In times when the outlook for Planet Earth’s environment is sometimes bleak, and sometimes beyond bleak, it is heart warming to hear good news from the conservation front: The municipality of Daanbantayan, in the north of Cebu/Philippines, has declared two popular dive spots as shark and ray sanctuaries. I have dived both; Gato island is a big rock in-between Cebu and Leyte, formerly with a population of one; since typhoon Yolanda destroyed the modest house the island-guard was residing in, the number of Gato islanders has decreased even further. Underwater Gato is covered in bushy red soft corals, and the crevices of its rock walls lots of minute marine life hides (the ‘macro’ photography subjects the Philippines are so rightfully famous for). Underneath Gato is a wide cave, and near its entrance reside white-tip reef sharks. A place worthy of protection.

What is a absolutely fantastic spot to protect is Monad Shoal. On this dive site I have seen the thresher sharks it’s famous for; I have seen manta rays, mobulas and tunas. I have seen dense schools of flambouyantly colored flasher wrasses mate; I have seen 2 undescribed species of gobies; and I have seen the coral-covered wall of Monad down to 100 meters. I love the idea that it will be protected.

I think two factors came into play to achieve this excellent outcome: One is the justified pride of the Filipinos in their wildlife. People tend to gravitate around symbols, very often around animals. In anthropology this is called a totem. The psychology of totems works from small hunter-gatherer tribes to large industrialized nations; they work for sports teams, military units and states. US citizens identify with the bald eagle, and New Zealanders with the kiwi, in fact that’s their common nickname across the Bass strait in Aussieland. Two things are interesting here: some totems are mighty, awe-inspiring animals like the bald eagle, while others are curiosities like the small ground-living kiwi bird. It’s not clear to me how that totem selection happens; some of the Kiwis themselves – the Maori part of the population – are rather massive and powerful people who besides their island home have little in common with a skittish, odd-shaped bird which hides underground.

The other thing worth noting is that few Americans have ever seen a bald eagle in the wild, and few New Zealanders a kiwi bird, since both birds are rather rare at this point in time, the kiwi also being nocturnal and shrubbery-living. Still, imagine a plan to establish an eagle hunting ground in Alaska, or to build a fast food joint in a kiwi sanctuary on the south island of New Zealand: these wouldn’t go over very well. By serving as social cement for human groups, the totems have acquired a conservation bonus!

The Filipinos of course have many unique animals to be proud of. The Philippine fauna on land is odd in that is has many endemic and specialized animals like island faunas tend to have, but the archipelago is large enough so that the fauna is not as impoverished as that of smaller island groups. In the ocean, the Philippines are located in the coral triangle, the area in the Pacific ocean with the highest marine biodiversity on the planet. The new Philippine Peso banknotes in fact feature one animal of the islands’ fauna each, with a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) on the 100 Peso note (~ 2 Euro). And while it’s nobody’s personal achievement that all of these animals initially came here, in the anthropocene we live in humans have a deciding role in making sure they remain there. People can and should be proud of their wildlife. So either as a mascot unifying the people of the nation or of a province, or as something which kids learn to love in school, the fauna can be a part of the national mindset like the anthem or the left hook of the national boxing idol (“Manila Ice”): This is eco-patriotism. Too much attachment to one’s nation government has caused many horrors in the 20th century; maybe a bit more attachment to one’s nations animals and plants can hopefully solve a few problems in the 21st century.

The other factor which contributed to the decision to establish the shark and ray sanctuary is the value of these spectacular animals for tourism. Diving visitors coming to the country produces a significant part of the Philippine’s GDP (11.3% for all of tourism in 2014). Naturally, keeping the animals alive which tourists come to see is in the interest of the people who live of tourism. This mechanism does not work overnight; a fisherman will not immediately stop fishing for sharks once a diving resort opens its doors on his island. But once he retires, and his daughter has a job as a receptionist and his son as a divemaster in that resort, then the sharks will be safe. The first diving operation in Malapascua opened in 1988. Now, 27 years later we have dozens of dive shops on the island, and a shark and ray sanctuary in front of it.

I think that only a combination of eco-patriotism and eco-tourism will be able to create lasting solutions for an intact ocean in the Philippines. Patriotism alone will only go so far; the sharks will still be on the banknotes and on government posters, but someone will need the fish protein and the money badly enough to take them out of the ocean; And eco-tourism without an honest pride in these animals will lead to sanctuaries by name only, zones where the tourists have to pay a sanctuary fee and the locals fish when no one, or only their cousin from the sanctuary patrol, is looking.

Thresher sharks are painted on walls all over Malapascua, printed on t-shirts, and I have seen more than one Filipino dude with a thresher shark tattoo. Malapascuans really like their sharks. I cautiously hope that both eco-patriotism and eco-tourism are at work here, and will make the new sanctuary a success. The struggle to protect the ocean of the Philippines is far from over; but this sanctuary is a fin-kick in the right direction. There are of course many more spots amongst the islands worth protecting. Maybe Pescador island in Moalboal could be next?