“Flyway: connecting people and migratory waterbirds” story series #14 – Ms. Angelique Songco, Site Manager of FNS Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park of the Philippines

Site managers play an important role as a frontier to safeguard important sites, this time we would like to introduce Ms. Angelique Songco, Site Manager of Flyway Network Site Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park of the Philippines. She is also a member of the EAAFP Seabird Working Group. In 2019, Angelique was awarded the KfW-Bernhard-Grzimek Prize for outstanding organizations or leaders on the conservation of the world’s biodiversity. With her at the helm, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park won the Platinum Global Ocean Refuge Award and has been acknowledged as an environmental model and was named one of the best-managed marine protected areas in the world.

© Angelique Songco

EAAFP: Hi Angelique, you are well known as “Mama Ranger”, how did this name come about? And could you tell us about yourself and your background, please?

Being away from the people and things they hold dear for two months is not easy for the marine park rangers of Tubbataha and I empathize with them. So I mother them, sometimes even smother them.

I was in the Armed Forces of the Philippines for five years in my early life, then I became a scuba diver and fell in love with the ocean and never left the water since then. I worked as a diving professional on dive boats to Tubbataha for about a decade, learning about marine life and conservation as I went along. I was a volunteer for a local NGO for a while, too. I would lug my wooden flipchart in the wharf and give briefings to tourists before the boats left for Tubbataha. When the Tubbataha management board was looking for a manager, I immediately applied.  That was 20 years ago.

EAAFP: We now learned that you started your career as a diving instructor. What made you change your career?

It is hard to be a diver and not fall in love with the ocean. I think that is the natural progression for scuba divers, you learn more about the ocean, you care more, you want to do more, and then you protect it. I am lucky and honored to have the opportunity to do this work that I totally believe in and love.

EAAFP: With its rich biodiversity, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park was declared a Protected site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What can you tell us about the rich biodiversity at the Natural Park?

Tubbataha happens to be located in the Coral Triangle, known as the global center of marine biodiversity. It hosts more than half of all coral genera known in the world and most of the coral species known in our country. The fish biomass is very high and it holds one of very few known seabird strongholds in Southeast Asia. The Park has almost 200 species of corals and fish that are internationally protected. All these and more are what make up the outstanding universal value of the Tubbataha Reefs.

© Angelique Songco

EAAFP: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is the world’s best model for site management. What are the success stories about the Park that you think can also be applied for the effective conservation of other key sites?

I truly believe that it is critical to invest in people and relationships in order to succeed in conservation. We are not managing fish, we are managing human use of the resource. Tubbataha happens to be located in a biodiversity-rich area, but maintaining its value does not happen by chance. It is a lot of work that entails genuine partnerships and collaboration across so many disciplines. We all know this – it isn’t rocket science. ‘Genuine’ is the operative word.

EAAFP: Could you share some challenges you experience in site management? And how did you overcome them?

When I first took the office, we had different agencies doing enforcement in the Park. Each agency has its own protocols and understanding of the work at hand.  We began a series of dialogues, which goes on to this day, I must say, to learn how to work as one agency with a shared vision and mission. There are four agencies enforcing regulations in the Park. The personnel change quite often and the dialogue continues so that we can work as one complete enforcement agent.

EAAFP: Other than challenges, there must be some special moments during your work, can you share with us too?

I have thousands of special moments with the rangers. I will not forget the many hours we spend snorkeling, which we euphemistically call ‘monitoring’, and how happy we all would be to see a shark or a turtle, although they are very common there. Or how terrified we all were when the patrol boat almost capsized in very rough seas. It is the shared experience that makes these moments very special. I have a long history of special moments with the rangers.

© Angelique Songco

EAAFP: Congratulations again on winning several awards such as the KfW-Bernhard-Grzimek Prize 2019 and being named the Hero of the Environment for your work in biodiversity conservation. What are some of the innovative strategies that have led to these achievements?

You know what? I did not set out to innovate. I just went ahead and did what I thought was necessary to overcome the challenges confronting us. One merely steps into the gap, that gap is usually unique to one’s site so the response is unique too. That seems to be all it takes to innovate.

EAAFP: With your experiences in site management, what do you think are the key elements to effectively protecting important sites?

Our strongest assets are the people who protect the site. Providing them with adequate training and equipment to perform their functions is a must for us. A supportive policy is vital too, but in the end, it is people who implement these policies that make it work for our protected areas. So we are back to Number 1 – the people.

EAAFP: What message would you like to tell other site managers about how to protect biodiversity while also considering the tourism value of a site?

As site managers, we keep our eyes on the bottom line – that of protecting biodiversity and natural processes – in our case. We treat tourism as a tool for educating people on the value of our sites and for generating revenues for conservation. We should never allow it to degrade the value of our areas, as we have seen happen in many tourist destinations before the pandemic. We keep our eyes on the prize and everything else is peripheral.

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