CONSUELO, Bunawan, Agusan del Sur (MindaNews/15 November) — At the entrance to the eco-park where the 20.3 feet long Lolong, the world’s largest crocodile, now lives, visitors queue for tickets at P20 for adults and P15 for children on “regular” days but twice the amount on “special day.”
“Special day,” according to the billboard announcing Municipal Ordinance 09-2011 which imposed entrance and parking fees, means “full body exposure” during “hunas” (literally low tide but in this case, very minimal water in the concrete pen), allowing visitors to view the “full body” of Lolong, the second most famous Mindanawon in the world, after Manny Pacquiao.
That Lolong has perked up the economy of this erstwhile sleepy town is evident not only in the entrance and parking fee receipts – estimated at P8,000 to P10,000 daily – according to Mayor Edwin “Cox” Elorde – but also in the number of stalls selling snack items, softdrinks, fruits (there are no souvenir materials as yet) that have been put up on both sides of the road near the viewing area, and the increase in incomes of motorcycle drivers (from P300 gross per day to “P700 to P800” a day) who ferry the curious from the highway.
Senior citizens and the physically challenged are free of charge and their vehicles can be parked inside instead of the parking lot outside, saving them the 200-meter walk to Lolong’s enclosure.
Parking fee for motorcycles, according to the same ordinance, is P5; P10 for jeepneys, SUVs and multicabs and P20 for “Elf and other heavy trucks.”
The earnings are divided into four: 25% for Barangay Consuelo where Lolong is now, to maintain its solid waste management program and eco-tourism activities; 25% for Barangay Nueva Era where Lolong was caught, for protection and conservation measures; another 25% for the local government unit of Bunawan for protection and conservations programs and the remaining 25% for Lolong’s food and upkeep.
The eco-park expenses aside from Lolong’s food is for electricity, the four CCTV cameras on each corner of the enclosure, the salaries of the personnel and the development of the 30-hectare park in the midst of an oil palm plantation.
Loloy, Lolong’s caretaker, feeds him 20 kilos of pork thrice a month. When MindaNews dropped by on Friday, November 11, Loloy said Lolong ate only 10 kilos the night before but would likely eat the rest that night. “Kusog siya mukaon basta bilog ang bulan” (He eats much especially during full moon). It was a full moon that evening.
3 hours from Davao or Butuan
A three-hour land trip from the nearest airports of Davao or Butuan cities, the eco-park is located 2.5 kilometers from the national highway.
But no one can miss the turn because of the prominent signages on the welcome arches – “Welcome to Bunawan, Home of Lolong, the world’s biggest crocodile” complete with a “full body exposure” photograph of Lolong – at the boundaries with Rosario and Trento towns.
At the corner of the highway, a signboard sponsored by an alcoholic drink welcomes everyone to the “home of the biggest rescued crocodile” and more signages sponsored by various companies at 2 and 1.5 kilometers away, one kilometer, 500, 300, 200 and 100 meters away.
Eco-park personnel and stall owners say more visitors come during the weekends or on holidays. “During the long holidays, we had visitors from Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. They came here purposely to see Lolong.,” the mayor said. Cagayan is about 320 kilometers from Buanawan while Iligan is at least 400 kilometers away.
On weekdays, the eco-park still earns because commuters between Davao City and Agusan or Surigao drop by to visit. MindaNews overheard a group of visitors last Friday telling another group “aha, niagi pud mo!” (aha, you also dropped by!).
Elorde says some of those who visit Tinuy-an Falls in Bislig City or the Enchanted River in Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur, stop by to see Lolong.
He says it is not just Bunawan that is benefiting from Lolong but the neighboring towns of Trento and San Francisco which have hotels.“We don’t have hotels here,” the mayor of this agri-based town told MindaNews in a telephone interview on November 14.
“Basically agri-based kami, may konting mining” (basically we are agri-based, with a little mining). Bunawan, he explains, comes from the word “bulawan” which means gold.
A high-fenced gold processing plant stands very near the eco-park, across the road from the main parking lot, its source of gold from the small-scale mining sites a few kilometers uphill, still within Barangay Consuelo, the mayor said.
He explained that under the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, the area is classified an industrial zone but added there are two sides of the mountain and that the other side is classified eco-park in its Tourism Master Plan.
A number of those who see the captive Lolong say they pity him. Even the mayor says so. “Mutan-aw ko ni Lolong, maluoy ko” (When I see Lolong, I pity him).
Elorde does not refer to Lolong as a crocodile in captivity but “rescued.”
“If he had not been taken out of that creek, he would have been killed by the people,” he said, recalling a huge crocodile was hunted and killed by residents a few years ago.
He said in the creek where Lolong was found in early September, the water level rises 14 to 16 feet high, way above the basketball ring.
Elorde said everything they did in getting Lolong was in coordination with the Protected Area and Wildife Bureau. A 10-minute video presentation shown inside the park, cites these efforts.
Lolong was named after Ernesto “Lolong” Goloran Cañete, reportedly the best crocodile hunter from Palawan who led the hunt and who died two days before Lolong was captured.
Elorde said Lolong’s relocation to the eco-park some seven to eight kilometers from the creek where he was found, has generated intense discussions on the conflict between humans and wildlife, the protection and conservation of the Agusan Marsh.
“It may have been God’s will that Lolong was rescued to save Agusan Marsh,” he said.
Agusan Marsh spans six towns.
Elorde said he is aware of criticisms that they are cashing in on Lolong. “We do not depend on Lolong for a living. We can survive even without him,” he said.
Lolong is not the only attraction in this newly-opened eco-park.
Little known, because there are no signages pointing to it (and Lolong’s visitors will likely miss it if they do not explore the area), is Masapya Falls, less than 50 meters from the main viewing area of Lolong.
But visitors will find it hard to navigate the slippery trail ten meters down to a rock from where the waters cascade and drop into a pond another ten meters below. In another portion of the rock, one can dive into the lagoon where a newly-made bamboo raft awaits swimmers.
“Why don’t they just transfer Lolong here? It’s a more natural setting,” a visitor asked.
“Nah, they won’t be able to charge double because you won’t see Lolong’s “full body exposure,” her companion replied.
Elorde says the water level in the Falls rise by a few meters on rainy days. Lolong would be safer in the enclosure, he stressed.
Among the personalities who have visited Lolong, the mayor said, are Senator Antonio Trillanes, Ilocos Governor Chavit Singson and Iloilo Governor Arthur Defensor (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)