Turtle power: Saving marine turtles from extinction

Of the 100 hatchlings that are released, only one survives in the open seas. (Henrylito Tacio)

By Henrylito D. Tacio

This author saw a live marine turtle more than a decade ago when he visited Maitum, Sarangani. It was there that he had an opportunity to meet Danilo Dequiña, who collected marine turtle eggs and allowed them to be hatched. Once the eggs had hatched, he released the hatchlings into the open seas.

Because of what he was doing, his neighbors took notice. “They quit gathering marine turtle eggs,” he said. “Some of them come to my place and see what I was doing. They were also enthralled when they saw marine turtle hatchlings.” 

He is one of the few men who want to save endangered marine turtles from extinction. (Henrylito Tacio)

Impressed by what he was doing, this author decided to write his story, which was published in the Asian edition of Reader’s Digest. 

Better alive than dead 

Dequina’s story came to mind after reading the findings of an economic study conducted by the Worldwide Fund (WWF). If Filipinos want to earn more money from marine turtles – locally known as pawikan – they should leave them alive rather than dead.

 A Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) study says that if a marine turtle is allowed to live up to 57 years, a whooping P4.80 million can be derived from these endangered species.  

BMB is a line agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which conducted the study under the Asian Development Bank/Global Environment Facility (ADB/GEF) project on Combating Environmental Organized Crime in the Philippines.

 In the study, the estimation was based on the marine turtle’s ecological role in coastal and marine ecosystems and on the tourism value it generates: P900,000 and P3.90 million, respectively. 

“The annual use value of the entire population of the Philippine marine turtle, which is conservatively estimated at 7,294 individuals, ranged between P2.89 billion and P3.19 billion (US$57.88-63.85 million) per year,” the study said.

 Ancient creatures

Marine turtles are the contemporaries of the dinosaurs. These ancient creatures have been around for about 110 million years. Their natural lifespan is estimated to be from 50 to 100 years. 

Before a rescued pawikan is released back into the open waters, an official of Amihan sa Dahican first inspect to know if everything is alright. (Henrylito Tacio)

They are well adapted to life at sea. Marine biologists claim they are powerful swimmers and can remain underwater for long periods of time. They do not have external ears and cannot hear well, but their senses of sight, taste and touch are well developed. Having no teeth, the marine turtle uses its sharp, horny beak and sturdy jaws to tear and bite its food. 

There are only eight species of marine turtles in the world and five of them can be found in the Philippines: Green Sea turtle (scientific name: Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidocheyls olivacea), Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), and Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).  

The following aren’t found in Philippine waters: Kemps’ Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys kempi), Flatback turtle (Chelonia depressa), and Black Sea turtle (Chelonia agassizi). 

Endangered species

 The Green Sea turtle is the only marine turtle that lives on plants. They have been sighted as far north as the Fuga Islands in Cagayan and in the Southwest in Bancuran, Palawan. Because of its tasty meat, it is also the most threatened. This marine turtle got its name from the green fat found inside its body.  It stores the fat from its diet of seagrasses.

 The Hawksbill turtle, one of the most beautiful sea turtles, is valued for its shell – the source of the so-called “tortoise shell” for handicrafts and jewelry. This species is the second most widely distributed in the Philippines.

 The Olive Ridley turtle, or lambanagan, can be distinguished from the other species by five or more scales on its back.  It has a distinct olive-brown color.  These turtles have been seen by fishermen in the shallow coastal waters of Paluan, Occidental Mindoro.

 The Loggerhead turtle is a big-headed turtle, weighing up to 200 kilograms.  It feeds primarily in estuaries and along the continental shelf, using the jaw muscles that make up most of its oversize head to crush mollusks and crustaceans. This turtle is rarely sighted, with documented sightings in Albay, Palawan and Basilan provinces.

 The Leatherback turtle is the largest sea turtle living today, as it grows to 190 centimeters long and weighs 600 kilograms. In recent years, most sightings of this species have been reported in the Central Philippines.

All marine turtle species are protected under the Republic Act 9147 or Philippine Wildlife Act. This means it is illegal to collect, possess, buy, sell, import and export marine turtles, their by-products and derivatives.

Once a rescued marine turtle is released, it freely swims to its freedom. (Henrylito Tacio)

 “All of the species found in our country are endangered except for the Hawksbill which is critically endangered,” said Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, founder and director of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines. “The only sure thing is that marine turtle populations are under tremendous threats and if these are not stopped, extinction is imminent.” 

Facing extinction

 One of the main reasons for the decline of marine turtle population is overhunting. Since the dawn of history, meat of marine turtles has supplemented the diet of man.  Seventeenth century seafaring men used turtles as ship’s provisions – their ability to stay alive for months without food and water ensured a steady supply of fresh meat without storage problems.

 Marine turtles are also hunted for their commercial value. In the past, the country was one of the major exporters of turtle by-products, such as turtle wall décor, jewelry pieces, shell-backed guitars, and bags and shoes.

 “We can dramatically reduce this demand if we ourselves desist from patronizing these products,” said Haribon Foundation. “Put a stop to the massacre by becoming aware of the plight of marine turtles.”

 Aside from overhunting, another factor that endangers the survival of marine turtles is the wanton gathering of marine turtle eggs. Mistakenly touted as having aphrodisiac prowess, the eggs taste just like boiled chicken eggs.

 Pollution has also been cited as another prime factor. The rapid development of beach resorts for the tourism industry has also contributed to the destruction of nesting beaches of marine turtles.

 So is the use of trawl nets in areas where marine turtles abound. Since these scoops up everything in their paths, the turtles, which are not the active targets, also get caught. The poor marine animals are usually drowned to death. 

Saving marine turtles

 “Marine turtles serve as a barometer of our planet’s health,” says the DENR’s Pawikan Conservation Project. “It is possible that in a world in which marine turtles cannot survive may soon become a world in which humans struggle to survive.”

 It added that in “saving one of the earth’s most mysterious and time-honored creatures, we might just be saving ourselves, too.”

 Fortunately, there are several organizations which are trying to save marine turtles from extinction. In Davao City, for instance, the Aboitiz Group is trying to protect endangered marine species. It owns eight hectares in the southeastern portion of the 37-hectare Marine Protected Area (MPA) located in Punta Dumalag in Matina Aplaya.

 Cleanergy Park

As part of its corporate responsibility, they decided to convert the place into an eight-hectare ecological preserve, called Cleanergy Park and managed by Davao Light, an AboitizPower subsidiary.

At the Clearnergy Park, visitors and guests can see for themselves stuffed eggs and fetus of pawikan. (Henrylito Tacio)

In partnership with the regional office of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the local government of Davao City, the team at the Aboitiz Cleanergy Park established a Pawikan Rescue Center inside the park as a testament to their commitment to conserve and protect the pawikans and their marine habitat.

 The Cleanergy Park has a temporary shelter, clinic, laboratory, observation deck, boardwalks and other facilities for the rescue, rehabilitation, conservation, protection and care of marine turtles. This supports the multi-sectoral effort of “pursuing sustainable development within the context of a balanced ecology.”

Most of the rescued marine turtles are provided with veterinary care and are being observed at the facility until they are fully recovered and can be released back into the wild. This is done in coordination with the regional office of the DENR. 

A Cleanergy Park caretaker inspects a rescued pawikan if the endangered species is recuperating fast. (Henrylito Tacio)

“We are fully committed to our cause of saving the marine turtles,” said Fermin Edillon, the park’s reputation enhancement manager. “We must all carry this responsibility so that our future generations will be able to see them. It can be through small acts such as keeping our coastal areas clean, not littering, and having safe practices when fishing. These are very simple but have a large impact on preserving our environment.” 

Amihan sa Dahican

 In Mati City, Davao Oriental, a group called Amihan sa Dahican—Save Our Seas—is also doing their own ways of saving endangered marine turtles. Last year, for instance, a Green Sea turtle was accidentally caught by a fisherman in the waters of Mayo Bay. The fisherman turned over the sea turtle. After removing the hook, the marine animal was safely released to the sea.

 The Dahican Beach is a nesting area of the endangered marine turtles. Studies have shown that every time the female marine turtle nest, she always returns to the place even if she is thousands of miles away from the area. 

A female pawikan would drag her bulky frame into the sand and build a nest and to eventually lay eggs. The nests are flask-shaped cavities dug in the sand by the shoveling motions of the nesting turtle’s hind limbs. One nest may contain as many as 100 eggs. 

 In the wild, the period after hatching is a fight for survival. After they are hatched, it’s a race from their nests in the sand to the water. Once they are in the waters, it’s survival of the fittest as some of them may be eaten by other marine creatures, including fish. 

“For every 100 pawikan hatching we release into the waters, only one of them will survive in the open waters,” says Winston Plaza, who works at Amihan sa Dahican. They have established two hatcheries near the shore of Dahican.  

Of the 100 hatchlings that are released, only one survives in the open seas. (Henrylito Tacio)

“Some members of our team patrol the shorelines of Dahican at night to protect marine turtle eggs from poachers and predators,” Plaza said. 

In Mindanao, particularly in Davao Region, people are very much aware that marine turtles are on the verge of extinction. It is only by protecting the remaining numbers that they can survive in the coming years.

Maintaining a healthy and safe environment for marine turtles to not only survive, but also to thrive must be a priority. As mentioned by the DENR, if the world becomes one where turtles struggle to survive, then it would surely be a more difficult struggle for human life.

Photos by Henrylito Tacio

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