Nigel Hicks was living in Hong Kong in the 1990s when he first found himself in the Philippines. The professional nature photographer, originally from Devon in the United Kingdom, had been working with a London-based publisher on a couple of large projects in China when they thought of sending him to the Philippines to do the same.
“I was only too happy to oblige,” Hicks says. “To be totally honest, my initial involvement with the Philippines, back in the 1990s, was purely because the London publisher sent me, under the false impression that I must already know a lot about the country.”
Hicks continues: “I didn’t, but I didn’t bother to correct their view, and pretty soon I found I was learning really a lot about the Philippines. Now of course, in certain quarters I’m the go-to guy for anything Philippines, and that’s just great by me.”
I’m never quite sure who the climate change deniers are, or what they’re thinking. Are they so cocooned in their air-conditioned urban offices that they are completely blind to what’s happening?
Hicks recently released Wild Philippines, a book about the wildlife, wild habitats, protected areas and conservation issues of the country, which he claims has one of the world’s greatest biodiversities – “greater than many much better known spots, such as the Galapagos Islands or Madagascar.”
Have you always been keen on the study of wildlife? Any favorite memory of an encounter with nature growing up? What about when you first picked up a camera?
I studied Biology as a student, right up to PhD and post-doctoral level, though it was a very different kind of Biology from what I’m involved with now. That was laboratory science, really. I gave it up when I felt my mind getting narrower and wanderlust ever stronger.
So the photography eventually became a tool for me to put over the beauty and crucial role of the natural world, still very much a part of the Biology I’d initially studied, but at the other end of the spectrum.
Because it is an island nation that has never had much by way of land links with mainland Asia [the Philippine] islands have developed a pretty unique plethora of terrestrial plant and animal wildlife
I first picked up a camera when I was 10 years old, but at that time my photography was more about travel and places rather the environment or wildlife. That had to wait until much later, when I reached a point when I could use tourism photography to pay the bills, while the nature photography was the real passion.
In your opinion, what makes the biodiversity of the Philippines especially unique or interesting?
Philippine biodiversity is utterly critical to global biodiversity both on land and in the sea, and unfortunately few people in the Philippines (or anywhere else, actually) really understand this.
Because it is an island nation that has never had much by way of land links with mainland Asia, its 7,000-plus islands have developed a pretty unique plethora of terrestrial plant and animal wildlife.
The Philippines is right at the epicentre of the Coral Triangle…today’s distribution hub for the vast majority of tropical corals and fish species
The Philippines has a huge diversity of species, over 60% of which is found nowhere else. When taken on a species per hectare basis, the Philippines has one of the world’s greatest biodiversities, greater than many much better known spots, such as the Galapagos Islands or Madagascar.
In the sea, the Philippines is right at the epicentre of the Coral Triangle, a region covering six Southeast Asian nations that provides both the evolutionary origins and today’s distribution hub for the vast majority of tropical corals and fish species.
There are just over 700 species of coral worldwide, for example, with 600 of them found around the Philippines’ coasts, from where their larval stages are distributed out across much of the Indian Ocean and the western part of the Pacific. Without Philippine coral reefs there would be few coral reefs anywhere, and consequently few reef fish.
Wild Philippines includes a chapter on national parks and protected areas. Why do you think such sanctuaries are critical to conserving Philippine flora and fauna?
The Philippines’ protected areas have not been laid out randomly, but are positioned to focus on those areas where the wild environment is still in good condition, and where wildlife has a reasonable chance of being protected, where protection and conservation efforts can be maximised to give the most benefit to the maximum numbers of important plant and animal species.
The notion that conservation is at odds with “progress” is a complete nonsense and always has been – it has just taken far too long for enough people to realise this!
Because of the Philippines’ unique island structure, both the plant and animal wildlife can be quite different in different parts of the country. It’s no good protecting rainforest in northern Luzon, for example, and then thinking that this is representative of the whole country.
So rainforest scattered all over the country needs to be protected because both plants and animals in Mindanao are quite different from those in Luzon, for example, or even from the western Visayas to the eastern, while Palawan is completely different again. And the process of creating new protected areas is still ongoing as more is still being learned.
Does the argument that conservation and progress are mutually exclusive still hold any water, in your view?
The notion that conservation is at odds with “progress” is a complete nonsense and always has been – it has just taken far too long for enough people to realize this!