce environmental laws and the sanctuary ordinances... Many people say there is less erosion and cleaner water and more fish as a result of the sanctuaries and many people enjoy the sight of wild crocodiles and are not afraid of them anymore."⁠

"We now have almost a hundred Philippine crocodiles from less than twenty in 2001...The local government even declared the Philippine crocodile their flagship species, a brave step as crocodiles were associated with corrupt politicians."

If you would like to know more about the Mabuwaya Foundation or the Philippine Crocodile visit www.mabuwaya.org

"I would like to thank the organizations which are very close to my heart, Zoos Victoria in Australia, Synchronicity Earth, Whitley Fund for Nature, Conservation Leadership Program (CLP), Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), the Rufford Foundation, ZSL / London Zoo, Crocodiles of the World, Brize Norton and Wild Discovery / Ribby Hall Village.⁠" - Tess Gatan-Balbas⁠

Written by Gabriella Carr.

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