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Balabac’s Molbog Tribe Struggles To Balance Respect For Crocodiles With Safety Concerns

Philippine Indigenous Community's Sacred Connection to Crocodiles Poses Conservation Challenges

Decades ago, crocodile hunting was practiced by humans to meet their needs through the economic value of a the animal’s skin and meat.


Although the practice came to a stop a long time ago, the community of Barangay Catagupan in Balabac, an island in the province of Palawan in the southwest Philippines, has had to endure attacks from crocodiles in recent years.


A family who still practiced croc hunting in the 1990s lost three of their own due to an unfortunate series of encounters with the dangerous reptiles in 2017, 2018 and 2020, according to the conservation group Crocodylus Porosus Philippines Inc., and part of a series of attacks.


“They believe that if you do not bother the crocodiles, they won’t bother you either. The older relatives were the hunters back then — some said crocodiles would have retaliated,” said CPPI Public Information and Education Officer Mellie Corvera. 


The residents also saw a crocodile waddle over and pay a visit to the grave of a deceased relative who had also been attacked by a crocodile. Corvera attributes the story to the traditional beliefs of the Molbog, a Muslim group in the southern part of Palawan province. The Bangsamoro Commission for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage said the Molbog are a minority group believed to have migrated to the Philippines from North Borneo.


Like for all Muslims, Islam and its teachings are for the Molbog a way of life. But for them, crocodiles are considered sacred and their ancestors. For example, the Molbog word for crocodile — “opo” — is the same used to refer to grandparents.


In his 16 years working with the community, wildlife enforcement officer Jonathan Montalba, who works for the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, said that they do not hold grudges against crocodiles — even when they are an inconvenience to them.


“In Indigenous belief, a crocodile is a sacred creature. According to them, the crocodile is one of their ancestors; that is why they fear capturing or killing crocodiles,” said Montalba.


Conservationists like Corvera and Montalba said they have observed the Molbog’s respect as a way to encourage human-crocodile coexistence.

Science, tradition and conservation. 


Even though it is difficult to connect the science in the three attacks, CPPI still finds listening to communities as a helpful way to understand the role of traditional belief in their response towards crocodiles. Aside from cultural veneration, the Molbog understand the importance of crocodiles in marine ecosystems and their role in increasing the number of fish.


It is important that this traditional knowledge be converted into science as the basis of information campaigns, said CPPI Program Director Rainier Manalo.


“We are just converting those cultures into science. We are only middlemen. We are just mediators that there’s a science behind their culture,” he said.


The same views are shared by the peoples of the Maguindanao-Manobo and Agusan-Manobo. who help the group in its conservation campaign in crocodile-infested areas of the Philippines. In fact, the island nation is home to two of the world’s 28 crocodile species: The Philippine crocodile and the saltwater crocodile. Saltwater crocodiles once roamed the Philippines, but decades of dynamite fishing and hunting has left them in just a few places. They are now considered a protected species.


The more aggressive saltwater crocodile inhabit Palawan, with a population of just 5,785 spread across 7,143 kilometers (4,400 miles) of river. Between the year 2000 and 2023, CPPI recorded around 80 cases of human and crocodile conflicts, the majority of which were recorded in Balabac.


A 2017 study conducted by CPPI revealed that the human need to access livelihoods has resulted in encroachment on crocodile habitat. In 2019, the local government of Balabac crafted an ordinance aligned with this experience by prohibiting the raising of animals near water bodies where crocodile attacks typically happen.


It was also revealed that making use of cultural veneration and local knowledge of crocodile behavior can make mutual coexistence with these animals possible.


“They tell us that they sometimes see (crocodiles) lying ou; it is OK for them to work in the river. But if they see crocodiles heading downward, locals transfer to elevated spot because they could be bitten,” said Corvera.


However, as generations change, so do traditions. Younger members of this Indigenous community, for example, no longer possess the same level of belief in crocodiles.


Montalba and Manalo agreed that some may not have passed down the traditional belief to their descendants, particularly when it comes to crocodiles. Even though it does not entirely affect the campaigns, CPPI said it believes that traditional knowledge is an advantage in conservation efforts, both for locals and migrants.


“It will remain the same even if they don’t practice. Our programs are uniform and similar. We did not put a barrier (up). It just has an advantage that Indigenous peoples adapt easily, unlike migrants, (for whom) the process takes a little longer,” said Manalo.

Produced in association with Religion Unplugged

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