The Philippines is living up to its reputation as one of the world’s 17 mega-diverse countries in the world in terms of biodiversity as a group of American and Filipino biologists unearthed seven previously unknown mammal species in Luzon island.

All of the seven species are forest mice belonging to the genus Apomys and live only in a small part of Luzon. The discovery increased the number of native mammals – excluding bats – in the country’s largest island from 42 to 49, or up 17 per cent.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Ramon J. P. Paje was elated at the discovery, and noted its timeliness with the declaration of years 2011-2020 as “Decade on Biodiversity” by the United Nations and the national government. “The international community has recognized that our country has among the highest rates of discovery in the world. Filipinos should be aware of such discoveries, to show a collective pride and give a more positive meaning to the expression, ‘only in the Philippines,’” he said.

The formal descriptions of the seven species were published in the May 2011 issue of Fieldiana, the peer-reviewed journal of the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) in Chicago. The nine co-authors of the article include biologists from the University of the Philippines, the Philippine National Museum, Conservation International (CI) -Philippines, Utah Museum of Natural History, and Florida State University.

FMNH’s Dr. Lawrence Heaney, project leader and the lead author of the Fieldiana, described the species as “wonderful little mice that live in forested regions high in the mountain… often abundant, [yet] they actively avoid humans and rarely cause any harm. They prefer to eat earthworms and seeds on the forest floor.”

Two of the species live in, or are endemic to, Mt. Tapulao in Zambales; two in Mt. Banahaw; another two in the Mingan Mountains of Aurora Province; and the remaining specie in the Sierra Madre mountain range of northeastern Luzon.

Theresa Mundita Lim, Director of the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB), said that the discovery highlights the need to protect mountain forest habitats. “These animals are part of the rich biological heritage of the Philippines. The forests where they live in are crucial watershed areas for Manila and many other cities,” she said.

Danilo Balete, the project’s field team leader, expressed the team’s excitement with the discovery. “It is extraordinary that so many new species of mammals remain to be discovered in the Philippines. In the past 10 years, we’ve published formal descriptions of ten other species, while other biologists have described five more. And we are nowhere close to the end of our discoveries. The Philippines may have the greatest concentration of unique species of animals of any country in the world,” he said.

The discovery also prompted Dr. Scott Steppan, co-author and head of the laboratory at Florida State University where the DNA of the animals were studied, to consider the Philippines “even better” than the wildlife-rich Ecuadorian archipelago of the Galapagos Islands. “The Philippines is an ideal place to study the evolution of animal diversity… These animals have been evolving in the Philippine archipelago for millions of years,” he said.

Josefa Veluz, biologist of the Philippine National Museum and co-author of the study, pointed out that the new species from the Sierra Madre and Mt. Banahaw live within protected areas, but those from the Mingan Mountains and Mt. Tapulao do not. She cautioned the public on the impact on wildlife and watersheds of logging, agricultural expansion, and illegal mining activities.

This was seconded by Romeo Trono, Country Executive Director for CI-Philippines. “Protecting land and marine resources is key to maintaining healthy ecosystems which deliver services such as food, clean water, health, tourism and cultural benefits and a stable climate which are vital to the very survival of every Filipino. Although small in size, these little animals are part of our biodiversity which forms the basic foundation of healthy ecosystems.

The Philippines, although cited by various conservation organizations as among those with remarkable levels of species endemism, is also ranked as one of the world’s most threatened hotspots, where increased human activities contribute largely to habitat loss and pose as severe threats to the existence of various species of flora and fauna.

Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon J. P. Paje rallied last week his field officials to ensure the success of the National Greening Program, saying the program has full support of the President.

“There is no reason to fail considering that President Aquino has amply given all the support this program (NGP) needs to succeed,” Paje told the regional executive directors (REDs), regional technical directors, and the provincial and community environment and natural resources officers (PENROs, CENROs) attending the 2-day National Convention of Field Officers held May 31-June 1, 2011 at the DENR Social Hall in Quezon City.

Paje also challenged the field officials “to give their best shot” as their performance in implementing the NGP will be “highly taken into consideration’ in the evaluation of officials for promotions.

“Those who will be performing will be rewarded. Wala pong biro yan,” Paje said, stressing that the field officers will be evaluated fairly based on a purely-merit system “without regard for personal ties or past associations” he has made through over 20 years at the DENR where he started his career as a casual forester.

Paje said the NGP-driven performance-based incentive scheme will first zero in on the PENRO and CENRO positions, with an instruction to DENR Assistant Secretary for Management and Finance Corazon Davis to reserve the vacant PENRO and CENRO posts as rewards for NGP’s top performers especially those that are on an acting capacity.

“If you are a CENRO, you will automatically become a PENRO. Those who are not yet full-pledged CENRO (with temporary appointment), we will make you full-pledged CENROs. Performance lamang, wala nang iba,” Paje stressed.

Of the 168 CENRO plantilla positions, 47 have yet to be filled; while 25 remain vacant in the 73 PENRO plantilla posts.

The incentive scheme forms part of Paje’s overall program to strengthen DENR’s performance-based promotion system to beef up the national leadership’s efforts in professionalizing the Philippine bureaucracy.

But Paje was quick to clarify that the quality of their performance will be determined by the survival of the seedling declared in their performance and not merely on the number of seedling planted.

“Remember, the NGP is a national priority program of President Aquino, and this is not for show but for grow. Gone are the days when tree planting activities were just to set world records or just for photo opportunities,” Paje noted.

At the same time, Paje asked “doubting Thomases” to be forthcoming this early with their hesitation to go all out to meet their targets to allow for management to act appropriately in their particular case.

“We will make sure that everybody performs. Kung sino sa inyo ang tingin ay hindi kayang ipatupad ang programang ito, sabihin na ninyo ngayon,” Paje said.

The performance-based incentive will be based on the field officials’ scorecard in the yearly targets given them and will be validated with the use of state-of-the art technology such as satellite mapping and internet-based technology through NGP’s website at the