TALISAY, Philippines – At the crack of dawn on Thursday, Manolito Malaluan set out with a band of rescuers to ferry to safety two horses trapped on a Philippine island where a volcano has been spewing ash for days.
They took a motorboat across a lake, defying official warnings to stay out of a danger zone around the Taal volcano, one of the most active in the southeast Asian nation, as they scrambled to reach the animals.
“Both of them were neighing when they saw me,” Malaluan, 23, told Reuters, after reaching safer ground with his horses, named Cristina and Bakasan. “They were happy because I came back.”
More than 57,000 people have abandoned homes on the volcanic island and its environs, usually thronged by tourists, but many have also drifted back to check on animals and possessions.
Authorities have thrown a 14-km (9-mile) exclusion zone around the volcano, with experts warning that an eruption could bring a devastating rain of rocks and magma and unleash a tsunami in the surrounding lake.
The horses were among 3,000 living on the island, most earning money for their owners by carrying tourists to the rim of the volcano crater.
As their sole means of livelihood, many islanders depend on the survival of the animals, but the future looks uncertain.
“We won’t have food on our tables if not for them,” said Jun Despededa, 21, who used water from the lake to scrub volcanic ash from his horse’s white coat. “I don’t know what I would do now after what happened.”
About 1,000 horses, as well as cows, goats and pigs were among the animals left behind by residents scurrying to safer areas for fear of a bigger eruption.
One horse owner urged authorities to allow the rescue of as many animals as possible, taking advantage of what appeared to be a lull in volcano activity, but was rebuffed by the coast guard patrolling the lake.
Horses were among the more than 70 animals brought to safety since Wednesday by another group of rescuers, led by a police maritime unit, but it has since been told to halt its activities, because of the eruption threat.
Many of the horses that had made it out looked exhausted and hungry, with at least one barely able to stand.
While Taal appeared to be calming down on Thursday, seismologists said the danger of an eruption remained high and authorities warned evacuees to stay away.
The Philippines lies on the “Ring of Fire,” a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes.
One of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, Taal has erupted more than 30 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 1977. An eruption in 1911 killed more than 1,300 people and one in 1754 lasted for six months.