Manila battles poachers of endangered sea turtles

March 13, 2012

By MOTOKI YOTSUKURA / Correspondent

PALAWAN ISLAND, Philippines--The waters around Palawan Island are described as the last undiscovered spot of the Philippines. But intruders have long known about this area, and their actions are now threatening to destroy the ecosystem of this marine paradise.

Commodore Joseph Rustom O Pena, commander of the Philippine Navy’s Western Command, said foreign fishermen are systematically and inveterately poaching sea turtles, using fully equipped vessels to flee from the armed forces.

Typically, a large mother ship unloads small boats near the rich marine life around Palawan Island. The poachers set up nets near the coast at night and rush back to the mother ship once they catch sea turtles.

In December, six fishermen from China’s Hainan Island were arrested for poaching endangered green sea turtles near Balabac Island, south of Palawan Island, after a fierce boat chase.

A Philippine Navy patrol vessel received a report from Balabac fishermen about a suspicious boat in dark waters at night.

The fishing boat zigzagged at high speeds to escape capture. A Marine aboard the patrol vessel shot at the boat with a rifle. The boat slowed after the bullet hit an outboard motor at its rear.

Five Chinese were captured aboard the fishing boat, 400 meters from the coast. The sixth, who dived into the sea, was caught on the coast the following day.

Twelve green sea turtles were found in the boat. Nine were already dead.

According to the Philippine Navy’s Western Command, the 12-meter boat, equipped with two Japanese-made, 200-horsepower outboard motors, can travel at more than 50 kph and accommodate more than 10 people.

It was also carrying fish-finding equipment based on the global positioning system and radio communications equipment.

The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development says poached sea turtles, including eggs, are apparently sold mainly on mainland China as luxurious food or ornamental specimens.

Glenda Cadigal, a wildlife specialist at the council, said a decline in the green sea turtle population could destroy the valuable marine ecosystem around Palawan Island.

“(The turtles) feed on sea grass and trim the blades,” she said. “It allows for new shoots to develop and makes it available for small fish and plankton.”

In March 2011, more than 50 green sea turtles were found on a boat after six poachers from Hainan Island were caught.

Sea turtles have reportedly been poached in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site east of Palawan Island. The park boasts coral reefs said to be the largest in Southeast Asia and a wealth of marine life.

However, authorities have been unable to crack down on poachers because it takes eight hours by boat from Palawan Island, where the Philippine Navy’s Western Command is located.

A territorial dispute in the South China Sea appears to have contributed to the Philippines’ harsh treatment of Chinese poachers caught in December, who are still under detention.

China’s Foreign Ministry has demanded prompt and fair treatment for the fishermen. But the Philippines’ Foreign Ministry has kept silent on the request.

A Foreign Ministry official declined to comment on the case.

The Spratly Islands, claimed by China, the Philippines and four other countries and regions around the South China Sea, lie about 300 kilometers west of Palawan Island.

In March last year, a Chinese naval vessel obstructed a Philippine resource exploration ship at Reed Bank, where large oil and natural gas reserves are believed to remain untapped, about 260 km northwest of Palawan Island.

Manila took a much less stern stance toward 122 Vietnamese who entered its territorial waters around Palawan Island on a large fishing ship flying the Philippine national flag in May.

The fishermen paid fines and were soon released.

A senior official of the Palawan provincial government said the central government called for lenience toward the Vietnamese.

The official also indicated that the Philippines and Vietnam are “allies” against Chinese expansion into the South China Sea.

Green sea turtles are not the only targets for poachers.

Pangolins, an endangered mammal found on Palawan Island, are also falling prey.

At Puerto Princesa Airport on the island, 95 kilograms of pangolin scales and 91 kilograms of sea turtle shells were found aboard an aircraft bound for Cebu Island on Jan. 2.

Two days later, 26.5 kilograms of pangolin meat were discovered on a Manila-bound aircraft. The shippers were both Chinese men.

According to the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, pangolin scales, used in traditional Chinese medicine, trade at 8,000 pesos (14,600 yen, or $180) per kilogram, and pangolin meat, deemed a delicacy, at 4,000 pesos.

A kilogram of scales is obtained from two pangolins.

Pangolins, which live in deep mountain forests, are hunted mainly by boys of an indigenous people. It is believed that Chinese or Chinese-Filipino dealers buy many of the mammals caught.

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Philippine authorities last year seized more than 2,400 wild animals, including turtles, lizards, snakes, monkeys and birds.

Glenn Rebong at the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center said the Philippines’ socio-economic problems lie behind rampant poaching, saying revenue sources other than poaching should be provided to the poor.

By MOTOKI YOTSUKURA / Correspondent
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Poached green sea turtles aboard a Chinese fishing ship seized near Palawan Island, the Philippines, in December (Palawan Council for Sustainable Development)

Poached green sea turtles aboard a Chinese fishing ship seized near Palawan Island, the Philippines, in December (Palawan Council for Sustainable Development)

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  • Poached green sea turtles aboard a Chinese fishing ship seized near Palawan Island, the Philippines, in December (Palawan Council for Sustainable Development)
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