Will Marine Turtles be Soon Extinct?

by Henrylito D.Tacio

Marine turtles are one of the longest-lived creatures Earth has ever known. Individual turtles can survive for centuries, bearing silent witness to epic swaths of human swagger. These air-breathing reptiles live their long legendary lives mostly in the sea.

But why there is so much ado about marine turtles these days? Locally known as pawikan, they are hunted for meat and leather; their eggs are taken for food and aphrodisiacs. Their nesting sites go for development. They are ground up by dredges, run over by pleasure boats, poisoned by pollution, strangled by trash, and drowned by fishlines and net.

Of the eight species of marine turtles known to man, five of them can be found in the Philippines. These are the Green Sea (known in the science world as Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), and Leatherback (Dermocheyls coriacea). The three others are the Kemps Ridley (Lepidochelys kempi), Flatback (Chelonia depressa), and Black Sea (Chelonia agassizi).

Unfortunately, all eight species 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.

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.

Conservation of marine turtles should be the concern of all Filipinos. As a citizen, you can do your part in discouraging the sale collection, or the killing of sea turtles by not buying these or products from turtles, he added.

The Haribon Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources warns, Unless we seriously take on the task of protecting the much endangered marine turtles, these ancient creatures will soon be gone (from our waters).

Most of the marine turtles in the Philippines are found in Baguan, Taganak, Lihiman, Boan, Langaan, and the Great Bakkungan, which are part of the so-called Turtle Islands. These islands used to be a favorite weekend destination of British excursionists and other nationals from North Borneo (now Sabah).

But they can also be found in other parts of the country. The Green Sea turtles have been sighted as far north as the Fuga Islands in Cagayan, and in the Southwest in Bancuran, Palawan.

The Hawksbill turtles inhabit the Celebes Sea, the Cuyo island group of Palawan, neighbouring towns of Jolo, Cotabato, and Sitangkai in Tawi-Tawi, as well as in Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro and the open waters of Sulu Sea. The Olive Ridley turtles have been seen by fishermen in the shallow coastal waters of Paluan, Occidental Mindoro.

To save the marine turtles from disappearing in the Philippine waters, the government initiated the Pawikan Conservation Project (PCP), an implementing arm of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It manages and coordinates both the marine turtles and dugong (another endangered marine mammal) conservation efforts of the government and private sector.

The project was created by the late Ferdinand Marcos through Executive Order No. 54 and was known then as Task Force Pawikan. Its main objective was to conduct a nationwide program to conserve marine turtles, a task that involves the protection and propagation of the animals.

To help propagate marine turtle species, the PCP established sanctuaries in areas where the endangered species abound. Hatcheries have been set up in these areas. The main hatcheries are in Turtle Islands.

A couple of years go, the government passed Republic Act 9147 or the Wildlife Act that mandates, among others, putting a stop to the collection of eggs from the populated Turtle Islands.

In other parts of the country, government officials are doing their best to save the marine turtles from extinction. In the coastal village of Maitum, Sarangani marine turtles are given the chance to multiply.

Visitors may not find the sand parcel under the coconut trees and enclosed by a rectangular black fine-meshed net dotted by rounded green plastic sheet attractive at all. But ask Danny C. Dequia, and he will tell you: Below the sand enclosed by the net sometimes are hundreds of turtle eggs for hatching.

Based on experience, the hatchery caretaker pointed out that hatching percentage of the facility stood at 60 percent due to the shadow of the coconut trees. Some 3,000 turtle hatchlings and 100 mature turtles have been released to the ocean since 2003, his record showed.

Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Green Sea turtles are among 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 Bascua, the municipal environment and natural resources officer. It is maybe because their mothers also lay them here.

If left alone, marine turtles would survive several 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.

Behind such biblical longevity is the marine turtle’s stubborn refusal to senesce - to grow old. Don’t be fooled by the wrinkles, the halting gait and the rheumy gaze. Researchers lately have been astonished to discover that in contrast to nearly every other animal studied a turtles organs do not gradually break down or become less efficient over time. But the question remains: Will there be marine turtles in the next century?