Joni Acay’s childhood was a picture of rural paradise. Growing up in the countryside in northern Philippines, her earliest memories of the outdoors include being chased by butterflies, catching toads using her bare hands and pitching tents atop a hill with a stunning view of the sunrise peeking out from behind the massive mountains.
This first-hand exposure to the wonders of nature and a love of animals inspired Joni to carve a career in conservation. Also influential are her parents — her dad works for an NGO — and Jane Goodall. “I am inspired by how she’s so passionate about her work that many others embraced it and became passionate about it as well,” she says.
Though Joni wanted to take up veterinary medicine at university, life took an interesting turn when she studied biology instead. While doing fieldwork to reintroduce Philippine freshwater crocodiles to the wild in the province of Isabela in 2011, she met Merlijn van Weerd, the director of Mabuwaya Foundation, where she now works.
Back then, Van Weerd was looking for a researcher to spearhead the search for the Isabela oriole, a species thought to have been extinct for 40 years. Joni took the opportunity, and together with Mabuwaya Foundation’s Project ORIS — a volunteer group named after the Isabela oriole’s genus and species name, Oriolus isabellae — she set out to do what others had deemed impossible: find a bird that had not been seen in the skies of the Sierra Madre for decades.
Though rediscovered in 2003, the bird proved elusive. Joni and her team had to verify the bird’s presence by crafting different survey techniques, studying old maps and excerpts from previous expeditions, researching and conducting fieldwork. They had their breakthrough in 2012, when they saw the birds in the municipality of Baggao in Cagayan, which was once an unverified site where the birds reportedly had
“When we first saw the Isabela oriole, we couldn’t wipe the smiles off each other’s faces!” she says. Later that year, when they had to catch and tag some of the birds, she had the opportunity to see them up close. “That was the first time I held an oriole and saw the beautiful coloration of its feathers and how big its beak was.”
But why save a bird that most people do not even know exists? Joni explains that it goes beyond saving this particular species to saving an ecosystem. “To protect the Isabela oriole from extinction, we also have to protect its lowland forest habitat. And along with that, we can protect other species that live in the same habitat and also secure the future of the local communities who depend on the forest for their sustenance and livelihood,” she says.
Thanks to Joni and her team’s bird surveys, they were able to verify the presence of about 15 pairs of Isabela orioles in Baggao, which has led to the establishment of a sanctuary for the protection of this species and its habitat. If the birds could talk, they’d probably sing praises of Project ORIS and the determined Joni Acay.
Those interested in volunteering for Project ORIS’s field surveys or in donating to the communities that they work with can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Smile magazine.