Saving the endangered ‘pawikan’

In Photo: A nesting green marine turtle.

First of two parts

WE receive reports almost every week [from all over the Philippines],” environmental advocate AA Yaptinchay said of the marine turtles which are held in captivity, trapped, caught in nets, or found dead.

Yaptinchay, founder and director of Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, described the unfortunate plight of the endangered marine turtles, popularly known as pawikan, in the country despite an ongoing wildlife-conservation program.

Through social media, the group receives reports about abuses against marine mammals, particularly marine turtles, which it relays to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for appropriate action.

Marine turtles are among the most endangered marine species in the world. All of the seven known marine turtle species are on the list of endangered wildlife, whose trade is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Three of the species are considered critically endangered and another three are endangered under the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The flatback turtle’s conservation status is “data deficient,” because of lack of data on its population.

Experts say the presence of pawikan is a sign of having a healthy marine ecosystem, as these long-distance travelers which swim across oceans to forage tend to stay longer in areas where food is abundant, where they are left alone in peace.

Sea turtles feed on seagrass and algae; controlling the growth of seagrass beds, Director Theresa Mundita Lim of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said.

This increases productivity and enhances the nutritional value of sea grass, an important habitat-forming species, she added.

Lim started her career in the DENR and was assigned in Turtle Islands, helping the Task Force Pawikan in the conservation and protection of marine turtles.

The diet and feeding habits of marine turtles, depending on the species, are unique. Some species help enhance coral growth as they feed on algae-engulfing corals.

Others control jellyfish population as they feast on the species. Marine turtles also deposit feces as they travel from the feeding ground to nesting sites, depositing nutrients to tidal flats and seagrass beds.

Declining population

Global population of marine turtles is sharply decreasing because of various threats, including habitat destruction; hunting and illegal wildlife trade; accidental catching; pollution disease; and lately, climate change.

In the Philippines, which is known to host thousands of nesting sites, sightings of pawikan are becoming very rare, except for reports of carcasses having been discovered, or marine turtle shells having been seized from illegal-wildlife traders, suggesting that the population of these endangered marine species in the ocean may be rapidly decreasing, as well.

Reports of declining population of the endangered pawikan are backed by the latest inventory of nesting marine turtles and their turtle eggs on Turtle Islands, the biggest pawikan sanctuary in Southeast Asia called Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area (TIHPA).

TIHPA is a unique protected area jointly managed by Malaysia and the Philippines. Six of the islands are in the Philippines, which compose the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary (TIWS), 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 being monitored. The DENR-BMB stopped monitoring pawikan nesting on Buan Island since 1987 on Bakkungan Island monitoring stopped in 2007. Both islands are now thickly inhabited by people who had encroached in the beaches. Bakkungan Island is also besieged by infighting among local tribes, Ramoso said.

DENR records show the number of nesting marine turtles has significantly dropped from a record-high 19,550 in 2012 to 17,593 in 2013. In 2014 the number of nesting female marine turtles continued to drop to only 14,377 heads. As of September 2015, only 11,277 marine turtles came to lay their eggs.

Along with the drop of nesting marine turtles, the annual egg count during the same period also dropped significantly. From the 2 million turtle eggs recorded in 2012, around 1.6 million eggs were recorded in 2013.

In 2014 the egg count continued to drop with just 1.3 million eggs. As of September 2015, the egg count is further down to just slightly over 1 million. Eighty-eight percent of the eggs have hatched and were released into the wild as of September 2015, considered as a very high survival rate, said Milo Ramoso, the DENR-BMB’s point person for pawikan.

“From this figure, we can say the number of nesting marine turtles is decreasing,” Ramoso said. Nevertheless, Ramoso said the report of declining pawikan population will have to be validated in the next three to five years, during which the same set of nesting marine turtles are expected to return.

He said egg harvesting in the country, including on Turtle Islands, is no longer allowed since the passage of the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act in 2001. However, some communities on Turtle Island, are persistent in requesting the DENR to allow them to harvest eggs, it being their traditional source of livelihood.

Lim explained that the decrease in the number of nesting pawikan on Turtle Island could be caused by various factors.

“It is possible that some of the nesting marine turtles have found other nesting sites nearby. Not all islands are being monitored today, unlike before, when the Pawikan Conservation Project is focused on Turtle Islands. Today, since the program is part of the national wildlife conservation program, the attention is diverted to areas,” Lim said partly in Filipino.

Lim added that the declining number of nesting pawikan may also be a manifestation of the resurgence of the illegal wildlife trade in Tawi Tawi, underscoring the need to strengthen law enforcement in the area. “There is a need for concerted effort. Although our program has been successful in some aspect, we need to intensify law enforcement, particularly against illegal-wildlife trade,” she said partly in Filipino.

Causes of death

Natural predation and climate-change effects, such as sea-level rise, storm surge and extreme heat, adversely affect marine-turtle populations, too.

Nests are often destroyed during typhoons that trigger storm surge.While turtle eggs can tolerate rainwater, Ramoso said saltwater causes plasmolysis that destroys the eggs.

Also, when marine turtles accidentally fall as they go to beaches with their backs on the ground, they die because of heat.

“Within two hours, marine turtles may die when they are turned upside down and exposed to the sun,” he said partly in Filipino.

Besides natural cause, leading causes of death of marine turtles, such as illegal and destructive fishing methods, are difficult to prevent, as they happen in the open seas.

Fisheries bycatch is also a major cause of death of marine turtles.

Illegal-fishing activities, such as the use of dynamite and cyanide, result in accidental death of marine turtles. Some marine turtles also die of drowning after being trapped in fish nets left by fishermen to catch fish in the open seas.

Similarly, harvesting pawikan eggs persists in unmanaged nesting sites, it being a source of food and livelihood of people in coastal areas.

Some marine turtles also die because of indigestion, after accidentally ingesting plastics, mistaking them for jellyfish. Globally, however, hunting and illegal-wildlife trade remain as the biggest threats to the survival of the marine turtles. International poaching, Ramoso said, takes place everywhere. In the Philippines the DENR-BMB receives reports of massive poaching of marine turtles in Tawi-Tawi and Palawan. From 2012 to 2015, the PNP-Maritime Police and the Coast Guard have seized around 200 marine turtles from illegal-wildlife traders. Some of the turtles are alive, but most are already dead. The illegal activities, Ramoso said, are perpetrated by Vietnamese pretending to be Malaysian using Malaysian flags, but investigation would later reveal that the operations are financed by Chinese. He said those arrested were charged with some having been convicted and sent to various jails for their crime.

Increased level of awareness

“That is why we are continuously campaigning for the conservation of marine turtles,” Lim said.

She said the successful information, education and communication campaign resulted in increased awareness about the plight of the pawikan. “Before, cruelty against animals, hunting and harvesting of eggs happen without our knowledge. Now, we learn about them through social media, and they are given action,” said she.

Several local government units (LGUs) have, in fact, adopted their own pawikan conservation program and coordinate with the DENR in maintaining either hatcheries or protecting nesting grounds of the marine animal.

She said the DENR has existing partnership with 21 LGUs for the conservation of pawikan.

‘One in a thousand’

A pawikan in the ocean can be considered one in a thousand, because of the species’s high mortality rate. While marine turtles live up to a hundred years old, experts believe only one in every 1,000 hatchlings actually grow and reach reproductive age.

The presence of marine turtles indicates a healthy marine ecosystem, as these long-distance travelers, which swim across the vast oceans most of their lives in search of food, mate and nesting ground.They tend to stay longer where food is abundant, and where they are left alone in peace to forage and find a suitable nesting ground to lay their eggs. Experts say a female pawikan needs to reach at least 30 years to become sexually mature to be able to  reproduce. While a female marine turtle can lay from 100 to 300 eggs, not all eggs are hatched.

In their natural habitat, hatchlings need to struggle by crawling their way up to the surface of the beach from their deep nests to the surface and, instinctively, to the shorelines. Along the way to their natural habitats, most of the hatchlings end up as prey to bigger animals, while others simply die of stress.

Young pawikan, even upon reaching the shorelines, often end up dead in their first year, with only a handful finally growing up to become juveniles, the age where they are ready to explore the vast ocean and face more serious threats.

Important nesting grounds

According to the DENR, five of the seven known marine turtle species can be found in the Philippines, with four of the species actually finding beaches the perfect nesting place. They are the green turtle (Chelonia mydas); hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) and loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta). Of the five, the green, hawksbill and olive ridley turtles are widely distributed throughout the country. Nests of green turtles are concentrated in Mindanao, particularly on Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary, Bancauan Island in Mapun and other islands in the province of Tawi-Tawi, and Panikian Island in Zamboanga del Sur.

Nests of olive ridley turtles, meanwhile, can be found in the provinces of Zambales, Bataan and Batangas.

Hawksbill turtle’s nests can be found on Romblon Island, Magsaysay in Misamis Oriental and the Davao Gulf. The DENR recorded the first documentation of a nesting leatherback turtle in 2013 in Barangay Rawis, Legazpi City, Albay, in the Bicol region. Foraging, mating and nesting in the country’s territorial waters and beaches take place all year-round, depending on the species, Lim said.

Generally, individual nesters climb up the beach four to five times to complete their nesting in a season. Nesting season occurs once a year, but it is followed after three to five years, making it difficult to monitor and conduct a count of the number of nesting in various parts of the country, Lim said.

As part of the pawikan-conservation effort, the DENR monitors hatcheries maintained and operated by its various partners, including LGUs, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and people’s organizations (POs). Small hatcheries run by LGUs, POs and NGOs, in partnership with the DENR, include those which can be found in Luzon, particularly in the province of La Union, Naic and Ternate in Cavite; Zambales, Morong and Mariveles in Bataan; Abra de Ilog in Mindoro; Lian and Calatagan in Batangas; and Dajican in Mati, Davao Oriental.

Ramoso said there are also hatcheries in Miatum, Sarangani province, and Punta Dumalag in Davao City. From January 2011 to October 2015, a total of 153,907 pawikan hatclings were released into the wild from the hatcheries, Ramoso said. “The hatchlings are recovered eggs that were transferred to hatcheries,” he said, adding that the hatchlings would not have survived because the nests are not safe from natural predators, including destructive human activities.

To be concluded

Image Credits: DENR Strategic Communication and Initiatives Service

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Jonathan L. Mayuga is a journalist for more than 15 years. He is a product of the University of the East – Manila. An awardee of the J. G. Burgos Biotech Journalism Awards, BrightLeaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, and Sarihay Environmental Journalism Awards.

1 COMMENT

  1. The initiation of the coral reefs and the “Yamang dagat”, is that potent in the eyes of the biodiversity agents. Using the combination of the synthetic materials and the natural conservation, why not imitate of it as a good products for enriching the wealth of nature. The reality which is never far away, I’ve had enough so listen to usual indigenous groups that could be a creed for good effects of productivity of non-biodegradable products to conservation natural resources.

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