More than 150 natural caves across the Philippines have been placed under varying degrees of protection from treasure hunters, polluters and vandals, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said on Friday.
The agency has released a new list of 158 caves it has classified for conservation, bringing to 234 the number of caves whose natural wealth and resources have been placed under the protection and management of the government.
“Caves are natural, nonrenewable resources that are of tremendous value to man, whether scientific, economic, cultural, historical or aesthetic,” Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said in a statement.
“Yet they are also in constant threat from destructive human activities like vandalism, treasure hunting, pollution and illegal extraction of resources,” he said.
Paje said the classification of caves would serve as a guide in identifying strategies to protect, conserve and manage the resources within and around them.
The DENR categorizes caves in three classes.
Class I caves are those with “delicate and fragile geological formations, threatened species, archaeological and paleontological values and extremely hazardous conditions.”
Only activities for mapping, photography, educational and scientific purposes are allowed in these caves. Included in the list of Class I caves are two segments of the Capisaan Cave System in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya, and the Kwebang Puti in Cavinti, Laguna.
On the other hand, Class II caves have “hazardous conditions and contain sensitive geological, archaeological, cultural, historical and biological values or high-quality ecosystems.”
Such caves are open to experienced spelunkers or caving enthusiasts and guided visits, although some portions may be closed seasonally or permanently for conservation purposes. Callao Cave in Peñablanca, Cagayan, and Bat Cave on Boracay Island are examples.
Class III caves are “generally safe” for inexperienced visitors, with no known threatened species living in them, nor any archaeological, geological, historical or cultural values.
Economic activities, such as the collection of guano and edible birds’ nest, are allowed in these caves. Examples of these are the Bat Cave in Peñablanca, Cagayan, Crystal Cave on Boracay Island and Bandera Caves in on the Island Garden City of Samal, Davao del Norte.
The 158 caves classified by the DENR are spread out across all regions in the country, except Metro Manila and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Western Visayas has the highest number of total assessed caves at 41, followed by the Ilocos Region, with 25. Pangasinan province has 18 caves, the biggest number in the country, followed by Iloilo with 17.
Cave classification is a process undertaken by the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB).
Once classified, a management plan is prepared for each cave to consider all ecotourism, scientific, educational and economic activities, as well as monitoring and reclassification, in those areas.
The PAWB has recorded at least 1,756 caves since the implementation of the DENR’s Caves Management and Conservation Program in 1994.
Under the National Caves and Cave Resources Management and Protection Act, people are prohibited from “knowingly destroying, disturbing, defacing, marring, altering, removing, or harming” rock and mineral formations in caves, or disturbing the animal and plant life in them.
They are also prohibited from “gathering, collecting, possessing, consuming, selling, bartering or exchanging or offering for sale without authority any, cave resources.”
Violators face imprisonment of up to six years or a fine of up to P500,000, or both. A tougher penalty—up to eight years in prison or a fine of up to P1 million pesos, or both—will be meted out to “the person furnishing the capital to accomplish the acts.”