Conservation Realist
Conservation Realist Podcast
Beyond Bridges & Boundaries

Beyond Bridges & Boundaries

Mark de la Paz on conservation "failure," long-term work, and learning across borders

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  • Long-term work with communities on Irrawaddy dolphin conservation on Negros Island, Philippines

  • And how that work was threatened – and paused out of safety concerns – due to big infrastructure development plans

  • The serious risks of working in environmental activism in the Philippines

  • Processing the difficulties of conservation work and still remaining hopeful

  • The vastly different conservation contexts between Philippines and Japan

  • The move from one frustrating species (Irrawaddy dolphins) to an even more frustrating species (Finless porpoises)


Hello, all! Welcome to Conservation Realist, a podcast hosted by me, Dr. Tara Sayuri Whitty. This episode brings us to the end of interviews with conservation researchers for this year, but I have a couple more episodes to share before this year ends.

This chat is with my colleague and dear friend, Mark de la Paz. We met in 2010 when he was a Master’s student at Silliman University, on our mentor Dr. Louella Dolar’s expedition to resume study of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Iloilo Strait off Guimaras Island in the Philippines. I’d been on the first survey in 2009, where we’d seen dolphins and I’d observed Louella interviewing fishers – that was my first exposure to interview-based fieldwork, and I was captivated. Well, in 2010, the dolphins never showed up in Iloilo Strait, and we ended up going around the bend of Guimaras Island and across the Guimaras Strait to the island of Negros, and Louella managed to find the dolphins there! Specifically, the dolphins showed up near the areas of Bago and Pulupandan in Negros Occidental, just a bit south of the big city of Bacolod – where Mark actually grew up and where his family still lives.

While everyone else was searching, fruitlessly, for dolphins in Iloilo Strait on that trip, Mark and I were traipsing around the island by trike, finding fishers to chat with about the dolphins and their coastal resources and fishing in general. This was for my PhD, and it was my pilot season of conducting interviews – and Louella had wrangled Mark into helping me! I just want to say, I am so grateful to everyone who’s helped me with interviews over the year. It was a great learning experience for both of us, as you’ll hear! Mark went on to continue working on the conservation of the dolphins on his home island for many years after finishing his master’s, including establishing a thriving research program at University of St. La Salle Bacolod where he was teaching.

Mark interviewing fishers on Guimaras Island with me. Thank you!
With Dr. Louella Dolar and Jean Utzurrum, preparing for survey off the coast of Bago/Pulupandan in 2010

I think that this is an especially important conversation for this podcast because it honestly shows what can happen when “progress” can, seemingly, bulldoze over years of conservation effort, and how that feels emotionally for people who have invested so much time and energy into conservation efforts. Mark’s project on the Dolar pod – our name for these dolphins – has been faced with the impending threat of a major bridge development right through their critical habitat. And, with the Philippines being a remarkably unsafe country for environmentalists, this was an extremely difficult experience for Mark. I really appreciate him being willing to share how he’s dealt – and is dealing – with all of this.

Mark’s been a great friend and a colleague with whom I’ve always enjoyed sharing ideas and questions. I did some of my PhD research on what we fondly call the “Dolar pod’ at his field site in Negros. His wonderful family really took care of me, and also my sister when she worked with me, whenever we were in Bacolod. He’s one of the people I’m most excited to catch up with whenever we’re at a conference together. He helped organize and also joined the exchange trip between Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab and the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc., at Danjugan Island off of Negros. And, by coincidence, he’s now getting his PhD at Hiroshima University, and that’s where my mom’s side of the family is from. We actually got to catch up in-person in Hiroshima earlier this year, which was so nice!

Hello from Hiroshima!
His new field site, the Inland Sea, where he’s turned to the dark side and started working with Finless porpoises

Another thing about Mark that you might notice: he is chronically humble about his work. Too humble, I think – and I’m not alone in this opinion! Jean, one of our friends, actually, from an earlier episode – another fantastic chat – actually chose him as an “unsung hero” of conservation. And this reveals an upcoming episode: at the end of each interview, I had the guest answer three “rapid fire” questions, including “who is an unsung hero that should get more recognition in conservation?” For whatever reason, I thought I’d include all of those responses in a compilation episode at the end, which will be a royal pain to edit, but it’ll be good. And now you have a teaser!

Also, for some context: we regularly (jokingly?) tease our dear friend, Dr. Lousia Ponnampalam, for her partiality to Finless porpoises. And yet, Mark is now studying them for his PhD.

So, let’s listen to a clip from the lovely song The Green Touch, by Soe Moe Thwin, Zyan Htet, and Min Min, and let’s get into this conversation!


T: Yeah, I'm doing well over here just busy, but I really enjoy doing these interviews.

M: I enjoy listening to your interviews. I just listened to your last episode again while cooking breakfast.

T: Oh, good.

M: Second time! I like your monologues. I mean, it gets more of your own personal ideas.

T: Thank you. I’m shocked by how long I can talk and not realize how much time I take!

M: You have so much to say and it's great! I think I was even looking for more, asking for more.

T: Oh no, okay.

M: It's too short!

T: Well, I feel that way about everyone I talk to as well. Like any one of you, I could listen to speak for, you know, hours and hours just to talk.

M: I love that you're doing this and yeah, I'm enjoying listening to it.

T: That means a lot. Thank you. How are you doing over there?

M: Well, I'm still busy with my data, trying to figure out how I can do this with my data.

T: Yeah.

M: I've actually been telling myself, I need to read your papers again. Because, like I said, I wanted  to write this in a conservation point of view. And like, I was thinking about starting interview surveys, like what you did before. But I'm not sure I can do it.

T: Well, we can also just chat some other time about that.

M: Sure, thanks.

T: Cool. Have you been seeing some porpoises lately?

M: The last one that we saw was the dead porpoise. I did a short necropsy, not enough to tell me anything yet. I haven't opened the stomach yet. I just brought it to the lab. But after that, we didn't see any more the week after. Also, because our surveys weren't that regular anymore.

T: Oh, okay. And is that picture behind you - I assume that's from?

M:  Oh, this is from Guimaras, from Negros. It's a mom and calf.

T: Oh, I like that.

M: Yeah, I miss them.

T: I'm sure you do.

M: They're so different from the finless porpoises.

T: Really?

M: I don't know what Louisa sees in them.

T: Haha! Well, maybe someday you'll be able to visit the Gulf of Mottama.

M: I want to!

T: There's a lot there, and they're super close to shore. Yeah, I don't know what they're like  where you are, but yeah, pretty frequent sightings.

M: You mean the porpoises or the Irrawaddy dolphins?

T: Both, but the porpoises are the ones we're seeing very close to shore. And by we, I mean, not me, because I'm not there!

M: But yeah, well, I can imagine that the Gulf is like a very wide, sandy area, right? Muddy area.

T: Muddy, very shallow. So yeah, that might be if you're going to get excited about finless porpoises, that might be a place to do it.

M: I hope so. But if it's muddy, then probably it's harder to like, record them with a drone, right?

T: Yeah, maybe. I'd like to look into it. But I haven't had many survey days out there myself, just because it's not the easiest to get foreigners into the field. So I don't know, I'll have to talk to the team about how the water visibility changes. When I've been out there, it's been - especially close to shore - very muddy.

M: Yeah, I can imagine. It's probably the same as in Negros, right?

T: Muddy. Muddier. Chocolate milk. But they're doing, I have to follow up with them, but they've got some hydrophones donated to them, some F-pods.

M: Oh, that's nice. Yeah, I want to try that too in the future.

T: Okay. I highly recommend it. Well, just because there's people who can help with that.

M: Oh, that's good.

T: So it's nice to see you again after having met up briefly!

M: I know. It's really nice. And it's nice for me to see your brother and your whole family, actually! I always see them on Facebook, it was really nice to finally see them.

T: I wish I'd had time to see your parents again, too.

M: You're always welcome to visit the Philippines.

T: I hope to. I really hope to, in the near future.

M: We will welcome you there, always.

T: Yeah, so you and I met on my second trip to the Philippines. So I'd been with Louella [Dolar] the year before. And then – it's hard to believe – this was in 2010 that you and I were on that trip.

M: Yeah, I know! It was a long time ago. I know. Well, that was the start of my second year for my master's. So I was just getting to know the ropes.

T: Well, it was so cool to me, because as you know, my PhD took me to many different sites.

And I only really focused in Malampaya Sound. The other ones were kind of quick visits. But it was cool to me to think that over all my years doing that, and then my postdoc and even into my work in Myanmar, you were steadily working on the Dolar Pod.

M: The Dolar Pod, yeah.

T: On these Guimaras and Iloilo Strait dolphins. And I always thought that was kind of comforting in a way that someone...

M: Well, also because it was very convenient for me because the site was just like a 40-minute drive from where I stay. So, very convenient and I really felt at home.

T: That’s nice! Had you known, when you were growing up in Bacolod, that there were dolphins and porpoises off the coast?

M: Never, never. A lot of people don't even know that there are dolphins in the Philippines. So, I was really surprised. That was the first time, right? I mean, when we started interviewing, a lot of people said they never heard about dolphins in that area. And even I was doubting, why were we doing this? Why were we looking for dolphins that I never heard of?

So yeah, that was really something for me because what was known before was there were dolphins on the other side of the island in Tanon Strait, where they had a very lucrative dolphin watching industry. And the habitat was clear blue waters and like the typical habitat for the typical dolphins that we know of. So that's what we knew of. We never knew that our muddy waters had a special kind of dolphin like the Irrawaddy dolphins.

T: Every time I go to muddy waters now in Southeast Asia, I'm like, are there…could there be?

M: I know, me too! Every time I fly in the plane to Manila and I just look at the window and I see a muddy area, I'm already looking for Irrawaddy dolphins.

T: Yeah, and we've talked about this before, it would be such a dream to be able to do this like large scale exploration of possible Irrawaddy dolphin habitat.

M: What our research really made me realize was there was so much possibility of discovering more populations that we never knew before.

T: Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of work to be done out there. But I think the work you've done really touched on another big gap in the work on the species and a lot of similar species, which is: focusing on a site and figuring out, okay, how do we actually conserve these small subpopulations, right?

M: Well, I'm still learning how to do it, the ropes.

T: Well, you know, I think, among the people I know, you're one of the people with the most on-the-ground experience with that for Irrawaddy dolphins. I hope you realize that.

M: Well, yeah, because I've been just based there.

T: Yeah, and I told Jean I was going to say this to embarrass you, but I interviewed her earlier in the week. Oh, you were the unsung hero she listed at the end.

M: Oh, wow! So touching!

T: I think you tend to underestimate the work you've done. But the rest of us looking at what you've done are always very impressed. So, just for the sake of everyone listening, can you share a little bit about your history with the Irrawaddy dolphins over the years.

M: Okay. Yeah, I was a grad student. When I entered grad school, I never knew, I was not sure, I wasn't sure what I was going to work on. And I just thought of maybe whales and dolphins are something interesting that I can work on. But I never knew where it would lead to.

And then on my second year, our director, Dr. Calumpong, she told me to join the surveys of Dr. Dolar, who was at that time, studying a population in Guimaras Island. And I was so excited because at least now there's direction for my research. And I guess that's where we also met each other on your second trip to the Philippines, right?

And during the first days of fieldwork, it was my first time to work with Dr. Dolar, and with you. And I was at first kind of frustrated that she assigned me to be your translator, because I was already excited to get my feet wet. But then she told me, Can you translate for Tara?

And then okay, okay, okay, because I speak the language. But that was also very eye-opening for me – so much learning on that first day that you trained me how to ask questions to fishermen. First, I didn't appreciate it. And then I realized the amount of knowledge that you were able to get from fishermen.

That's what I keep telling my students now. These fishermen, they know more than the marine biologists do because they spend more time in the oceans, while the marine biologists are mostly in their laboratories or on their laptops. So they know more, they've experienced more. That's what I really learned from you.

And yeah, during that, we did two days of interviews, or one day at first.

T: I don't know how many I think it was at least two days.

M: And then when we finally decided to join the team during the surveys, they were already frustrated because they didn't find any Irrawaddy dolphins, and maybe we were the lucky ones.

And then we spent, I think, 10 days just going around Guimaras Island looking for the Irrawaddy dolphins, and we couldn't see any of them. And we just kept on asking the fishermen. And I also found how useful that was, how much information that we could get from fishermen… until they pointed us to go back to Negros Island, my home island, which was just the island next to Guimaras, and I was already doubtful: in Negros, there's no such thing! I wouldn't believe that!

So we started asking questions in Negros Island, and I was already rolling my eyes. And then there was this one fisherman who led us to his village, and he said that, yeah, we see dolphins there almost every time we go out to sea. And everybody on the team was so excited. And the next day, we arranged for these boats to take us there to where the dolphins were supposed to be.

And I can really remember it! It's fresh in my mind. It was really rough that time. And we spent an hour looking for them until we finally saw them. And I finally saw my first Irrawaddy dolphin!

T: Oh, wow.

M: Yeah, so I was really happy. I was so surprised! Wow, I can't believe it!

T: So…we didn't see any in Guimaras that trip.

M: No, that time we didn't. So I've never seen an Irrawaddy Dolphin in Guimaras ever since I started my research.

So yeah, I guess that started everything else. We started talking to the local government units, telling them about the Irrawaddy dolphins. And then there were some people who validated us, who claimed that they did see the dolphins there before, or it was known to have dolphins there before.

And yeah, I think the rest of it is history. We started with the research. We brought in more people from Silliman University to do more research on the biodiversity of that area. Eventually, I was with the dolphin team. And eventually, after I finished my master's thesis, I started working in the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod, where I also graduated with my bachelor’s. I just continued the research after then, and then I took some students to help me with the research.

And we did research until… 2018? 2019. We got a lot of studies done. And that’s something I also learned: I let my students continue what I did for my Master’s, and at first I thought this is a Master’s worth of research, how could my undergraduate students do this? But they did! I realized it's not really about the amount of time that you spend doing your research. It's also just letting them do it and letting them get the data. It's also the quality of data that they get.

So yeah, a lot of these researches have been published and we were able to share this with the community. We couldn't do all these things without getting permission from the local government units, from the community. So we had to do a lot of coordination with the fishermen, the community, and we shared these data. And we started – because we had this data – we had projects with GIZ, and the the main purpose of the first phase of the project with Silliman University was to characterize the habitat of the Irrawaddy dolphins. And we also did surveys in Guimaras and then we found that we couldn't find any more dolphins in Guimaras, they were mostly just in Negros Island.

T: So weird.

M: So we had this data, we shared it with the community, and our recommendation at the end of the project was to create marine protected areas, which we followed through when I was already in the University of St. La Salle. We applied for another grant to establish marine protected areas in that area. So we had to put in more socioeconomic components to that conservation endeavor.

And that was one of, I think, the most fulfilling part of my career was just working with the community, working with fishermen, with councilors, different stakeholders. We had to convince them why putting up a marine protected area was going to benefit not only the dolphins, but also the fishermen and all the other stakeholders.

That was the fun part, because at first we met a lot of resistance from the fishermen especially, because of course, if you are a fisherman, why would you want people to limit your fishing grounds, right?

So, well, coming from a background being trained by Dr. Alcala, who was the pioneer of marine protected areas in the Philippines, we started educating them. We showed them examples like Apo Island, how this benefited the fishermen in the long-term and why their involvement was very important.

And through the years, there was a change in their behavior, which I was able to see. Eventually, through the years, the fishermen themselves were the ones asking me to push the local government to create the Marine Protected Areas, which was really moving for me. At first they were very resistant and then through education, through collaboration, they were able to convince themselves that Marine Protected Areas were indeed helpful for them.

So I saw that change and that was one of the most fulfilling part of my career. Seeing people work with you for conservation

Conserving the Irrawaddy Dolphin species isn't easy because you're talking about interactions with fishermen, who would of course always say, “How about us? Why are you conserving an animal, while we are living in poverty, having a hard time even feeding ourselves, how about us? Why are the dolphins much of your priority than us?” So it was really hard.

[brief silence]

Not just the dolphins, it's the whole ecosystem that we want to preserve.

T: Yeah, sorry, my internet cut out for a second.

M: So that's why it was fulfilling for us.

T: My internet cut out for a second, so I missed part of what you said! The part you said before, “it's not just the dolphins.”

M: Yeah, we were looking into the ecosystem approach. We had to convince them that everybody was a stakeholder, everything is interconnected. I mean, it's funny how I got to repeat that, that principle that I learned way back in high school or in grade school, that everything is interconnected. So I had to convince them everything is interconnected. What happens to the dolphins will eventually affect you. So it was hard to convince without really solid science or, but we had to convince them that everything was just connected, right?

So yeah, I think that's the whole story of how it went through.

T: And, again, what I lack in my career, for the most part, is exactly what you experienced is that long term commitment to a given situation and getting to see the stakeholders change over time. It's just really fascinating and important. I mean, it took how many years before you saw the change?

M: Maybe around 10 years. Yeah, that was the blessing for my part that we got to continue the projects in different phases. Not all of it was successful. There were times that we were hindered by so many factors, especially like politics and funding. But the most convenient thing, I guess, is because it was just the next town, so it was easy for us to just go back, even using our own money and just saying hi to our partners, to still continue the relationship, even if the projects were over.

So eventually, I couldn't help it. I was known to be like the “Irrawaddy Dolphin brother” there. So I gained a bit of popularity from the fishermen being like that, which was also a responsibility at the same time.

T: Wow. That's great though. I'm curious because, you know, you came in as a researcher with the university from the big city. Even though you're local to the broader area, how do you think you were seen by the fishermen at the beginning?

M: Yeah, I know that was also hard because yeah, I came from the city and I wasn't from there. So I had to really learn the language. I mean, not the language, we have the same language, but the situation, like: don't come into the community feeling like you're this big shot guy. You have to be humble, you have to be understanding of their situations, you have to learn how to listen to them and to understand their situation as well. They will say many things that will probably contradict what I used to believe in, but I just had to be open to what they were saying.

At first, it was easy for me – this is what I also realized: I felt a bit proud when I was doing interviews with you and then I was introducing myself as a student from Silliman University. I think they had, I don't know, I think they had a lot of respect for Silliman University, even though that university was far from that area.

And then eventually, well, over the years, they learned that I, they knew that I already transferred to University of St. LaSalle and then… it's just, it just takes getting to be, how do you say this, warm with all the people there, I guess. So there's less of a boundary. You try to erase that boundary if you can.

T: Yeah, I almost think, and this might be arrogant of me, but I've gotten this sense over the years that I had somewhat of an advantage as a foreigner – in some ways, a lot of disadvantages in other ways – but an advantage because me being different and out of touch is expected.

M: Yes, exactly.

T: And I'm different enough for them to be really interested, like, what is this completely different-looking person doing? And maybe being half Asian makes me not so different that I'm intimidating. But I feel like, in some ways, that felt more comfortable to me than I think I would be working with a new fishing community in the US, if that makes sense.

M: I think so, yeah. I think they were really interested in you when they saw you and then they were happy to share with you what they had, because you were a foreigner to them and then, well, you didn't really look at all intimidating to them, I guess.

T: Being small also helps.

M: Yeah, so they were also interested to share with you because you're someone new, right? Maybe there's that colonialist mentality as well, that maybe you know better, so they respect you more. Maybe that's also one thing.

I remember even one boatman told me, she doesn't look American. Is she Japanese? And I never knew that you were Japanese! And “No, no, she's purely American.”

T: Haha! Yeah, the boat man knew better than you. Another example of community knowledge!

M: I know, there was arrogance in me too!

T: But, you know, going back to the very beginning when you were like, oh, I was kind of hoping I'd be on the boat instead of being your translator. I was also hoping I'd be on the boat. I was like, “I want to be on the boat!”

But then, and then I remember this moment, like my first day of doing interviews, and Louella had the team was ready to go on the boat. And she's like, “All right, good luck today!”

And I was like, “Wait, that's it? You're not…” I mean, I was with you, but I was like, “I'm…unsupervised? Oh...okay!” And really, so I was really relieved to have you. But it was such a good learning experience for me, that kind of launching of: no, you have to do this now, you know - someone's not going to hold your hand through the whole process.

M: Well, now that you say it, I never knew that you didn't know what you were doing then. I was just looking up to you and just following you.

T: Haha! How did it feel to make that decision to keep working on these dolphins after your thesis?

M: Well, I really wanted to continue that work because, when I was younger, I really loved watching Free Willy and maybe Jurassic Park and maybe also Discovery Channel, National Geographic, etc. And I would see that there were these very long-term researches of, well, these scientists just following killer whales for 30 years or more and then able to make this connection with the species that they were studying.

And when I started my master's, I already was seeing that, oh, I want to continue this research for 30 more years and maybe connect with these animals and, you know, become like those people I saw on TV. So it was really fortunate for me that we were offered this opportunity to continue studying the dolphins. It was also fortunate because, well, of course, dolphins are very charismatic animals and that would get more funding easier, I guess.

T: Although you could have found a species that was a little easier to relate to.

M: Also, yeah, because they're shy like me.

T: There you go! I had a question and where did it go? Oh, and I also feel like, again, you underplayed your work, I think, in having this whole research program where students can learn how to do research. I know that was a big priority for University of St. La Salle Bacolod. So I think what you did there was really a big contribution to the university and the students who went through it. What were some of the impacts that you saw from that that really resonate with you?

M: Oh, well, yeah, I think the university really benefited from it. Even until now, I know that they're doing this accreditation for the university, and then they're still doing the researches that we've been doing for the past years.

I just want to be humble about it. But I think it almost put the university on the map for research, I guess. But all I can say is I was just following the footsteps of my mentors also from Silliman University and from the people that I've been learning from. And it also takes people who are ready to get their feet wet and spend so many hours in the field That was really something new for the university to do. I mean, for students to go there and do that kind of fieldwork was really something new for that kind of university who wasn't really used to fieldwork.

So I guess that also earned my students a lot of respect from their professors and from the people around them. I also tried to let my students learn how to talk properly to the fishermen, which is very important. So yeah, that was really fun to do. I'm glad that it got the recognition that all that hard work deserves.

T: Absolutely. And I think that providing that field experience for young researchers is really formative for them. I know just from my own experience, the chances I was really privileged to have to go to different field sites and just be immersed in conservation and not just learn about it in a classroom or from a textbook, were so important in not only shaping my interest in the career but also just my understanding of it.

And I saw the same thing with the Myanmar students who (thanks to you for helping organize!) an exchange where they visited Negros. But that's one reason it was so important for me to allocate funding to that exchange. That kind of immersive learning is really valuable, I think.

M: Yeah, I think I'm really a believer of that because I was also trained in that marine camp in Danjugan Island. I'm really a believer of just going out in the field and you learn more about it. Because being stuck in a classroom is very limiting. It's really, really different if you go out there and see it for yourself.

T: So I want to ask you about maybe a more difficult part of this Irrawaddy dolphin story, which is what happened and what might still be happening with this Inter-Island Bridge project.

M: Oh, yeah, that's, that's a lot to take in. Yeah, I'm okay to talk about it. Well, there has been this very long-term plan, even before we discovered the dolphins, there was already this dream to connect the islands of Panay, Guimaras and Negros through bridges. And even I think I can remember, during the first time that we went to the local government of Pulupandan, they already had this map where they were envisioning putting a bridge to connect Negros with Guimaras.

But I think it finally became closer to reality around 2016, during the new government of President Duterte, where he wanted to do a lot of building projects, infrastructure projects, and one of those projects involved the construction of those two bridges. So people were already getting excited, even the politicians were getting excited.

The problem was, those bridges were going to be built right on top of the Irrawaddy dolphin habitat, both in Guimaras Island and in Negros Island. So the biggest losers there would be the Irrawaddy Dolphins and the organisms interconnected in that ecosystem.

So we tried our best as scientists to be objective about it, to tell them that if you build that bridge, this is really going to impact a very endangered species, not just the Irrawaddy dolphins, also the wetlands. You have a lot of endangered water birds in those areas and there are still so many things that we don't know about the estuaries there.

T: Isn't there a Ramsar site?

M: It's a Ramsar site in Negros, yeah. So we tried to, well, we tried our best to just say it, that this isn't going to be a good idea. But that was the heavy part, because I guess that bridge was like a dream for almost everybody in the island, even the people that we work with. So they were also conflicted, like, which side are we going to take in? Like, are we going to oppose it? Or are we going to support it? Things like that.

And it got really scarier, even if you were just objective about it, it got scarier during the past administration where there was a lot of violence, killings in the country. This “drug war” wasn't only just targeting drugs, they were also targeting people who are opposing the government in several ways, like especially environmentalists who were opposing projects in very sensitive areas. I think it was also that time when the Philippines was labeled as the most dangerous place to be an environmentalist.

So can you imagine that? We were so anxious about it. So we were so scared that we tried not to be so reactive to these things. We tried our best to be just there, to be a stable voice for the dolphins and for the ecosystem. And then this was also the time that they were doing the environmental impact assessment for that bridge and they shared their report during a stakeholders meeting. And for several times that they shared the report, they did not mention the Irrawaddy dolphins or the dugongs or the turtles. So as being a stakeholder, we tried to tell them that “you forgot one very important thing, the Irrawaddy dolphins are there, it's an endangered species!”

And they kept on ignoring us until eventually, I think it became like a circus, and it became too sensitive that the people involved started saying, “Mark, you gotta just shut up and keep quiet. Lie low.”

And yeah, we were even banned from doing our research in one of our partner communities, because they were angry because we were just saying things about the Irrawaddy dolphins that were probably going to stop the bridge from being constructed there.

So during that time, environmentalists were getting killed left and right. We just knew that we had to: okay, follow the advice, just keep quiet.

So that really brought a lot of anxiety for me, because that was also the time of COVID, where you can't get out of the house and then we were just concentrating about all these things that were happening. Yeah, that was really heavy for me.

It was also hard to get support from many people, because they knew that we were going against big people, big organizations.

T: Yeah, I mean, I felt anxious for you during that.

M: I was really anxious. I think I still have that anxiety now.

T: That's understandable, Mark. I mean, that's a lot to go through. And it's not even like you were… my sense is that you all weren't being rabid protesters, you were just asking that the EIA, the Environmental Impact Assessment...

M: Not even, not even! We weren't rabid protesters. We weren't even protesting on the streets or things like that!

T: You were just asking that the science be documented as is. And I mean, that was there, there never was any consideration at all, like no… I mean, I assume that these bridge routes are there because they were assessed as being what, the safest or more…?

M: They were the nearest, I guess they were the more they were the most practical alignment, I guess. And then we were just basically asking them to realign somewhere else, which was also hard for us because the core habitat is small, but we know that dolphins are able to move. So we know that some parts of it are still possible habitats for the dolphins and some possible Habitats are also dugong habitats. So we were also conflicted. Are we going to suggest the dugong habitat or the Irrawaddy habitat?

T: Which one is cuter?

M: Yeah. So we were conflicted as well. And all we were asking was to realign, if not to cancel the project.

T: I mean, that's, I don't know what I would do in a similar situation, to be honest. Right?

M: Yeah, people were telling me, “Mark, it's not worth it. Just shut up. It's not worth your life.”

T: And in the end, I mean, quite frankly, you could protest all you wanted. But if people in power want that bridge, they're going to get that bridge. You would risk your safety for the same outcome.

M: Yeah, that was the hard thing for us. I mean, it was also a conflict of principles. Like, I've heard so many environmentalists who also get death threats and things like that, but they still continue to fight on, which was, I don't know, is that a practical thing to do?

T: It's a personal decision, I think, right? And, you know, no one can ever blame anyone for taking their own personal safety seriously.

And I'm curious, were there any projected impacts to the fishing grounds? Or did the communities feel that the economic opportunities offered to them by the bridge would outweigh any impacts to fishing?

M:  Well, it's still a talk in progress. Lately, just a few weeks ago, there was another stakeholder conference organized by an environmental group. And I was surprised that there were still fishermen who were really concerned about their fishing grounds. We also talked about the Irrawaddy dolphins, and I was actually surprised that there were already organizations in Negros and Panay sprouting without even our help or without consulting us. They were already saying that “we need to protect the Irrawaddy dolphins!” So there were champions there on the ground that we didn't know of. So we were surprised.

And yeah, so they organized these conferences, the stakeholder conferences, and we were also surprised that there were still fishermen who were genuinely concerned about their fishing grounds. So they were saying, yeah, it's okay about the Irrawaddy dolphins, but how about us? We're also going to be affected.

T: That's so interesting. So these groups that are pro-Irrawaddy dolphins, are they out of schools or are they community groups?

M: They're actually community groups, locals. They're very small groups, but they're starting to mobilize because they're also concerned. So that's the thing that really made me happy. I guess all those education campaigns that we did a few years before stuck to them, and then they were able to just be genuinely concerned about, on their own! I mean, on their own, we didn't really trigger this, but they started becoming genuinely concerned about the ecosystem and the endangered species there.

T: Wow, that's so cool. I didn't know that.

M: That's so cool, right? I was so impressed.

T: And that kind of speaks to something I've seen a lot is that: it's so easy to underestimate what people will do on their own when they have access to information and skills, and there's some kind of pathway for them to follow those interests. That's really exciting, actually!

M: Yeah, I hope it gains ground as well.

T: And I know there's I've seen some like online like on Facebook, like some awareness raising campaigns. Were those existing environmental groups that just took an interest in the Irrawaddy dolphins or were those connections that the university made?

M: You mean lately?

T: Maybe in the past four years?

M: Some of them were part of those connections as well. We tried to ask help and collaborate with as much organizations as we could. We were really a small group. Nobody really cared so much about Irrawaddy dolphins as much as they would care about the Philippine Eagle, I guess, and the coral reefs. So it was hard to get people to help, especially if they haven't really seen an Irrawaddy dolphin.

But yeah, there's a small community of environmentalists in our island who just help each other. Like, “there’s a campaign there, let’s go there and help them go against coal-fired power plants,” so we help each other. And there’s a campaign there to save an endangered species of bird, so we go there and help them as well. Just it’s just like helping each other as well.

T: I like that kind of networking! We chatted a bit while this whole drama was going on. And you know, you seemed really demoralized, which makes sense.

M: Yeah, I really thought everything was lost.

T: Yeah, and that's understandable. But I know you're not the only one in the field who's dealing with this or is afraid of this happening to their project. So do you have any advice? Or maybe could you share a little bit about how you've been processing what happened? Like, you could call it a “failure,” and it's, you know, it's always hard when you're up against forces that you don't see any viable way of opposing. But how have you dealt with that?

M: Well, yeah, and until now, I'm still dealing with it. I'm still processing it until now, years after. I guess you just have to hang on to as much hope as you can, even if there's just little hope that exists. Until now, there's times where I don't know if I can trust people because of what happened, because you don't know which side they're on.

But there are really core people who you can talk to about these things, and then they will comfort you and then they will tell you that there are better things to focus our energy on, let's not waste our time just thinking about our losses - we can still do these things.

So yeah, time is also something that helped me move on as well. But time also showed me that eventually people will forget and eventually people will change and see that you were right all along, things like those.

T: Yeah, I think that's also important. We always talk about how we need to have a long-term perspective in conservation and that also applies to this, I think.

M: Yeah, I know of this biologist who was also campaigning to save this particular bird species in Cebu. And because the habitat of that bird species was going to be destroyed, they protested against it. And then eventually, I think they were banned from that area for some years, but now they're back there. They're welcome with open arms, because the local government suddenly realized how important this bird species is. And then now the story's changed.

T: And I think, I think changes in governance are important no matter where you are. In the Philippines, it's especially the change in the local government, the municipal government where a lot of that power is held. And yeah, you'll find, I think that a given context can change really dramatically from one regime, I guess, to the next.

M: For some governments, yes, that's true. For some, it takes a lot more time and it's harder to change the government because it's basically controlled by the same people over and over again.

T: That's something I also learned from Malampaya Sound. More on that another time!

So at the moment, you're in Japan and you've gone to the dark side, studying Finless porpoises. Sorry, I've dilly-dallied too long talking about Irrawaddy dolphins. I have time, but I want to respect your time…

M: I have time, it's no problem.

T: OK, thanks! I'd love to hear a bit about what motivated you to go to Japan to do your PhD.

M: It's a long story, but well, I just needed to get out of the Philippines. I guess it was about time to just go get a PhD somewhere, and I think Japan was the nearest option. But yeah, my supervisor allowed me to work on marine mammals, even though he specialized on fish behavior. That was a big step for him, I think. It was also the first time, I guess, that he was able to join Marine Mammal Surveys, which I initiated for our lab.

And so we work on this species, the Finless porpoise, which was very nice because it lives on a somewhat similar habitat as the Irrawaddy dolphins, very estuarine and very murky, shallow coastal areas.

So he said that, “maybe you can do this and then you can apply this for Irrawaddy dolphins in your area,” which I realized, yeah, maybe this could work. And then over the years I realized that… well, our site has rougher seas and murkier waters. I don't know if I could really use a drone for Irrawaddy dolphins there, but yeah, I think it's worth a try.

Finless porpoises are really hard to study than Irrawaddy Dolphins because they're very solitary. They're not social animals. I think they're more shy than than Irrawaddy Dolphins. So I don't really relate to that kind of shyness for an animal!

And yeah, I can't identify them because they don't have dorsal fins, so it's hard to see who is who when you see them.

T: Yeah, I thought Irrawaddy dolphins were frustrating because of their tiny fins!

M: Me too! This one is harder. More challenging.

T: So when we met up in Japan, it was really interesting to hear about your experience living and studying in a country that's new to you. But you'd also mentioned some differences you've noticed in how Japan approaches conservation versus the Philippines. I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on that.

M: When I was in the Philippines, I was really engrossed in conservation work. It was a lifestyle. It was a religion for me – maybe you saw that on social media –  like trying to avoid plastic straws and these things and trying to live a minimal impact lifestyle as much as possible.

When I came here in Japan, it was sort of different because this was a very developed country, one of the richest countries in the world, I guess. And then plastic straws weren't really the problem. And, like in the Philippines, we try to minimize our waste as much as possible, whereas in Japan, everything that you buy is like disposable, you have to dispose everything.

But you see also how efficient their waste management is. The streets are all clean, everything is so clean, when there's so much things that you can dispose of.

Yeah, so it was really like, confusing for me. What's this? It's a really different reality for me.

I think it's also because it's already a developed world, their concerns are much more different. Like I asked about the construction of the [Nishi-Seto Expressway[ bridge, because I read in literature that the finless porpoises were also affected when they, when they dredged the area for sand, and they also constructed bridges.

T: I crossed one of those bridges!

M: Yeah, there are so many bridges around these islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

T: And they're pretty recent, relatively recent.

M: Yeah, so I guess it also affected the fisheries and the dolphins, I mean the porpoises. So I asked around if, I asked my sensei if there were protests against these projects and I think it's very Japanese that they don't protest, they just follow, I think. But it's also because the fishermen were compensated or they were also… they shifted to another species from what they used to fish.

So the way I heard it is it was not really hard for them to accept that bridge or to accept those projects that damaged their environment. But that's why I'm really engrossed into digging more about what happened, because I want to see how they learn from those things.

T: That would be really interesting! And I hadn't thought about… because, like I said, I drove over that bridge with both my mom and uncle, who were like, “Oh yeah, these are new – these were never here when we were growing up.”

M: Oh really?

T: Yeah, they used to they used to go swim on those islands as kids, but they'd have to take a boat! I knew you were studying finless porpoises in that same area, but I never put two and two together that these bridges and habitat would be really cool to look into.

Because, you know, you might say, whoever is giving you this information might say it was easy for the fishermen to adapt. And maybe they're right, I don't know. But it'd be interesting to get an insider's perspective.

M: I know! That's something that I really want to look into. But the language is really a barrier. I don't know how to speak Japanese. So it's going to be hard for me to talk to, especially the old fishermen who would have been affected, right?

T: Yeah, well, hopefully you're able to… I mean, I was able to do my initial interviews with someone like you! So maybe you can find that.

M: That's what I thought of as well!

T: Because I feel like there's a lot of interest, at least in my experience, among younger researchers in learning how to do interviews. And I think it's a valuable skill to teach anyone. So I wouldn't be surprised if somehow you could find maybe a younger local student. Whether you have the time to do that, I don't know. But in theory, it might work.

M: I'm still looking for that someone to help me. I'm also talking to other professors as well.

T: That's a good idea, like from different departments. And for the finless porpoises you're studying, are there any threats facing them? Is there bycatch going on, as far as you know?

M: So far, I haven't really seen bycatch. I only saw a dead porpoise floating somewhere – we don't know what caused its death. But I think bycatch isn't that high in the area where I study, but it's also happening in other areas of Japan, just not here. Like I said, I think it would mean better if I knew how to talk in Japanese and do interview surveys.

T: Yeah, but you know, out of all the countries where I've done work, I only became conversant in Tagalog and a little bit Bahasa Indonesia, not to the point where I could fully conduct or understand interviews. And I was still able to, you know, if you're strategic and mindful about it, you can you can learn a lot even if you can't 100% understand what's going on at the time.

So I'm curious, are there any other perspectives you've gained from being a student in Japan about what you want to do in the future with your work or what could be done in the Philippines, for example?

M: Well, I think one thing that I also want to share with you, Tara, maybe also because you live in the States. Here in Japan, everything is so much different from the Philippines. Everything is so much more  efficient. And I guess they've already gotten things figured out.

And I tried to look at these things that if nature did suffer at some point of their history, for this development to happen, and for also for them to maybe restore forests around their areas. It also made me realize, like: go around Japan and all the rivers are cemented, the banks and rivers are all cemented. If that happened in the Philippines, I would really feel bad about it, because I would know that all the biodiversity would be affected. So I also asked my sensei: aren't the biodiversity going to be affected if you do that? And then “yes, yes, it's bad for the for the insects and the fauna there.” But I couldn't really see that they were complaining about it or that it affected them in a certain way.

So it also made me realize, am I just complaining too much every time we see a development project being done in my country?

T: That's a really interesting question, Mark. I think that, two main points to make: one is that a lot of developed countries have benefited from being able to offload their environmental impacts to other countries. They've gotten to the point where they've destroyed their own habitats, and, you know, like places in the United States, we're seeing issues like flooding, for example, where waterway redirection wasn't thought through very well. And in Europe, too.

And so they're at this relative position of: a lot of natural resources and ecosystem services and biodiversity was sacrificed. And I wouldn't say that was necessary, but that's how it was. Now, these countries are a certain status where they can now start using natural resources from other places, and then they can start restoring their own areas.

It's kind of maybe an oversimplified way, but that's maybe the general trend.

The other thing is, I don't know very much about Japan, but just from listening to my family talk about it: Hiroshima, you know, in decades since World War Two, so much of the focus was on surviving and kind of getting back to a place of being able to function. And I think that mindful development often is sacrificed when when people are in a rush to achieve a certain status or goal and they're kind of in survival mode, if that makes sense.

But I wouldn't say that you're complaining too much, you know, when you see these things happening, because we've seen in other parts of the world, the negative impacts this kind of thing can have, and not just for people who love animals, but also for ecosystem services that actually benefit people and actually save – could save – governments money. It can actually be very harmful in terms of managing natural disasters. You know, you're unknowingly increasing the risk of having serious natural disasters with flooding, for example.

And just because that's the way it was done historically, it doesn't mean that it has to be done that way in the future.

That said, I know it's really challenging. It's kind of like the whole situation with the Irrawaddy dolphins and the bridge, right? Progress. And then there's a natural world. And then in between, there's kind of all these trade-offs. It's hard to predict what you lose and what you gain in any of the possible combinations of scenarios.

M: I guess, yeah, it's always a work in progress. And I think we always have to be there to strike that balance, because we can't always just develop for the sake of economy and at the cost of the environment, because eventually, it's gonna all topple down to the other side.

It's a dilemma. But yeah, that's what I said: in conservation, there's no black and white. It's a lot of gray area. I really learned: a lot of gray area.

T: Yeah, and that's what I think, speaking back to your early inspirations from like National Geographic or documentaries: that's something I don't think a lot of documentaries capture well enough. You know what I mean? We're used to hearing about storytelling and conservation as more concrete: something bad's happening against something that's good and that we want to save, whereas it's all really kind of intertwined.

But yeah, I know more about conservation in developing countries than I do about conservation in developed countries, to be honest. But it is always very sobering for me to come back to the U.S. after having been in the field or working in Southeast Asia and just see how different the contexts are.

M: Yeah, the realities are so different.

T: So for you, in the future, do you have any idea of what you might want to do? I mean, I know you've got to focus on your PhD for another few years, but...

M: Yeah, I'd still want to continue my work in conservation, but I also want to learn from other champions who've been doing it very well in other countries where there are Irrawaddy dolphins. So I really wish I have this opportunity to visit Myanmar, and even Danielle Kreb in Indonesia and Louisa Ponnampalam in Malaysia. I think they're really doing very awesome jobs in what they do.

And those are the things that I want to learn from and probably bring it back to the Philippines and yeah, immerse myself in that field, in that environment with fishermen and just working with them. It's really nice. I really admire those people.

T: I share that admiration. And it makes so much more sense to learn from people like them than from people from other countries. Because one, I think, sad reality of Southeast Asia: it's such a rich region in terms of its biodiversity and culture and just the fantastic people that I know that work there. But most of the countries really struggle with, shall we say, just and transparent governance. So I think you all face very similar issues.

M: I think so. It's a struggle. That's what I also realized. Conservation is often unrewarding, or ungrateful. But you have to have that passion for doing that kind of work.

Or, maybe…while I was preparing for our interview, I realized: if you don’t have that passion, you wouldn’t be so attached, you wouldn’t be so affected – maybe that’s also a good thing!

T: Time to go back to some meditation, Mark. Try to cultivate both finding the meaning in things and the nonattachment!

M: I mean, like for people that we hire like artists to do these things, to do artworks so that we can get the word out there: you hire them, you give them money, and they're not so attached to what you want to do. So maybe they're not so affected with all these things that are happening. I don't know.

T: Yeah, I mean, that's the challenge of any kind of purpose driven career, you know, so much of yourself. It's not just a job. It's not the job, your identity, in some cases, it's your moral beliefs. And it's like your drive for the impact you want to have on the world. And I think that can be a positive influence on people; it can also be a negative influence, right?

Like either like you, like you're expressing: you have so much personal anxiety, it can impact your mental and emotional, maybe even your physical, health.

And then in other cases, which is not what I see in you, people get so attached to their identity in conservation that they're really unwilling to compromise and see other points of view.

M: Well, that time when I had to like escape the Philippines and just be here in Japan, and try to forget about what was happening in the Philippines, was also a good time for me to rest and just try to detach slowly a bit and try to like find another identity.

But I know that it's still my identity. I couldn't really let it go fully. So I don't think I was really detached to it. I'm still for conservation. And yeah, like you said, it might be a good example or a bad example at the same time. Like I said, during that stakeholders conference, one of my students who's also now working in conservation, she also attended online and then without me asking her, she tried to ask attacking questions to the to the DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways), the government in charge of building the bridge.

In my mind, “Ohh, shut up, just keep quiet, let's just keep quiet for now – let's not trigger it!” So I was… I was happy that she did that. I mean, she did that maybe because she's part of the cause. But like for me, I learned to shut up when I need to shut up sometimes, I guess.

T: And everyone's going to have their own boundary about how far they're willing to push it. Well, Mark, just keeping an eye on the time.

M: Oh, sorry!

T: No, no, it's fine for me! But you know, you're a busy PhD student.

M: I have time, it’s okay!

T: But yeah, I really have so much admiration for you and for every one of our colleagues who are, you know, they're working in the places where they live.

M: Thank you so much.

T: Yeah, well, they can't just easily just hop on a plane and go back to some other existence. I mean, yes, now you are, but you know, like long term, you're really invested in what happens in your home country. And I do hope that someday we're able to do some more exploration on Irrawaddy dolphins in the region.

M: I'm looking forward to that. Yeah, we have a project together.

T: That's true!

M: Fingers crossed.

T: Great. Thank you, Mark.

M: Thank you so much, Tara.

T: I appreciate your time. And yeah, it's so nice – this is the second time I get to talk to you in a couple of months, which is pretty frequent for us!

M: I know!  There's more – I need to ask you more! There's still a lot of things that I want to talk to you about. But soon, maybe next time.

T: Please don't hesitate to reach out. And this time difference actually works out pretty well for me.

M: And I'm glad that you're in two ways now. I'm glad that you're still working with conservation despite your commitment to be in communication with your brother. I think what you've learned from your experiences with helping Danny is so much things that we take for granted, that is very much needed in conservation work, or in many things in life, right? That kind of advocacy really touches a chord.

T: Oh, that means a lot to hear you say that, Mark. And I've actually noticed that myself actually, I'm thinking of having him co-host the final episode of this first season with me, just to talk about the similarities in, you know, working in conservation and in disability justice. And in the end, it's all a human process. You know, it's involving people with, you know, with needs and rights and different levels of power, and how we navigate all of that. So that's so cool that you notice that.

M: Like you said, communication is key.

T: Exactly!

M: Very, very important.

T: Yeah. Well, I hope you have a nice rest of your day over there. Thank you so much!

M: Take care, and please say hi to your family for me.

T:  I will! Bye!

M: Bye!


As Mark mentioned, we are both part of a National Geographic-funded project on Irrawaddy dolphins in Malampaya Sound, with the NGO LAMAVE and our mentor Dr. Louella Dolar. I’m excited to get back into dolphin work in a site that means so much to me, and to work with people who I really look up to and who are just really great to be around!

Madamo gid nga salamat again, Mark! For those of you listening: I am so appreciative of your time! And I am very grateful to those who have liked, reviewed, commented, shared, and even generously donated. It means a lot. If you have a moment, please consider giving this a like and review on Spotify or wherever you access your podcasts, and I really would love to see some discussion on the Substack site. Thank you all, and stay tuned for two special episodes!

Conservation Realist
Conservation Realist Podcast
Realities in Environmental Conservation - Newsletter & Podcast by Dr. Tara Sayuri Whitty. Featuring diverse voices & meaningful, pragmatic ideas for actually making a difference.