3,900 endangered turtles seized from Palawan warehouse
MANILA, Philippines – Philippine authorities have seized more than 3,900 critically-endangered freshwater turtles from a warehouse owned by a Chinese national in southern Palawan, a government official said.
The seizure on June 17 was the largest for freshwater turtles in Palawan, Alex Marcaida of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) told Rappler on Thursday, June 25.
International group Traffic says it is the largest confiscation of Palawan Forest Turtles to date.
The confiscated 3,907 Palawan Forest Turtles, listed as critically-endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), were the majority of a total haul of 4,402 freshwater turtles.
The haul included 168 Asian Leaf Turtles and 25 Southeast Asian Box Turtles.
The turtles were confiscated from a warehouse in Bataraza, the southernmost town on mainland Palawan, around 6 hours away by land from Puerto Princesa City, said Marcaida.
The turtles were found in concrete aquariums in the warehouse. Ninety were already dead when they were discovered by Palawan's Provincial Law Enforcement Task Force.
The turtles were in poor condition, crowded in the concrete aquariums with dirty water that appeared not to have been changed for a long time, said Marcaida.
Sixty-nine turtles did not survive the long land travel to Puerto Princesa. Days after, 85 more died bringing the total number of dead turtles to 244.
Law enforcers handed the surviving turtles to PCSD who have turned them over to conservation institutions for rehabilitation.
"As of the moment, they are in rehab centers. We turned over some of them to the Katala Foundation. But since they don't have enough space, some turtles are with the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center," said Marcaida.
Around 1,000 turtles have been released back into the wild, following the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act.
The rest are under evaluation in the rehabilition centers.
It will take at least a month for these turtles to fully recuperate, said Marcaida. The focus during that time will be to deworm the turtles, and treat them for any infection they may have contracted while in captivity.
But deworming may take much longer because PCSD and the partner institutions don't have enough funds to cover all the turtles, said Marcaida.
The PCSD and Palawan's Provincial Law Enforcement Task Force are preparing to file charges against the owner of the warehouse, a Chinese national.
Marcaida said the warehouse had been under surveillance by Palawan authorities for some time. But when confronted, the Chinese owner claimed he had only been renting out the warehouse and was unaware of the illegal activities inside.
Authorities arrested the Filipino caretaker but released him soon after.
The Palawan Forest Turtle, endemic to the province, is locally called "bakoko" and is prized as a Chinese culinary delicacy and pet.
It is the largest and heaviest turtle of its type in the Philippines and for 80 years, its true geographic distribution across the country remained a mystery, according to a 2012 report by the IUCN.
Scientists and conservationists had thought it came from Leyte, hence its scientific name. It was only recently discovered that the bakoko thrived in the northern part of Palawan, catalyzing a mad rush for the species among poachers.
"The recent discovery of a natural population of S. leytensis on Palawan has already spurred a collecting frenzy among wildlife trappers and traders to supply domestic and international markets for the illegal wildlife trade," reads the report.
The turtles are usually smuggled by Chinese merchants to Hong Kong or China.
The recently seized Palawan Forest Turtles were believed to have been collected over a period of 6 months from their natural habitats in Northern Palawan.
Traffic lauded Philippine law enforcers for the confiscation but said the fight was far from over.
"Traffic urges the authorities to track down and punish the perpetrators behind this heinous crime," said Traffic Southeast Asia Regional Director Chris Shepherd. – Rappler.com