Owners return to volcano island to save their animals from Taal
Defying orders, they risk their lives hoping they will be able to resume work one day
BALETE, THE PHILIPPINES: 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 Taal volcano eruption in the Philippines.
Their owners are among many small operators who rely on the modest money generated by the animals ferrying tourists up the volcano, a popular attraction ringed by a sweeping lake.
When Taal exploded to life on Sunday, the community that owns hundreds of steeds on Luzon island had to flee without most of their possessions and prized livestock.
"Our lives are in our horses; they're how we make our living," owner Alfredo Daet, 62, told AFP, after bringing three of his four animals to the mainland.
"We love our horses... that's why we wanted to save them."
The creatures can generate US$7 (S$9.40) for each 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 US$2 a day.
Scores of other farm animals on the island, like cows and goats, were killed in the eruption.
By returning to the island, now blanketed in a layer of fine volcanic ash, the men defied a mandatory evacuation order and risked their lives.
"If we let the horses die (on the island), we will be the ones that lose in the end," another owner, Mr Pejay Magpantay, said after 11 of his family's 14 beasts were saved.
Another man who defied official warnings to sneak back to the island to check on his pigs, described complete devastation.
"Almost everything was destroyed," Mr Christian Morales told AP, adding that he was able to get his bearings only after seeing the cross of a mud-encrusted Catholic church where he used to hear Mass.
So far no one has been reported killed in the eruption, but the disaster is spotlighting the long-standing dilemma of how the government can move settlements from danger zones.
Sometimes, as is the case with Taal, the settlements are in violation of laws that have not been enforced.
Nevertheless, poverty, lack of land and desperation have driven people to the island despite the danger, said Mr Gerry Natanauan, the mayor of nearby Talisay town.
Mr Morales said it would probably take years for those on the island to rebuild their lives, but they should be allowed to do so.
He said there were many others who lost their homes, farms and boats.
"I really pity them," he said.
"They have nowhere to go."