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Pandaka Pygmaea, Our Canary In The Coal Mine:
The not-so-mysterious disappearance of a little fish that used to live in our rivers and on our coins
When I was a child, my father taught me about the small and unassuming fish whose image was engraved on our ten-centavo coins. He discussed the etymology of its scientific name, which literally means “dwarf pygmy”, and explained that it is the smallest fish in the world, found only here in the Philippines. I didn’t realize just how small, until I looked it up recently and found a picture of a specimen perched atop someone’s thumbnail. The average length of a mature dwarf pygmy goby is just under a centimeter.
Things have changed since then. Pandaka pygmaea is no longer the smallest fish in the world— that distinction now belongs to Indonesia’s Paedocypris progenetica. Neither does it remain exclusive to our country, for specimens have been found in nearby Singapore and Indonesia. Ten-centavo coins no longer bear its image, and, most troubling of all, our waters are no longer its home. The Malabon river, where American ichthyologist Albert Herre discovered the species in the 1920s, was subjected to aggressive land reclamation projects in the 1980s, and, like many other local rivers, is no longer the vibrant freshwater habitat it once was. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources reports that “the species is considered extinct in the Philippines”, as of 2004. It is classified as “critically endangered”— only a step away from being “extinct in the wild”— largely due to habitat loss and pollution.
This species’ disappearance is especially alarming for two reasons. One is the silence of the media on the issue, despite the fact that the fish once graced our currency. The other is the sad state that our environment must be in if such small animals— typically more resilient than large animals— face extinction. My father, who has to keep abreast of current affairs because of his career, was surprised that he never heard about this in the news. Perhaps, as Resty Odon wrote in his 2005 blog entry lamenting the plight of the pygmy: “Little things like these don’t matter to most people.”
Unfortunately, as Ayn Rand said: “Facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher.” The proponents of aggressive industrialization imagine that the disappearance of such a diminutive fish could hardly have any effect on our daily lives. In light of recent catastrophic flooding, perhaps it is clear that water pollution and environmental degradation are bad things for both Pandaka pygmaea and Homo sapiens. Annie Leonard noted that while advocates for sustainability are criticized for being “unrealistic”, what’s truly unrealistic is to believe that we can continue living as irresponsible consumers. We cannot simply wish away the consequences of our poor stewardship of our land. Respect for nature is not only poetic, but also practical, as well as economically wise.
Pandaka pygmaea’s story is no isolated case. Many other species endemic to the Philippines share the same sad fate, including the Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) and the tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis). Our magnificent Filipino fauna face an uncertain future, as their dwindling populations are forced to retreat into ever shrinking natural habitats. These species are warning us about the way we’re using our planet— and therefore giving us valuable insight on which way to go.
In collaboration with my fellow Filipino artist AJ Dimarucot, I have chosen these three iconic animals to illustrate a t-shirt called “Bayanihan” to be sold online on Threadless to raise funds for Architecture For Humanity’s sustainable rebuilding efforts in our country. We believe that this global movement, in cooperation with local partners, will bring real and lasting change by creating resilient, flood-resistant communities with smart architecture and urban planning. In the design, the Philippine eagle represents dignity, the tamaraw represents strength, the dwarf pygmy goby represents humility, and the sampaguita flower represents goodwill. Below these roll the waves that represent the bodies of water that suffuse and surround our tropical archipelago. Above is a luminous night sky, unobscured by air pollution. The entire design references our national flag— a triangle with a star at each point, and a circle that symbolizes both the life-giving sun and our nation’s status as the Pearl of the Orient.
Metro Manila, Philippines