Former Filipino poachers fight to protect turtles

STORY: These turtle protectors used to be turtle poachers.

Filipino fishermen are now at forefront of conservation on the beaches of the northern Philippine province of La Union.

Armed with torches and pails, Jessie Cabagbag and his family hunt every night for sea turtle eggs.

He can spot nesting sites easily, having learned from an early age how to track the reptiles and their eggs, which many residents in the town would typically eat or trade.

“Because life was so difficult back then, the sea turtles were the easiest target for our daily meals because there weren’t that many fish to catch, so our folks would usually feed us the meat and eggs when we were young.”

Now, Cabagbag’s egg-poaching days are over.

He and fellow volunteers now use hunting skills to help marine turtle conservation efforts here in La Union, whose pristine beaches serve as nesting sites for the endangered olive ridley turtles.

Once they spot a female turtle, they tag and release the animal, overseeing its safe return to the ocean.

It's all done under the umbrella of nonprofit CURMA, which is leading the conservation programme here and conducting training for locals.

“In 2009 there was a nest that emerged just here in front of the house. So it was the first time for us to see sea turtles and you know, we were very excited so researched about them, we wanted to find out what type of sea turtles they are, why they were here, and it was through the research that we found out that this is actually a nesting site for them, and at that time poaching was very rampant. And you know, when we found that out, then it was from being excited, and it was, we were kind of horrified. Fast forward to today, and it’s our 12th season and 98% of our patrollers are former poachers. So from poachers, now they are the protectors of the sea turtles.”

While Cabagbag still relies on fishing as his primary means of livelihood, he also receives monetary perks from CURMA for finding sea turtles or eggs.

He gets the equivalent of roughly $9.18 for finding a live sea turtle and $0.37 for each egg they collect.

That's four times more than what they would usually get from selling it on the black market.

Much of CURMA's funding comes from private donations as well as partnerships with local schools and companies.

"I am overwhelmed with joy especially when I find the eggs myself. Whenever they release the new turtle hatchlings in our site I am truly proud. Even our neighbors, they appreciate what I do because it is not easy. I am happy that I get to contribute to the conservation of the sea turtles."