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Loggers threaten last stronghold of Philippine biodiversity
PALANAN, Philippines (CNN) -- In the Philippines, no wilderness equals the Sierra Madre, a vast and rare swath that stretches from the mountains to the ocean. But the wilderness, like the biological riches it contains, faces the risk of extinction, according to environmentalists.
"If we lose the Sierra Madre, then there's no way Philippine biodiversity can survive the next 10 years," said Perry Ong of Conservation International, a non-profit organization based in Washington that seeks to protect biologically rich areas of the world.
The Sierra Madre forest shelters much of the biological diversity of the Philippines, where most species of plants and animals are unique to the islands. Scientists say it must be protected.
Forests in the Philippines were once the richest and most diverse in all of Southeast Asia, before commercial logging and clearing for agriculture obliterated them.
In the last century, nearly 90 percent of Philippine forests disappeared. The largest remaining block stands in northern Luzon, the Sierra Madre.
Authorities are closing down sawmills, but the forest still faces serious threats. Forest rangers keep constant watch for illegal loggers smuggling timber downriver.
"It is really dangerous, especially when we're confiscating, because those loggers have some hidden weapons," said ranger Mario Balagan.
More than 30,000 people live in a few coastal towns in the Sierra Madre. Some of them want more development.
But new roads and mining projects could endanger the forests and rivers. Conservationists are working with local leaders to avoid environmental damage.
Meanwhile, the national government has proclaimed the core of the forest a natural park, although it still requires congressional approval.
Across more than 7,000 Philippine islands, most remaining fragments of ancient forests are expected to disappear during the next 20 years. But this one, the largest of them all, now has a reasonable chance to survive.
The alternative is mass extinction for the Philippines, losing most living things that made these islands like no others on the planet.
"Once this is gone, we have already reached a point of no return," said Leonardo Co of Conservation International.
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