By Hanah Tabios
Horses, livestock, poultry, and domestic cats and dogs are now feared to be starving to death or buried alive in volcanic ash as Taal Volcano continues to show signs of a highly destructive eruption according to the country’s state volcanologists.
The life in “Pulo”
Known to many as “pulo,” the entire Volcano Island in Batangas was classified by the Philippine Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) as a permanent danger zone, with permanent settlement on the island not recommended considering its proximity to the small yet extremely dangerous Taal Volcano.
But its buffer zones or areas that are highly susceptible to danger was populated by around 169,000 of Batangueños which includes the lakeshore barangays of Talisay, Agoncillo, San Nicolas, and Laurel.
Despite the horrors brought about by the 1965 and 1911 eruptions, many still opted to reside along the restricted zones and used the opportunity to earn a living through horseback riding activities.
Unlike in Mount Pinatubo Crater Lake in Botolan, Zambales where tourists have no choice but to hike along the rocky and dusty trail, the province’s volcano island was the only tourist attraction in the Philippines offering horseback riding as a way to reach the perilous destination.
At the brink of the unfolding disaster, the Manila Bulletin found Alex Palomeno, 38, of Barangay Kalawit in San Nicolas town, who has been in the business for 17 years. He was the sole registered operator of horseback riding packages in Talisay where he manages around 300 horsemen with over 1,000 horses under his supervision.
For adventure seekers, the town of Talisay is known as the most ideal point to ride the motorized Filipino banca and travel across the lake and then trek toward the rim of “Daang Kastila” trail going to “pulo.”
Alex said almost 90% of animals in the island are horses while the rest are pigs, cows, carabaos, and chickens.
“Whole year-round ang [schedule] ng pasyal dito. Karamihan, bukod sa Pinoy ay Chinese, Korean, Hong Kong nationals, Taiwanese, saka yung iba ay Europeans at Americans. Katunayan, tuwing August at February ang pinakamalakas ang guests pero kapag April hanggang July matumal,” he said.
But during off-season, residents have to find a way to make ends meet like Kenneth Malibiran, 26, of Barangay San Isidro in Talisay, who was among Alex’ horsemen.
The third among 15 siblings, Kenneth described their life at “pulo” as very simple.
“Ang aming buhay ay napakasimple. Nagsimula kami sa pagtatanim ng mga kamote o mga pananim na kapag lumago ay maaaring maibenta para laang may maihanda sa hapag kainan. Nagtatanim rin kami ng mga gulay o pagkain na maaaring maipagbili, pandagdag kita. Nag-aalaga rin kami ng baboy para kapag lumaki ito ay maibebenta namin pati na rin isda,” he said.
But Kenneth learned the ropes of horseback riding at age 16 primarily to sustain his family’s financial needs.
“Sa tulong ng pagkakadiskubre ng mga turista sa lugar na ito ay naging maayos ang buhay namin at nakakaahon na mula kahirapan habang patagal ng patagal. Pero ang hirap sa pag-aahon ay aming iniinda magkaroon lamang ng kita. Sa isang pag-ahon sa bulkan ay kumikita kami ng 100 pesos kaparte sa kabayo at kung kami ang nagmamay-ari ng kabayo ay 350 pesos,” he said.
Even freelance tour guide Grace Ocampo of Pagsanjan, Laguna, benefited from the flow of tourists to the island since 2014.
“Pulo” then and now
But everyone was caught off guard after Taal volcano’s phreatic eruption on Sunday afternoon, January 12.
As gray and hazardous ash blanketed Batangas and nearby provinces, its impressive beauty was overshadowed by the eruption.
Residents were told to evacuate. But without the intention to abandon their pets, animals were left in the now deserted island where any form of life is impossible to thrive.
On Tuesday, the Philippine Animal Welfare Society reported that 30 out of 3,000 horses from “pulo” were already evacuated but the figure alone dictated the difficulty of rescue operations involving big animals.
A number of social media users not directly affected by the eruption expressed worries about the animals’ situation, primarily the horses that served as guide to tourists for so many years. The Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (PDRRMO) Batangas already declared that it will no longer evacuate the said animals because the situation was very risky. Animal rescuers were no longer allowed to go to the island.
Alex Czar Masiglat, Calabarzon’s (Cavite-Laguna-Batangas-Rizal-Quezon) Office of the Civil Defense (OCD) Information Officer, told the Manila Bulletin that there were already attempts to save them but because the volcano shows no sign of letting up, the priority remains to be humans.
“Local government units na po ang may prerogative over this concern. So long as it is not safe, it is going to be difficult to send people there. Mas pinaigting din po ang security along the lake to prevent people na may access to boats in going to the island. No one po is allowed to go to the volcano island as of the moment since alert level 4 is raised,” he said. The provincial government is still strategizing how to save the animals.
But some residents continue to defy the order in hopes of saving whatever they can.
In a video sent by Alex to the Manila Bulletin on Wednesday, some horses can be seen walking along the shoreline of “pulo” but their grazing land, including all residential houses, are already buried in ash.
“Hindi lang hanggang tao ang loob dito. Ang mga kabayo nakakaawa. Ngayon buhay pero paano tutubo ang damo? Ano ang kakainin nila? Ang dating napakagandang lugar na pinapasyalan ng libo-libong turista ngayon naging disyerto na,” he said.
Kenneth does not know how he can recover from the disaster.
Phivolcs said Taal Volcano’s threat of erupting again is imminent despite its changing behavior.