Off-limits for almost seven years, the forests of Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary, the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mindanao, will reopen to the public later this year. Here’s a preview of what to expect
The mountain wasn’t revealing its beauty too easily. We had to earn it. A sudden downpour bombarded our initial ascent from the trailhead, which in itself was an arduous undertaking: we had to crisscross a shallow stream, battle thorny foliage and clamber up steep slopes for hours to reach the first lantawan (lookout). By the time we got there, we were soaked to the bone in rain and sweat.
Nevertheless, the entire climbing group — writers, forest rangers, local tourism officials, police officers — was egged on by the fact that we were negotiating no ordinary mountain. We were climbing through the forest-cloaked highlands of Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary along the Pujada Peninsula of Davao Oriental. Long known only among scientific and mountaineering circles, this isolated mountain range emerged from obscurity when the 26,000ha protected area was declared the country’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.
The three-day assessment climb, organized by the municipal government of San Isidro, the gateway to the national park, was in preparation for the reopening of the wildlife sanctuary to recreational hikers later this year. Since 2010, access to the core zone had been limited only to scientific exploration. But with protocols set in place to manage the impact of tourism, the mountain will soon welcome recreational climbers again.
Rising only 1,620m above sea level, Mount Hamiguitan’s biggest draw isn’t its stature. It doesn’t quite match up to Mount Apo, which straddles North Cotabato and Davao del Sur — at 2,954m, the country’s tallest mountain is almost twice Mount Hamiguitan’s height. But what sets it apart is the sheer diversity and variety of its resident wildlife. As we crawled deeper into the riotous jungle, our group frequently encountered astonishing plants and animals, many of them found nowhere else on the entire planet.
We were led by local tourism officer Antonio Edquila, who has explored these upland forests countless times. He dubs Hamiguitan the “learning mountain” with its incredible biodiversity of more than 1,400 flora and fauna species across five different levels of vegetation: agro, dipterocarp, montane, mossy and mossy-pygmy forests. Among the unique animals that call this mountain range home are the country’s iconic fauna like the Philippine eagle, Philippine tarsier and Philippine cockatoo. Intriguingly, there are also species found only on this mountain such as the Hamiguitan hairy-tailed rat (Batomys hamiguitan) and Delias magsadana butterfly.
Antonio is a fast and nimble hiker who is able to recognize the distinctive calls of bleeding-heart doves and tarictic hornbills, and as well as identify varieties of pitcher plants by their scientific names. The Philippines currently has 53 species of Nepenthes pitcher plants — with new ones continually being discovered every few years, making the country the global center of pitcher plant diversity. These plants are curious-looking climbers with cup-shaped leaves that lure, trap and digest insects and other small prey. The nature reserve harbors eight species of these carnivorous plants, half of which are only found in the immediate locality.
Among them are the Nepenthes peltata, which we spotted flourishing on a precarious slope of loose gravel with their bulbous red-hued pitchers, and the Nepenthes micramphora, suspended from trailside shrubbery with their small and delicate pitfall traps. “Botanists go crazy with excitement over their discoveries here,” Antonio told us. Further down the trail, he pointed out another local marvel, a short-haired paphiopedilum, an endemic ground orchid threatened by poaching and forest destruction.
The first day’s 11-hour hike was a mere prelude to day two, when we explored the summit area at a slightly more relaxed pace. The chilly air coaxed us out of our tents early in the morning at base camp, which we shared with student researchers headed to study leeches inhabiting the highest peak. Later that second day, we explored the mossy forests of the summit area, festooned with blossoming orchids, fuzzy lichen and other tree-loving flora called “ant plants” that live symbiotically with colonies of ants. And, at the topmost level, the trail opened to an unbelievable landscape and the crowning glory of Mount Hamiguitan’s diverse ecosystems.
The highest peaks are blanketed with more than 1,200ha of the world’s largest pygmy forest, composed of centuries-old trees stunted by the mineral-rich volcanic soil. Indigenous hardwood such as almaciga, dita, dapdap, and bitanghol, which typically grow several stories tall in ideal conditions, are shrunk down to an average height of only 4.5ft.
The lush expanse of gnarled natural bonsai dotted with white-flowered Dendrochilum kopfii ground orchids (yet another endemic species) was otherworldly. As we slogged up narrow paths of reddish mud, the pygmy forest made us feel like giants towering over treetops. Curtains of fog grazing the low-lying canopies added to the fairytale atmosphere.
The summit trail finally took us to Tinagong Dagat (meaning “hidden sea”), an ancient volcanic crater partially filled with a mist-shrouded lake, which indigenous Mandaya people believe experiences changing tides, hence its name. The phenomenon is likely caused by varying amounts of rainfall throughout the year, affecting the water level of the lake. A short hike away from the crater was another mysterious site called Hidden Garden, a grassless grove of dwarf sagimsim trees. Locals attribute their pruned appearance to engkantos or nature spirits who live deep within the forests.
Pygmy forests are telltale signs of significant mineral deposits, and as such they also pique the interest of mining companies. Fortunately, Hamiguitan has been spared from the destruction that has befallen other ore-rich mountains, chiefly thanks to San Isidro mayor Justina Yu, a staunch defender of the mountain range for more than 50 years. Her unwavering dedication to protect one of the country’s last remaining swathes of old-growth forests against lucrative industries like mining, logging and large-scale plantations are mainly credited for the mountain’s inscription as a World Heritage Site, and, later on, as an ASEAN Heritage Park. She calls her relationship with the mountain a “love story” that began ever since she first laid eyes on its gentle slopes. “The mountain captivated me from the very beginning,” she recalled over dinner at her home back in San Isidro town after our descent on the third day. “I knew it was filled with beautiful and wonderful things.” In honor of her lifelong work as a vanguard for environmental conservation, an endemic pitcher plant species recently discovered on Mount Hamiguitan was named after her, Nepenthes justinae. “We are only caretakers of the mountain,” the 77-year-old eco-warrior added, beaming with pride, “because it now forever belongs to the world.”
This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Smile.