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Where the Wild Things Were:

Travels of a Conservationist

by Stanley Johnson

The scenes I witness are almost surreal. Inside the ring, two stallions, lathered in sweat and blood, fight each other to a standstill. They rear, gouge, they kick and they slash, competing for a tethered mare. At times they come to a trembling halt and almost nuzzle each other, before launching once more into a horrific attack. At other times, they race around the arena at full speed, causing the officials to slip quickly under the railings out of harm's way.

For the most part, the stallions entered in these local 'derbies' are not reared as fighters. They are animals which, when not fighting, are used as beasts of burden or as a means of transport. The spectators are deeply involved in the fight - they are aficionados. But the reason these fights continue to take place lies in the money that changes hands. The owner of a winning horse will earn a tidy sum; if he has several winners, claiming the title of 'derby champion', he will gain a small fortune. But even more important are the spectators' bets. Markers - cristos, as they are called - make a mental note of the wagers shouted out from the crowd as the fight runs its course. For a few minutes at the end, the exits are blocked so that bets can be collected and money paid out. Police are on hand to ensure there is no violence, but also - perhaps more importantly - to see that nobody slips out of the venue without paying up.

The horse fight we witnessed was the last of the day. By my watch the two stallions in the ring fought each other for more than 40 minutes before one was declared a winner. The rules are precise. If a stallion fails to challenge his opponent, he can lose a point. If he runs for the exit chute, he can also lose a point. Once he loses two points, the other horse wins. En route to the verdict, there are lashings of blood and gore. One horse may gouge the other's leg or testicles. He may bite the other's neck and sides. No, it is not a pretty sight.

Dino, with his long veterinary experience, is as much concerned for the welfare of the mare as for the stallions. 'That mare,' he says, pointing to a quivering animal roped in the middle of the arena, 'has been out there in the sun all day. There may have been 10 or 12 fights. She'll have been mounted as many times. That's the winner's perk. You might say she's gang-raped. And she'll also be bitten, scratched and kicked as the stallions fight it out. There's nothing noble or natural about the horse fight. This is a purely induced anger.'

As Andrew and I stand there among the crowd, absorbing the spectacle, we encounter more than a few curious glances. Few, if any, European or American faces are seen at these underground events. But Dino has prepared a cover story. After the last fight of the day is over, he introduces us to the referee and the other officials. 'Meet Mr Johnson,' he urges them. 'He's a big businessman from America. From Texas! Soon he'll be introducing horse fighting in the rodeos over there!'

I do my best to look the part. 'Y'all have a great day,' I say, doffing my hat.

When it's all over, we wander through the paddocks to inspect the winners and losers.

There was a time when Dino would use his veterinary skills to patch up any obvious wounds. He doesn't do that any more.

'I don't want anyone to think I'm here to keep them in business,' he says. 'My job is to work with the local communities, with the mayors and police departments, to persuade them to enforce the law. We have succeeded in some provinces, but there is still a long way to go, particularly in Maguindanao and Cotabato.'

He walks over to one of the stallions that has fought and lost this afternoon. The animal is lying down on the grass. There is blood on its flanks and its nostrils are badly torn.

Dino looks at the beast with a practised eye. 'There is an internal injury, I am sure of it. Within two weeks he'll be dead from that, or else the owner will have slit his throat.'

Later that day, still accompanied by our police guards, we drive into the town to check into our hotel. The streets are arrayed in festival bunting and the crowds are out in force. The hotel costs us about £10 a night each. The two policemen join us for dinner. As we sit at the table, Tem, the bodyguard, opens his tote bag and shows us his weapon, a Walther PPK. I am curious. 'If your gun is in the bag,' I ask, 'how do you get it out quickly enough if someone stops us at a road block and threatens to shoot us?' Tem smiles, but doesn't answer. He is obviously quite capable of shooting through the bag. Fortunately, at least while he is with us, he doesn't have to put his skills to the test.

It has been a long day. There is no window in my room. We have, perhaps unwisely, agreed that our escorts can go back to the police station for the night to get some sleep, so I wonder how I'll escape if gunmen come banging at the door. I try to put a chair under the door handle but it doesn't work. Either the chair is too small or the handle is set too high in the door.

Around 5am the next day, we pile into our vehicle to call on the local congressman. He has been Dino's friend for more than 30 years and used to be mayor of Cotabato City, then governor of the North Cotabato province. He has been here 50 years, with a farm in the heart of the town (the town has, literally, grown up around him). We pass through the security gates and drive down the track to his house. Cocks are already crowing and the light is breaking through the coconut and durian trees. The congressman gives me his card. It reads 'Rep Jesus N Sacdalan, 1st District, North Cotabato'. 'May I call you Jesus?' I ask. 'Please call me Susing,' he says to me. 'That's the name we use here. If people call me Jesus and hate me, they may hate Jesus too.'

We spend more than two hours with the congressman, starting with strong, sweet coffee on his terrace before a tour of his farm. He has nurseries full of plants which he hands out to help local farmers. The whole system is organic. The grass under the fruit trees is cut to feed the cattle and the manure is returned to the soil in the orchard.

“Susing” Sacdalan is one of the key political personalities in the Philippines. He is chairman of the congress's Special Committee on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity. Not long ago, he successfully appealed to the supreme court, arguing that former President Arroyo's government had acted unconstitutionally in its negotiations with the Mindanao rebels and separatists. 'I do not see this as being a fight between Christians and Muslims,' he says. 'It is a question of poverty. The people of Mindanao need to feel they have been justly treated. Development will bring peace.'

He also sees the issue of horse fighting in developmental terms. If the political problems of Mindanao could be sorted out, there would be brighter economic prospects ahead. The extra income earned by horse fighting might become less important. And with a peaceful settlement between warring factions, the government would be in a much better position to enforce existing legislation.

Later, on the plane to Manila, I read a headline in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The vice-mayor of Cotabato City, Muslimin Sema, had been gunned down by political opponents, suffering multiple bullet wounds. President Aquino had ordered the police to hunt down the perpetrators of the shooting, which had occurred about an hour after we left Cotabato for the horse fight. The paper didn't say whether Mr Sema's bodyguards were in mufti or in uniform.

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