“Heaven on earth” was how RPN 9 cameraman Ralph Runez described the Candaba Swamp and Wildlife Preserve in Pampanga, where he saw thousands of wild birds the first time he visited the area in February this year.
Runez journeyed to the 70-hectare nature reserve with colleagues from the non-government organization, Kaakbay (Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan) Citizen’s Development Initiatives Inc. including executive director Alain Del B. Pascua and deputy executive director Orlando V. Balbido.
“He never imagined that a place like Candaba existed in the Philippines,” Balbido recounted. “In Manila Zoo, you’d see these birds in cages. But not in Candaba, where over 90 species of migratory, endemic and resident birds congregate.”
Visiting bird watchers and naturalists have visited Candaba—which was declared a bird sanctuary in 2004—reporting sightings of birds such as Garganey, Egret, Chinese Pond Heron, Siberian Rubythroat, Peregrine Falcon, Grass Owl and the Kingfisher.
These migratory birds fly thousands of kilometers, across continents and seas, to spend the winter months in the Philippines.
According to Pascua, the 2006 Asian Waterbird Census recorded “more than 11,000 birds and more than 80 species in Candaba in only three hours of counting.”
Runez, a Caloocan-based cameraman, was there to witness the event.
“He was in awe,” Pascua recalled. “The time of our visit was the peak of migration. There were 11,000 birds in Candaba. He was surprised, but also frustrated because we didn’t bring a zoom lens for close-up shots of the birds.”
Soon after that initial visit, Runez became a “committed” member of Kaakbay, an NGO that aims to protect the bird sanctuary.
“He was brought in by his good friend and fellow cameraman Rene de los Santos when we decided to make a documentary on the birds of Candaba,” Pascua explained.
The 15-minute documentary titled “Wings in the Water: The Birds in Candaba Swamp” was among the 16 finalists in the second Moonrise Festival of environmental films, ongoing at the Gateway Cineplex in Cubao, Quezon City this August.
Balbido described Runez as a jolly person always cracking jokes. He was also soft-spoken and unassuming, according to fellow videographer Rocky Sison/
But when it came to work, he was a no-nonsense person. “He wasted no time and put all his knowledge, skills and even resources into our project,” Pascua said. “At first, we were embarrassed because our organization lacked funds and we didn’t have the money to pay a professional cameraman like him.”
To everyone’s surprise, Runez volunteered his services and equipment as videographer and film editor. “He used his own video camcorder, a Canon XL1, when we shot for four days in Candaba. He had his personal computer upgraded so he could edit the documentary at home,” Balbido said.
Those crucial days of editing the documentary solidified the group.
“We edited the docu for five days nonstop and without sleep. It was during that time that we got to know Ralph better,” Balbido said.
“Photo finish kami; we finished editing and submitted the docu only three hours before the Moonrise festival’s deadline on June 30,” Pascua said.
The group’s hard work paid off when the docu was nominated in the Best Cinematography and Special Citation for Rivers and Lakes categoriesl.
Runez was credited as videographer along with De los Santos and Sison. Although the docu didn’t bring home any award, the group felt like winners “because we were all first-time filmmakers, and we pulled it off,” Pascua said.
On July 26, during Kaakbay’s “critiquing night,” the group decided to make improvements on the docu. “The group gave the assignment of implementing the changes to Ralph,” Balbido said. “He became our group’s official technical person.”
“He edited out the shaky footage; he put in bird calls and natural bird sounds,” Pascua said.
In fact, Runez was “working on the documentary all through the night until the dawn of July 28—the day he was murdered,” he recalled.
“He took a break from editing to withdraw P35,000 from a Metrobank branch in Lagro, Quezon City. He was going to lend the money to a friend,” Balbido said.
On his way home to Caloocan, Runez was accosted by robbers who shot him twice.
“He was declared dead on arrival at the Tala Hospital,” Pascua said. “Ralph was only 35 years old.”
Although suspects in Runez’s murder have been arrested, his friends and colleagues could only hope “that justice would be served in Ralph’s case because a policeman had been implicated.”
“At his wake, his 4-year-old son Rafael looked as if he was oblivious that his father was gone,” Balbido said.
Determined to pay homage to Runez. Kaakbay gave a special screening of “Wings in the Water” last Aug.19 at the Gateway Cineplex. “He will forever be a part of Kaakbay. Rocky reedited the ending to include a tribute to Ralph,” Balbido said.