Negros Forest Park’s Sexy Big Five

Mornings, when leaves are wet with dew, are ideal for a visit to the Negros Forest Park. A trek or a steep hike is not needed to get here. This lush rainforest is right beside the Provincial Capitol Lagoon, nestled like a sponge sucking car fumes off Lacson Street in Bacolod.

Paul Lizares, Vice President of the Talarak Foundation, has a go-to spot in the park. “My favorite spot is…where all the varieties of birds are. It’s kind of nice to see all kinds of different birds and colors in one cage,” he shares, though he hates to call them “cages”. The Talarak Foundation has been managing the Negros Forest Park since its merger with the Negros Forest and Ecological Foundation in 2018.

The Visayan Tarictic Hornbills help create new forest patches through seed dispersal.

“I’m not scientifically inclined,” Lizares admits. “I’m an anthropologist, not a biologist.” But his favorite pastime of staring at the birds in detail and his personal investment to protect the endangered speak of the park’s great intrinsic value. Like him, one doesn’t have to be a biologist or science geek to enjoy a day walking in the midst of endemic trees and endangered species.

Rufous-headed Hornbills soar and spread seeds across the forest, in places that human tree planting activities can’t reach.

Rare and Sexy

“Our animals here, which we call the Negros Big Five, are pretty much the sexiest we can offer for Negros and the Western Visayas faunal region.” The Negros Big Five temporarily call the Negros Forest Park home. These are the Visayan Tarictic Hornbill, the Rufous-headed Hornbill, the Visayan Warty Pig, the Visayan Spotted Deer, and the Negros Bleeding Heart Pigeon. Balding forests, poaching, and urbanization are just some of the factors that make the Negros Big Five either functionally extinct or close to extinction.

The Visayan Warty Pigs, as foragers and natural tillers, help release nutrients in the soil.

But the Talarak Foundation remains steadfast in devoting time and resources to breed these species in captivity. For one, the Negros Bleeding Heart Pigeon, easily hunted as attractive ground-dwellers, had been deemed extinct in the 1920s. Four decades later, a pair was found, then bred, and revived. Today, there are 28 of these multicolored “chicken pigeons”.

The goal, however, is not to keep them caged forever like token animals for tourists to ogle at. The foundation plans to release them back to the wild, to their natural habitat where they can play their distinct roles in shaping biodiversity and saving the planet. The hornbills in the Negros Big Five, for instance, are seed spreaders that help create new forest patches. The Visayan Warty Pig is a natural soil tiller as it digs and forages for food. The Visayan Spotted Deer and the Bleeding Heart Pigeon, apart from their symbiotic relationships with other creatures, do not have to do much to attract attention. This local deer’s gait, for example, is simply enthralling, and the endemic pigeon’s plumage is too precious a sight to lose forever.

By sharpening their antlers against a tree trunk, Visayan Spotted Deer help trees provide dew for insects to drink.

Paul Lizares further hopes that more people will be aware of the Negros Big Five and the need to protect them. He observes that local public schools have images of giraffes, tigers, and rhinos plastered and painted on walls, a distant reality that waters down people’s awareness about what animals Negros is losing. As Paul Lizares emphasizes, it’s difficult to protect what you don’t know.

Professionalism, Legacy, Strategic Support

“The start of the education process is to visit us here,” Lizares invites. “Come visit us if you are in Bacolod. The gate may not look like it’s wide open…but we’re always here.”

In the pandemic, the limited number of visitors that the Negros Forest Park accommodates per day makes it a relatively safe space. The management needs to implement this visitor cap so that the animals can breed undisturbed. But this also means that living off entrance fees would not suffice. “We pretty much live year to year.”

Thus, Paul Lizares outlines strategic ways to support the work of the Negros Forest Park. “Help us find more long-term donors, like corporations that can provide financial assistance through their Corporate Social Responsibility efforts. It will save us a lot of effort,” he expresses, adding that this would mean much needed focus on their core work of breeding and education.

He recalls the time when the park was bereft of funds and there was none to pay the staff. But the staff stayed on and this was the same character, professionalism, and dedication that enabled them to bounce back and become a trusted recipient of numerous grants from international funders.

Alas, the need for funding is unshakable. Part of the challenge, Lizares supposes, is that the Negros Big Five may not be as sexy as the panda and the killer whale, leading global icons of wildlife conservation. Nonetheless, they’re sexier than the giraffes, tigers, and rhinos Lizares finds painted on school walls. Perhaps, images of Negros’s own – the Tarictic Hornbill, the Rufous-headed Hornbill, Visayan Warty Pig, Visayan Spotted Deer, and the Negros Bleeding Heart Pigeon – brushed everywhere the Negrense looks, could start a groundswell of local public support.

Text by: Krystel Marie Santiago
Photos and Video by: Unit A Creatives

The Negros Bleeding Heart Pigeons also aid in seed dispersal by feeding on fallen fruit.

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