Narra, Palawan: Spotting the Rare Philippine Cockatoos of Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary

Philippine Cockatoo at Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary
Only 1,000 Philippine Cockatoos are left in the wild, with 300 of them living on Rasa Island

From San Vicente, I headed back down to Puerto Princesa City and continued further down south to the municipality of Narra, where I visited Rasa Island, home of the last remaining large population of Philippine Cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygi), locally known as katala. There are only around 1,000 individuals left across the Philippine archipelago, and this species is found no where else on the planet. Their rapid decline is caused by deforestation and rampant poaching for the pet trade. A majority of the Philippine Cockatoo population is found in Palawan – with 200 to 300 individuals living on Rasa Island alone! Others are dwindling in numbers in Polillo, Samar and Tawi-Tawi.

Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary
Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary is surrounded by tidal flats that are challenging to navigate during low tide

After the mandatory haggle, I hired a fisherman from the village next to Panaca pier to take me to Rasa Island, a mangrove sanctuary just a few kilometers offshore from the mainland. The tide recedes drastically around the island, and the approach proved to be challenging, as we avoided the shallow reefs and meandered our way through the narrow waterways of the mangrove forest to a small concrete jetty that lead to the steel watchtower. We couldn’t spot any cockatoos from the lookout, so we went to the caretaker’s home, a small palm hut at the edge of a deciduous forest, where  I was fortunate to have briefly spotted around a dozen cockatoos. As they are extremely wary of humans, they quickly sensed our presence and flew away deeper into the forest. I was extremely glad to have spotted them, as many have made their way to the island and left without even seeing a single bird, according my boatman.

Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary
Labyrinthine mangrove forests provide refuge for the Philippine Cockatoos, locally known as ‘katala’

I hope the conservation of these unique birds will extend beyond Rasa Island, so the cockatoo population will recover much faster. Unfortunately, unsustainable human development is adding pressure to the existence of the Philippine cockatoo. I later learned that a proposed 15-megawatt coal-fired power plant near the wildlife sanctuary further threatens the last habitat of these beautiful endemic birds.

Sunset at Panaca Pier
Catch a glorious sunset at Panaca pier after your tour of Rasa Island

HOW TO GET THERE: Take a southbound (Brooke’s Point or Rio Tuba) bus or van from San Jose terminal in Puerto Princesa City and alight at Narra town, 2.5 hours away from the city. A van ride costs PHP 150. 

To get to Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary, take a tricycle to Panaca pier (15 minutes, PHP 20); and hire a bangka (outrigger canoe) to take you the island. A three-hour tour was PHP 500. The best time to see Philippine cockatoos are around 3:00 PM, when the birds return to the island to roost in the trees near the caretaker’s nipa hut. Occasionally, the cockatoos are known to feed on malunggay (horseradish trees) near Panaca pier very early in the morning.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The mangrove swamps of Rasa Island are infested with nik-nik (sand flies) which can inflict very itchy bites, so make sure you protect yourself with insect repellant before heading to the island. Sari-sari stores near Panaca pier sell sachets of insect repellant lotion at PHP 10.

WHERE TO STAY: Gulane Traveller’s Home, located along Sampaloc St. in Narra town, has shabby but dirt-cheap double fan rooms for PHP 200.

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