This Pinay celebrates Philippine native trees on TikTok 2
Photographer and filmmaker Celine Murillo with the Philippines’ largest individual flower, Rafflesia schadenbergiana. Photo courtesy of Murillo

This Filipina environmentalist is making the subject of Philippine native trees TikTok-friendly

Photographer and filmmaker Celine Murillo is making the subject of nature and its conservation easy and engaging so many more will care
RHIA GRANA | Jul 27 2023

Planting native trees is a nature-based solution to pollution and threats to our biodiversity. It can help shield us from the effects of climate change. Windbreak trees can protect us from strong winds during storms. There are trees that can prevent soil erosion in waterways. Meanwhile, non-native trees like mahogany are not the right trees to plant for reforestation or forest regeneration—because they could suppress the growth of other species.

It’s amazing what one gets to learn watching the TikTok videos of photographer, filmmaker, and environmentalist Celine Murillo, and what we still need to know about Mother Nature so we can help conserve and protect it. Celine’s content also effectively shows how beautiful the Philippines is and how blessed Filipinos are to have our natural resources. 

The towering twin towers of White Lauan – a Philippine Native Tree
The towering twin towers of white lauan, a Philippine native tree

These were exactly her goals when she started to dip her toes in nature and wildlife photography, and began producing documentaries and videos focusing on Philippine biodiversity and natural heritage. “I feel that if more Filipinos know how wonderful our biodiversity is, they will care more. And if they care about it, there will be a desire to protect it,” says Celine, who does her nature and wildlife advocacy work with her husband Dennis. Her TikTok videos are a testament to how passionate she is about getting her message across. It shows in the amount of research she puts into each post and her efforts to capture beautiful images of nature. 

Juvenile Yellow Bittern (Tagalog name_ Bwakaw) hunting for food in Angono Lakeside Park
Juvenile yellow bittern (bwakaw) hunting for food in Angono Lakeside Park

It may surprise some people that Celine did not study Ecology, Forestry, Botany, or some other science-related course in college. She took up Business and majored in Human Resource Management at the National College of Business and Arts in Taytay, Rizal. But in 2015, after her mother’s untimely demise, she started traveling and hiking mountains around the country. “[It was thru hiking that] I found healing,” she says. “I’ve been exposed to this so much beauty. It has given me so much that I want to give back. I want others to experience this beauty as well.”

Being exposed to the wonders of nature inspired her to learn more about it and also embark on nature photography and filmmaking. In 2017, Celine and Dennis were invited by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to Mounts Iglit–Baco National Park in Mindoro, known as the habitat of the endemic tamaraw. “Parang yun ang naging hook for me to go into conservation,” she reveals. The Murillos got to know the story of the tamaraw and the rangers working with the Mangyan to protect it.

A portrait of the late Kalibasib, the last captive-bred individual of the critically endangered and endemic tamaraw
A portrait of the late Kalibasib, the last captive-bred individual of the critically endangered and endemic tamaraw. 

Through UNDP in partnership with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Celine made a documentary entitled “Suwag o Susuko.” Released in October 2019, the film got a lot of traction and helped institutionalize the tamaraw conservation program in the country. 

Since Celine and husband did not travel during the pandemic, they were able to save up and invest in a camper van and gear for nature photography. Once the travel restrictions eased, they started going back to their adventures, producing content for their YouTube Channel, which is dedicated to celebrating the country’s amazing landscapes and incredible wildlife.

Celine and spouse Dennis straight from a three-day fieldwork up Mt. Hibokhibok.
Celine and and husband Dennis straight from a three-day fieldwork up Mt. Hibok-Hibok.

It was only in January that Celine began producing content for TikTok. “Going into TikTok was deliberate because I wanted to reach more people. I’ve noticed that thru Facebook and Instagram, ang mga nari-reach kong tao ay yung talagang interested sa wildlife, plants and animals. With TikTok, my content have a tendency to penetrate other circles,” she says.

Her videos did reach a wider and more diverse viewership through the platform—from plantitos and plantitas to students and teachers, environmental advocates, and ordinary individuals who didn’t know they’d appreciate her kind of educational and eye-opening content. Her TikTok account now has 33,000 followers and over 264,000 likes.

Documenting birds in Mt. Hibok-hibok, Camiguin
Documenting birds in Mt. Hibok-Hibok, Camiguin

“It was surprising but of course I was hoping for that kind of reception,” says the filmmaker. “What that told me is there’s an interest in our natural heritage. Naghahanap lang sila ng way to know more about it. And if you put out [that kind of content], they will engage with you.”

Celine says the fact that she did not finish a science-related course made her more diligent in doing research about the stories she puts out. “Kahit na hindi ako science major, the work that I do is built on the work of scientists, botanists,” says the 31-year-old. But it was her childhood dream to become a scientist, and many of her earliest memories involved trees. “I remember my eldest sister telling me na mahilig akong magbasa at mga binabasa kong libro always have trees in them,” Celine says. But growing up, she had limited exposure to the great outdoors.

With the ultra-rare Bago-adlau (Xanthostemon philippinensis) amidst the forest of Talangisog – the ancestral domain of the Higaonon tribe in Misamis Oriental
With the rare Bago-adlau (Xanthostemon philippinensis) amidst the forest of Talangisog, the ancestral domain of the Higaonon tribe in Misamis Oriental

Now she’s deep into learning about nature and wildlife preservation, she’s become even more passionate about the subject. “What fascinates me is the intertwining of nature and culture. Since we work a lot with local and indigenous communities, the elders tell us how significant the wildlife is to their culture and livelihood.”

BaeInatlawan Chieftainess of the Bukidnon-Daraghuyan tribe who shared the belief about Kalumbata
The BaeInatlawan Chieftainess of the Bukidnon-Daraghuyan tribe

For the Bukidnon-Daraghuyan, for instance, one of the three tribes residing within the Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park in Bukidnon, the Philippine Eagle which they call the kalumbata is revered. “They believe that if a kalumbata is killed, a child in the village will also die. This prohibits them from killing the Philippine Eagle.” Meanwhile, for the Manobo tribe, the almaciga tree—which they call the salumayag—is considered sacred. It is believed the diwata, the guardian of the high forests, lives in it.

The newly-fledged Pamarayeg III, the third offspring of the Philippine Eagle pair in Cinchona Forest Reserve in Bukidnon
The newly-fledged Pamarayeg III, the third offspring of the Philippine Eagle pair in Cinchona Forest Reserve in Bukidnon
k5 poster
Poster of Celine's winning documentary film K5

Celine is currently busy working on her next project—a short film on indigenous ways of farming, which is in partnership with the Manobo tribe. Aside from promoting Philippine diversity and natural heritage, she also wants to make people aware of the importance of native trees in fighting climate change. In fact, her film entitled "K5 Katutubong Kahoy Kontra Krisis sa Klima" recently won Best Film in the 6th Indie-Siyensia Film Festival, organized by the Department of Science and Technology-Science Education Institute in partnership with the Film Development Council of the Philippines. The micro-documentary focused on planting native trees for climate resilience and biodiversity conservation.

“I want to emphasize our connection with the natural world,” she says. “If we revere the natural world, we also revere ourselves, and we’ll be less inclined to destroy it.” 

Photos courtesy of Celine Murillo