An international environmental group said that the fight against poachers “is far from over.”
Traffic is a wildlife trade monitoring network, is the leading non-governmental organization working globally on trade in wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.
The group statement comes on the heels of the seizure of Philippine authorities of more than 3,900 critically-endangered freshwater turtles from a warehouse owned by a Chinese national in southern Palawan
Traffic says it is the largest confiscation of Palawan Forest Turtles to date.
Alex Marcaida of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) said the seizure on June 17 was the largest for freshwater turtles in Palawan.
While the group lauded the Philippine law enforcers for the confiscation, they said that much work needs to be done.
“Traffic urges the authorities to track down and punish the perpetrators behind this heinous crime,” said Traffic Southeast Asia Regional Director Chris Shepherd.
The confiscated 3,907 Palawan Forest Turtles, listed as critically-endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), were the majority of a total haul of 4,402 freshwater turtles.
The haul included 168 Asian Leaf Turtles and 25 Southeast Asian Box Turtles.
The turtles were confiscated from a warehouse in Bataraza, the southernmost town on mainland Palawan, around six hours away by land from Puerto Princesa City.
The turtles were found in concrete aquariums in the warehouse. Ninety were already dead when they were discovered by Palawan’s Provincial Law Enforcement Task Force.
The turtles were in poor condition, crowded in the concrete aquariums with dirty water that appeared not to have been changed for a long time, said Marcaida.
Sixty-nine turtles did not survive the long land travel to Puerto Princesa. Days after, 85 more died bringing the total number of dead turtles to 244.
The animals were thought to have been collected from across their native range of northern Palawan over the past six months and were believed to have been destined for markets in China.
Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation Inc. (KFI) founding member and Director of the Philippine Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program, which has the Palawan Forest Turtle as its focal species, is gravely concerned about what this bodes for the species.
The staggering number of Palawan Forest Turtles represents a devastating blow to conservationist efforts to safeguard the species’s survival in the wild.
Dr. Schoppe said KFI hoped to release the surviving turtles but added that it would be a painstaking process involving DNA testing to identify the sources of the turtles, which were collected from sites across northern Palawan.
The Palawan Forest Turtle is listed in Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and due to its extreme rarity is sought after for the pet trade and for consumption.
The Palawan Forest Turtle has turned up in previous seizures, with 186 found between December 2014 and January 2015. The case last week was the largest known seizure of this species to date.
The PCSD and Palawan’s Provincial Law Enforcement Task Force are preparing to file charges against the owner of the warehouse, a Chinese national.
Marcaida said the warehouse had been under surveillance by Palawan authorities for some time. But when confronted, the Chinese owner claimed he had only been renting out the warehouse and was unaware of the illegal activities inside.
The Palawan Forest Turtle, endemic to the province, is locally called “bakoko” and is prized as a Chinese culinary delicacy and pet.
Scientists and conservationists had thought it came from Leyte, hence its scientific name. It was only recently discovered that the bakoko thrived in the northern part of Palawan, catalyzing a mad rush for the species among poachers.
“The recent discovery of a natural population of S. leytensis on Palawan has already spurred a collecting frenzy among wildlife trappers and traders to supply domestic and international markets for the illegal wildlife trade,” reads the report.