by Ron LOPEZ
The horses were still caked in grey ash as they stepped off the boat, lucky beneficiaries of a risky rescue mission to ground zero of the Philippines’ Taal volcano eruption.
Their owners are among many small operators who rely on the modest money generated by the beasts ferrying tourists up the volcano, a popular attraction ringed by a sweeping lake.
But when Taal exploded to life on Sunday the community, who own hundreds of steeds on volcano island, had to flee without their prized livestock and most of their possessions.
“Our lives are in our horses, they’re how we make our living,” owner Alfredo Daet, 62, told AFP on Tuesday after bringing three of his four animals to the mainland.
“We love our horses… that’s why we wanted to save them,” he added.
The creatures can generate $7 each per trip up to the stunning panoramic views above the volcano’s main crater, a significant sum in a nation where millions survive on less than $2 a day.
Scores of other farm animals on the island, like cows and goats, were killed in the eruption.
In returning to the island, now blanketed in a deep layer of fine volcanic ash, the men defied a mandatory evacuation order and risked their lives.
– ‘no man’s land’ –
Authorities have warned a stronger, potentially catastrophic eruption could come at any time, yet that has not stopped multiple groups of desperate locals from making the trip.
“If we let the horses die (on the island), we will be the ones that lose in the end,” another owner, Pejay Magpantay, told AFP Tuesday after 11 of his family’s 14 beasts were saved.
Despite being home to one of the most active volcanoes in a nation plagued by earthquakes and eruptions, people are allowed to visit and live there.
Taal is classified a “permanent danger zone”, according to government volcanologists.
It is a 23-square-kilometre (14-square-mile) volcano island that lies inside a bigger lake formed from previous volcanic activity.
Together they are among the most spectacular sights, and popular tourist destinations, in the Philippines.
Yet Taal has a deadly past. It has erupted dozens of times since 1572, the most destructive of which was in 1911 when it killed some 1,300 people and sent ash falling on to Manila. Its last major eruption came in 1977.
Recently, Taal has been putting on a stunning and terrifying display, including an ash cloud illuminated with lightning bolts.
It shot dark-grey columns 800 metres (half a mile) in the sky.
Since the latest bout of activity there have been calls to keep people, once and for all, from living on the island.
“I strongly recommend that we implement the suggestion that… Taal (volcano) will be declared ‘no man’s land’,” defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters Tuesday.
© Agence France-Presse