By Jonathan L. Mayuga
THE number of nesting marine turtles on Turtle Islands is sharply decreasing over the past three years, officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said on Thursday.
DENR records show that the number of nesting marine turtles has significantly dropped from a record-high 19,550 in 2012. A year later, the number of nesting marine turtles decreased to 17,593. In 2014 the DENR also observed the same trend, with only 14,377 sea turtles (superfamily Chelonioidea), or pawikan, nesting in the beaches of Turtle Islands, the biggest pawikan sanctuary in Southeast Asia.
The number of nesting pawikan was at its lowest in 2003, when the number of nests went down to just a little over 4,000, DENR records revealed.
As of September last year, only 11,277 marine turtles came to lay their eggs.
With the decrease in the number of turtles laying eggs, so did the decline in the number of eggs recorded.
From the 2 million turtle eggs recorded in 2012, only around 1.6 million eggs were counted in 2013 and 1.3 million in 2014.
As of September last year, the egg count is slightly over 1 million eggs.
Nilo Ramoso Jr., project leader of the Pawikan Conservation Project of the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, noted that 88 percent of the total number of eggs have hatched and were observed to crawl from their nests to shore.
Director Theresa Mundita Lim of the DENR-Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) said the decline in the number of nesting pawikan can be due to a number of factors. Lim, however, expressed fears of the resurgence of illegal- wildlife trade in the province.
THERE are a total of seven known species of pawikan in the world, five of which can be found in the Philippines, particularly on Turtle Islands.
All pawikan species are listed as either critically endangered or endangered.
Lim said because of recent developments, such as increasing population and encroachment of communities in nesting grounds in two of the islands, many marine turtles may have relocated in other areas to nest.
She said there is a big possibility that illegal-wildlife trade, such as poaching by foreign fishing vessels targeting pawikan and harvesting eggs by people in the communities, may have been the reason for the sharp drop in the number of nesting pawikan and their eggs.
The latest inventory of nesting marine turtles and their turtle eggs in the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area (Tihpa) indicates that the population of the endangered marine turtle species is decreasing.
The Tihpa is a unique protected area jointly managed by Malaysia and the Philippines.
Six of the islands are in the Philippines and compose the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary, while the three other islands are in Sabah, Malaysia, composing the Turtle Islands Park.
In the Philippines only four of the six islands—Taganak, Lihiman, Langahan and Baguan—are now being monitored by the DENR-BMB.
It was learned that the DENR-BMB stopped monitoring pawikan nesting on Buan Island since 1987 and on Bakkungan Island since 2007.
Ramoso said Buan and Bakkungan islands are now thickly populated, and communities had encroached in the beaches, driving away the nesting pawikan for years.
Bakkungan Island is also besieged by infighting among local tribes, he explained.
RAMOSO noted that 88 percent of the eggs have hatched as of September last year. This is considered a high survival rate for pawikan eggs, particularly for green turtle species that nest on Turtle Islands, he explained.
Ramoso said the decreasing number of nesting pawikan may have to be validated in the ensuing years.
He noted that that decreasing number of nesting pawikan may also be a result of their natural behavior. Still, he admitted that there may have been a resurgence of poaching and harvesting of eggs.
Lim and Ramoso noted that the provincial government of Tawi-Tawi has been persistent in requesting the DENR to allow harvesting of marine turtle eggs on Turtle Islands. For decades, harvesting eggs is a traditional source of food and livelihood of people on the islands.
It was in 2002, a year after the passage of Republic Act 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, that the DENR stopped issuing permits to marine turtle-egg gatherers.
Lim said the weak law enforcement in Tawi-Tawi, a remote island which is closer to Sabah, Malaysia, than Zamboanga City, is a big factor to the possible decline of nesting marine turtles.
“That is the problem. We now have weak law enforcement in the area, unlike before when our focus is on Turtle Islands only. Today our wildlife-conservation effort is national in scope,” Lim says.
The DENR-BMB is mandated to enforce the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, which include pawikan, a migratory animal species known to have survived and inhabited the planet for millions of years.