Like Noah’s Ark, the animals were transported from Kenya to the Philippines by boat.
On March 4, 1977, MV Salvador delivered 104 African animals to the remote island of Calauit: 15 zebras, 15 giraffes, 18 impalas, 12 bushbacks, 11 elands, 11 gazelles, 12 waterbucks and 10 topis.
There are many stories why these African animals were transferred to the Philippines but the official version of the Marcos Administration was President Ferdinand Marcos was heeding the call of Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta for help in saving African wildlife threatened by drought and war.
On August 21, 1976, President Marcos issued Presidential Proclamation No. 1578 creating the Calauit Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary. The 3,800-hectare island of Calauit in north of Busuanga was chosen because of its isolation. The original 250 families, mostly belonging to the original Tagbanua tribe of Palawan, were relocated to the nearby islands of Halsey and Burabod to clear the island of human inhabitants. The island was also cleared of bamboo forests to recreate the savannahs of Africa.
In the early 1980s, the Wildlife Sanctuary added threatened endemic animals like Calamian Deer, Palawan Bearcat and Balabac Mousedeer. During its peak, the Sanctuary had 300 personnel to take care of the African and endemic animals.
Then EDSA People Power happened. All projects initiated by the Marcos Administration were put to a halt.
The sanctuary was temporarily under the helm of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources before it was turned over to the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) in 1995. PCSD was tasked to rejuvenate the island’s marine resources and mangrove forest. Finally, in 2008, the sanctuary was turned over to the province of Palawan, and was renamed Calauit Safari Park.
After the EDSA People Power, the original inhabitants tried to reclaim the island. They succeeded in March 2008 when the National Commission on the Indigenous Peoples favored the Tagbanua indigenous community. This started the Balik-Calauit movement of the “original settlers.”
This is not the only problem that the island is now facing. The current staff of less 30 operates on a very limited budget from the provincial government. Their number is not enough to take care of the animals.
Of the eight species that were brought to the island, the gazelles, impalas, bushbacks and topis did not survive. There are now over 30 zebras, over 20 giraffes and a few number of waterbucks and elands. The safety of the park also helped increase the number of the once endangered Calamian Deer to over a thousand.
The Calauit Safari Park, because of its remoteness and current problems, is not getting enough tourists as it should. But for those fortunate enough to visit the island, it’s an opportunity to see and even touch animals out of Africa.
How to get there
Calauit Island is located on the north of Busuanga Island in northern Palawan.
Take a one-hour flight from Manila to Coron. The Francisco B. Reyes Airport is 30 minutes away from Coron town center. Take a van (P150) to get to the town center where transportation going to Calauit can be rented.
The jump-off point going to Calauit is located about 80 kilometers north in Busuanga town. The easiest way to get there is to join a tour group (P2,500 per head all in). Motorcycles (P600 per day) or vans (P4,000 per day) can be rented to go to Calauit. Travel time is about three hours, including stopovers for photo-ops on some of the most gorgeous views in the island.
From the jump-off point, there’s a 10-minute boat ride to reach the park. Park entrance for Filipinos is P200, and P400 for foreigners. At the park, one can either walk or take a rented jeepney (P1,000).
What to see, what to do
Going to the island is already an adventure. Be sure to leave Coron town very early in the morning to reach Calauit early.
At the Safari Park, visitors will be accompanied by a guide who will explain about the island’s history. The guide will also lead visitors to go inside an enclosure (yes, this time the humans are caged!) where the giraffes are fed. The giraffes eat the fresh Bakawan leaves brought to the enclosure by staff. Visitors can feed the giraffes by holding the branches and wait for the giraffes to bite the leaves.
The open savannah also has plenty of zebras and Calamian deer to see. Both are not camera shy. The other African animals are difficult to see.
There’s a mini-zoo where one can see other endemic Palawan animals, such as porcupine, wild boar, Palawan Bear Cat, monkeys and civet cats. There’s also a giant Palawan Crocodile inside a cage. The island is also a bird sanctuary, so be in a lookout for those endemic and migratory birds having a peaceful co-existence with the resident animals.
The guides will also show visitors some of the local tree varieties on the island. In summer, the so-called Palawan cherry blossoms are in full bloom. They will also show visitors the tree called Banato, where the camouflage pattern of the Philippine Army was copied.
Where to stay, what to eat
The Safari Park has no restaurants, so it is best to bring your own food. However, don’t feed the animals with sandwiches and junk foods.
For lodging, the park allows visitors to stay on the island so that they may see nocturnal animals. However, this requires special arrangements with the park management.
While there are now a few lodging places in north Busuanga, it is still better to stay in the Coron town proper where there are places stay, from back-packer establishments to high-end resorts. It is also in Coron town where most of the places to eat are located.
There are plans to make Calauit into a theme park, something similar to Jurassic Park. But until that time comes, Calauit is a good place to interact with those African animals that now call the Philippines their home.