Thousands of Endangered Turtles Rescued at Philippines Hatchery

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Manila, 23 October 2009.Some 107 kilometers away from General Santos City going to the west is the quaint town of Maitum, Sarangani.   Its dense forests are home to several wildlife species like tarsier, kalaw (writhed-billed hornbill), punay (yellow-breasted fruit dove), kulasi (Philippine hanging parakeet), kulyawan (black-naped oriole), Philippine eagle, and wild pigs.

In its coastal villages, endangered marine turtles are given the chance to multiply.  Visitors at barangay Old Poblacion may not find the nesting and study site attractive at all.  The sand parcel under the coconut trees are enclosed by a rectangular black fine-meshed net dotted by rounded green plastic sheet.  “Below the sand enclosed by the net sometimes are hundreds of turtle eggs for hatching,” informs Danny C. Dequiña, the hatchery caretaker.

 At the barangay Old Poblacion hatchery, baby turtles get a second chance at survival in the Philippines

At the barangay Old Poblacion hatchery, baby turtles get a second chance at survival in the Philippines

Dequiña pointed out that the hatching percentage of the marine turtle facility, based on their experience, stood only at 60 percent due to the shadow of the coconut trees.  He said that they have freed over 21 adult marine turtles and more than 3,000 hatchlings have been released to the ocean since 2003.

Hawksbill (known scientifically as Eretmocheyls imbricata), Olive Ridley (Lepidocheylsolivacea), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), and Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) are the species that have made the Sarangani shorelines as their egg-laying sanctuary. “They have been coming at this coastal village to lay eggs as far as I could remember,” said Jerry Bascuña, the municipal environment and natural resources officer. “It is maybe because their mothers also lay them here.”

Actually, there are five species of marine turtles (of the eight species known around the world) that inhabit the Philippine waters.   The only species not found in Sarangani is Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).  The three other species, which are not found in the country, are Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempi), Flatback Turtle (Chelonia depressa), and Black Sea Turtle (Chelonia agassizi).

Marine turtles belong to the order Chelonia, an order of reptiles that has existed and flourished since prehistory with very little change in their basic structure.  They are characterized by a shell or carapace that houses the vital organs of the body.

Locally known as pawikan, they are differentiated from their terrestrial and freshwater relatives by their flattened forelimbs.  While freshwater turtles have five claws one ach forelimb with easily distinguishable individual digits, marine turtles have flattened foreflippers with obscured individual digits.

The Philippines is also home to three freshwater turtles, namely: the Malayan pond turtle, the Serrated-shelled pond turtle, and the Leyte turtle.

All eight species of marine turtles are listed under the Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means the trade of these species and subspecies is strictly “prohibited except for educational, scientific or research and study purposes.”

The Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has also classified the eight species as endangered. This is so because “their populations are in danger of extinction and whose survival is unlikely if the causal factors continue to operate.”

Despite sincere efforts by the government and environmentalists to prevent the further decimation of the marine turtle population, the gathering of turtle eggs and trading of stuffed turtles in souvenir shops remain unabated.

As long as there is demand for marine turtle products, they will continue to be hunted, according to Haribon Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources, one of the country’s well-known environmentalist groups.  Among the most common products made from pawikan are turtle wall décor, jewelry pieces, shell-backed guitars, bags, and shoes.

“If you have bought a stuffed turtle in one of those souvenir shops, you have unwittingly contributed to the extermination of an endangered Philippine wildlife species,” observed a Filipino environmentalist.

Marine turtles spend most of their life in the sea and get all the things they need there.  They even mate in the sea.  But when the time comes to lay their eggs, the females return to shore, usually in the same place where they were hatched.

 Baby turtles without protection face a myriad of predatory threats - not least of which is man

Baby turtles without protection face a myriad of predatory threats - not least of which is man

Experts estimate that only one out of every 100 hatchlings survive to become an adult. The odds are certainly against any individual marine turtle.  They are preyed upon by numerous natural predators including crabs, birds, dogs, fish and marine mammals.

Yet, the species amazingly survived.  They have surmounted the moving and shaping of the continents and the great climatic changes that happened during the past 900,000 centuries. In March 2006, a giant tortoise said to be as old as 250 years died in a Calcutta zoo, having been taken to India by British sailors, records suggest, during the reign of King George II. Three months later, newspapers around the world noted the passing of Harriet, a Galapagos tortoise that died in the Australia Zoo at age 176 - 171 years after Charles Darwin “plucked her from her equatorial home.”

Since the dawn of history, pawikan meat has supplemented the diet of man and its shell has gratified its sense of beauty in more ways than one.  Seventeenth century seafaring men used marine turtles as ships’ provisions – their ability to stay alive for months without food and water ensured a steady supply of fresh meat without storage problems.

“Today, man’s growing need for survival has endangered the very existence of these sea-dwelling creatures,” wrote Jonas H. Liwag in an article which appeared in Mabuhay, the in-flight magazine of Philippine Airlines.  “All over the world, these reptiles are threatened with extinction by indifferent and relentless commercial exploitation.”

The main primary reason for the decline of marine turtle population is catching the reptiles alive.  They are valued for their precious shells.  “It was beauty that all but killed the Hawksbill turtle,” wrote one journalist.  “Polished and carved, the black-and-yellow plates on its back were long sought for tortoise-shell jewelry and combs.”  

Japan is one of the importing countries of marine turtle products.  There is a centuries-old Japanese tradition of carving tortoise-shell in to ceremonial bridal combs.  The carapace of pawikan is also made into brush handles, eyeglass frames, and buttons.

The gathering of pawikan eggs, which are considered by Chinese as aphrodisiac, has contributed to the rapid disappearance of marine turtles.  The eggs, which look like ping-pong balls, are also prize as energizing protein.  But marine scientists dispel the myth.  They said pawikan eggs are just like chicken eggs and nothing more.

 Once beyond baby size, turtles have a much better chance of survival when released into in the ocean

Once beyond baby size, turtles have a much better chance of survival when released into in the ocean

Pollution has been cited as another prime factor why pawikan are on the verge of extinction.  Included in the millions of tons of garbage dumped annually into the sea are plastic materials which marine turtles mistake for jellyfish, squid, or some other food.  Once digested, plastic wastes can block the turtle’s digestive tracts, causing starvation and ultimately death.

The rapid development of beach resorts for the tourism industry has destroyed the nesting beaches of marine turtles.  Sadly, they often travel huge distances only to find human development on or near their nesting sites.

Dynamite fishing likewise contributes to the obliteration of the pawikan’s habitat.  So is the use of trawl nets in areas where turtles abound.  Since these scoop up everything in their paths, the turtles, which are not the active targets, also get caught.  The poor animal are usually drown to death.

“Unless we, Filipinos, seriously take on the task of protecting the much endangered marine turtles, these ancient creatures will soon be gone (from our waters),” Haribon warns in a statement.