The world noted the passing of Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, this week. Few know, however, that a species of turtle living in a small area in Palawan is facing the same danger that Lonesome George did.
The Philippine Forest Turtle, locally known as “bakoko”, was thought extinct until the 2000s, when specimens were found in pet markets in the Philippines. Specimens were found in the wild in 2004 but researchers report they have become rare.
According to a 2009 report by the Philippine Freshwater Turtle Conservation Project (PFTCP), the turtle's "rediscovery triggered a high demand for the international pet market. Just months after the rediscovery was published, the species was available on the international pet markets of Europe, Japan and the USA."
Earlier this month, 18 baby Philippine Forest Turtles--a critically-endangered species and the most endangered turtle species in the Philippines--were released into the wild.
Some of them had been earlier hidden in a bag and smuggled to Hong Kong with other rare amphibians in February but returned home in April and were handed over to the Katala Foundation Inc., a non-government organization that the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau has authorized to head the PFTCP.
"The repatriation of these turtles is very meaningful. Not only does it raise public awareness about the status of the species and illegal collection and trade, it is also a sterling example of improving law enforcement. Hopefully, the knowledge that they have such a special species, will instill pride among the people of Palawan,” Dr. Sabine Schoppe, KFI's director for PFTCP said, when the turtles were returned.
What is clear is that the Philippine Forest Turtles were poached from somewhere in Northern Palawan, and that poaching poses a danger to their continued existence. Once common in Palawan, "the species is facing a combination of threats nowadays," the PFTCP report said.
"In addition to local consumption, habitat destruction and exploitation for the international pet trade are threatening the survival of the species," it also said.
Wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic noted that had the turtles rescued in Hong Kong reached pet markets, they would have fetched more than the HK$8,000 (43,655 pesos) fine imposed on the smuggler who hid them in his luggage. Traffic also noted that although "poached largely for the exotic pet trade, this turtle is also threatened by demand for exotic meat and medicine."
Although the PFTCP has yet to determine how many of the Philippine Forest Turtles are left, researchers found 110 in 2008, down from the 150 spotted in 2007. According to its report, the program has enough funding to continue long-term population research until 2013, which will give them a better idea of how many turtles remain.
According to the British Chelonia Group in its Testudo journal, poaching is the "highest factor contributing to (the) decline" of the Philippine Forest Turtle.
"In Taytay (Palawan), a major trading area, turtles are now more difficult to observe in the wild and some populations are thought to have been reduced dramatically or exterminated," it said.
A 2011 report by Turtle Survival Alliance, which counts the Philippine Forest Turtle among the 25 most endangered turtle species in the world, said specimens are still exported in "significant numbers" and for "exorbitant prices" despite a ban on their trade.
It said that aside from research on the turtles and teaching local communities to take care of the turtles, there is a need for stronger collaboration with authorities to stop their illegal trade.
If the recent rescue of 17 marine turtles in Palawan this month is any indication, residents have already learned to collaborate with authorities to stop poaching.
According to Police Chief Inspector Rodolfo Gonzales of the Philippine National Police-Maritime Special Boat Unit that conducted the rescue, the raid on a suspected poacher stocking swamp was based on tips from residents and from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development.
The police would not have spotted the stocking swamp on privately-owned Ameril island without help from residents since, as a PCSD press statement noted, it is "surrounded with beach forest, thus hardly noticed."
"A resident complained that it is so unfortunate that with this beauty and splendor, illegal fishing activities are a daily chore here," PCSD said.
Although the PFTCP and the PAWB have yet to update their data on Philippine Forest Turtles, it is hoped that with help from local communities, this rare turtle will not go the way of the Pinta Island tortoise.