Live Philippine forest turtles are stacked in heaps, awaiting shipment to pet and food markets in China
Although Philippine forest turtles have been threatened by trafficking and capitalism, measures have been enacted to mitigate the dwindling of their numbers.
Text credit: Yong Xin Ni Elyssa
Part of the world’s largest archipelago, the Malay Archipelago, the Philippines comprises more than 7,600 islands and has a population of around 110 million. By 2030, the country’s population is projected to reach 125 million. Sadly, most of the rural population live below the poverty line and as such, often turn to exploiting the native wildlife and partaking in the lucrative black market animal trade to make a living.
Given the Philippines’ vast biodiversity, this is not surprising. The archipelagic country is home to more than 52,177 difference species and over half of them are endemic. This includes 700 different bird species, with around 200 of them endemic. In addition, the country is ranked fifth in the world for the diversity of their plant species. The fact that the Philippines hosts such a large number of animals that cannot be found anywhere else in the world make these creatures highly coveted by those looking for an exotic pet or meal.
Estimated by the United Nations in 2016 to value between USD7 billion and USD23 billion annually, the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is the fourth most profitable illegal business, just behind narcotics, human trafficking, and firearms. In the Philippines alone, the value of the IWT has been estimated at USD1 billion, including the market value of the animals along with their ecological role and the damage to habitats incurred during poaching.
Needless to say, the black market wildlife trade is big business in the Philippines, With many of the locals living in such destitution, it is easy to see why they are turning to wildlife trafficking.
According to data from 2009-2011, Philippine forest turtles were ranked sixth among the species most commonly confiscated by authorities. Due to their small size, the relative case with which they are captured, and how they’re seen as ideal for exotic pet owners, these turtles are in high demand on the black market, particularly in illegal pet markets in Manila and China, where overseas collectors can purchase them cheaply. They are typically sold when they are juvenile or young adults. Aside from the Philippines and China, it is suspected that illegal trading of the Palawan turtles occurs in Borneo, Malaysia as well.
Forest turtles can sell for as much as USD1,000 to USD2,400 each in Europe, and as much as USD4,500 in the United States. A 2019 listing in a Japanese pet store put the turtle’s price tag at 400,000 yen, or about USD 3,700. Experts say that these high prices contribute to heavy poaching.
Wildlife laundering of the turtles has also been suspected to occur in farms or zoos, typically indicated when these establishments declare high numbers of captive-born Philippine forest turtles. Some private zoos have even claimed in the reports that they have hatched 50 turtles from 10 female adults in one clutch, which is biologically impossible.
Due to their susceptibility to stress, and extreme aggression and territorial behavior in males, Philippine forest turtles do not survive long in improper captivity. Nonetheless, thousands of these creatures are still found in cramped, crowded and generally unsuitable conditions. In 2015, more than 4,000 Philippine forest turtles were seized on their way to the Chinese illegal pet market. They were kept in a single warehouse and were almost living on top of one another due to overcrowding.
Additionally, numerous specimens have been found offered for sale with small holes bored into their carapace. This indicates that they are intended to be sold and held captive as pets: The holes are used to keep them tethered and prevent escape. Indeed, Palawan’s local people are known to keep these turtles tied to the water tres of domestic pigs as they believe this brings them luck. Such treatment isn’t just cruel; it severely impacts their health, often leading to premature death.
Turning Things Around
Efforts have been made to protect Philippine forest turtles. Under Philippine law, the species is legally protected from poaching. Unfortunately, illegal poaching persists due to the lack of sufficient habitats and parks to protect them. This is worsened by the lack of knowledge surrounding the species, the behavior and ecology making it difficult for experts to facilitate the rehabilitation of their numbers.
Nevertheless, studies into their habitat needs and breeding behaviour have been conducted by various Philippines academic institutions. Their progress is hindered by the lack of funds, but their efforts to study this newly rediscovered animal are noteworthy.
Trade and trafficking of the species is banned internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as well as under the Philippines Wildlife Act. The 1992 Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) for Palawan Act provides for the adoption of a comprehensive framework for the sustainable development of Palawan, compatible with protecting and enhancing the natural resources and endangered environment of the province. It is the staff of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), which is responsible for the governance and implementation of policy direction to the SEP, that confiscates turtles meant for trade.
Captive breeding of the species has proven to be extremely challenging. The Katala Foundation Inc. (KFI), a Palawan-based conservation group, carried out extensive captive-breeding programmes for a full decade before finally welcoming its first hatchling in 2018. Since then, 16 more juveniles have hatched at the facility and in early 2021, the first two captive-bred turtles were released back into the wild.
Sabine Schoppe, a founding member of KFI who leads the organisation’s forest turtle programme, says, “The species is impacted by stress, which can cause infertility and diseases.” In addition, a female forest turtle lays only one or two eggs per clutch and a maximum of six eggs in a year. The mortality rate during the egg and hatching stages is also very high, even with human care.
The successful reintroduction of Philippine forest turtles to a protected area offers a beacon of hope for the species. The researchers found that the turtles travelled no more than 70 metres on average and always came back to their release site, indicating that turtles released in areas where they can’t be poached will have a very good chance of survival, reaching sexual maturity and multiplying.
The journey to rehabilitate the Philippine forest turtle population has just begun. With so much left to learn about this relatively obscure species, there is every possibility that much more can be done to protect them. With continued persistence and determination, there is hope yet for the recovery of these enigmatic turtles.
This is an excerpt from an article from Asian Geographic Issue 3/2021. To continue reading, get your copy here.