Gruff and grizzled, the guardian stared with steely orbs the colour of flame – gauging our character and purity. Baring his yellow teeth, he holds out an upturned palm, barring us from going further. 

“We should give offerings,” cautions a sweating Munir Hamsaji, one of my climbing teammates. Having climbed this mountain many times before, Munir cautiously unties a knotted plastic bag, takes a crusty piece of bread and tosses it to the waiting warden. Delighted, the long-tailed macaque snatches the treat and hoots off into the forest. Relieved, we trek on. Bud Bongao’s guardians have allowed us passage.

GUARDIANS


Cloaking its secrets with verdure and mist, Bud Bongao is Tawi-Tawi’s most famous mountain, sprouting 340 meters above the sea. It’s a revered pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims, who come in droves to brave slippery rocks and the snarl of undergrowth to visit one of three carefully-tended Tampat or shrines.

Over 630 years ago, Arab merchant Karim ul-Makhdum landed in the Philippines to spread Islam, establishing the country’s first mosque – Sheik Karimal Makdum Masjid – in Simunul, a small island off the coast of Tawi-Tawi. Legend has it that one of his original followers – a preacher – was buried atop Bud Bongao.

Today the mountain is a 250-hectare treasure trove of biodiversity and one of the last remaining moist forests in the Sulu archipelago. It is also the first site in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to be administered completely by the local government.

“Bud Bongao is an icon of terrestrial biodiversity conservation and eco-tourism in Tawi-Tawi because of the wealth of its wildlife and its unique cultural importance,” says World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Tawi-Tawi Project Manager Dr. Filemon Romero.  

In a well-attended ceremony held last month, officials from WWF and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) turned over the management of Bud Bongao and adjacent Bud Kabugan to the local government of Tawi-Tawi, led by Bongao Mayor Jasper Que, Governor Nurbert Sahali and Congresswoman Ruby Sahali.

Holy Mountain Images by Gregg Yan & WWF
Holy Mountain Images by Gregg Yan & WWF

Hand-in-hand with the DENR, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Global Environmental Facility (GEF), plus local government units from Tawi-Tawi, WWF has been conducting baseline studies and communications initiatives for Bud Bongao since December 2010. “It’s one of the model sites under the New Conservation Areas in the Philippines Project or NEWCAPP, which protects 12 key biodiversity areas across the nation,” says DENR Protected Areas Specialist Ariel Erasga. “We wish to highlight novel ways of protecting biodiversity hubs – particularly if their management plans were developed by communities, indigenous groups and local government units.”

NEWCAPP aims to expand and strengthen the terrestrial protected area (PA) system of the Philippines by developing new PA models and building capacities for effective management. The expanded PA system will have comprehensive ecological coverage plus strong links to  both local  communities  and  indigenous  lands through the development and integration of new conservation zones.

Now it seems, all the people of Tawi-Tawi shall become guardians of Bud Bongao. “All that we see and experience now, we hope to preserve for the future,” said Tawi-Tawi Governor Nurbert Sahali at the turnover.

PRAYERS ON TREES 


Following the spine of Bud Bongao, we pass an enormous Molave tree said to be the largest of its kind in the country. We finally break free of the forest’s dappled gloom to reach the sunbathed summit. Savouring a few breaths, plus the breath-taking view of the Celebes Sea, I look south – squinting at the faint outline of Malaysian Borneo. Around us, branches are adorned with knotted strips of plastic, cloth and foil – prayers for safe passage. Overhead float lazy ribbons of cloud.

Holy Mountain in the Philippines
Holy Mountain in the Philippines by Gregg Yan & WWF


I take a moment to pray to God – by whatever name pilgrims call him. Descending, we encounter a group of Muslim pilgrims, decked out in bright regalia, the women wholly covered in long gowns and hijab scarves. I wonder how they can stand the heat – bearing umbrellas and basketfuls of food to boot. We stop and talk with an Imam, a religious leader.

“The preacher wished to be buried atop the highest point in Bongao so his followers can prove their sincerity,” explains Ishmael Uto. “This weeds out the unworthy, ensuring that pilgrims work hard to turn wishes into reality.”

My sole wish is for the mountain’s guardians – humans, spirits and monkeys alike – to continue protecting one of the last bastions of terrestrial biodiversity in Sulu.

Parting ways as pilgrims to the same God, I turn to the venerable Imam and say, “Salaam alaiukum.” He smiles and shakes my hand warmly. “And peace be with you, brother.” (END)

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