Ilonggo, a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), is the newest attraction in Debangan Island, located three to four hours away by boat from Taytay, Palawan.
Because of the island’s pristine waters, colorful coral reefs, and long stretches of white-sand beaches, Ilonggo and his sea turtle friends have made it their home. Rudy, a local of the island, says sea turtles first made Debangan their pit stop while hopping from one island to another.
For many years, locals of Debangan had relied solely on fishing. But in 2018, the island started gaining attention for its green sea turtles as more tourists visited the island to swim with them. Their amiable nature won their hearts, eventually making green sea turtles Debangan’s main attraction.
Thanks to Ilonggo and his green sea turtle friends, Debangan was given a potential opportunity to develop its ecotourism to help the island’s local economy. But Debangan’s growing popularity also poses a threat to its sea turtles, as their increased human interaction may also put them in harm’s way.
Sea turtles at risk
Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a frontliner for implementing the Republic Act 9147 or the Wildlife Act in Palawan, reminds the Debangan community of this very threat.
“It is still possible to interact with the sea turtles while preventing harm at the same time through limiting the extent of the interaction to simply taking pictures and watching them from a distance,” PCSD spokesperson Jovic Fabello says.
Fabello also notes that riding, holding, and restraining the sea turtles are a violation of the Wildlife Act. Tourists must also be discouraged from disturbing the turtles’ nests, he adds.
He also warns that increased interaction with humans may affect the pawikan’s survival instincts, such as the ability to find food, shelter, and even evading predators and finding suitable mates. This, Fabello points out, is because continued human interaction may affect the sea turtles’ imprinting process to a particular wildlife.
A peaceful coexistence with these creatures is key to providing them a safe place for their species to continue to thrive in the island, he adds.
For his part, Debangan resident Rudy also believes that while the sea turtles’ growing popularity is a livelihood opportunity, it should also be a sustainable one at the same time.
“For me, the best thing is developing this as an ecotourism attraction. But first, the concerned agencies must come up with a specific and clear set of guidelines in favor of the protection and sustainability of the marine ecosystem,” Rudy says.
Saving the turtles
As of this writing, Rudy and his fellow Debangan residents are in talks with several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the local government on the matter.
On the other hand, the Taytay Tourism Office says it has laid out solutions to both manage the island’s growing ecotourism and taking care of its sea turtles.
“At the moment we have already established a community-based sustainable tourism organization in Debangan, they will manage all tourism activities in the area. As locals, they will be on the island all the time and we will equip them with the right knowledge and skills on managing wildlife observation tourism activities like the sea turtle watching that will be offered in Debangan,” says Taytay tourism officer Joie Matillano.
Matillano adds that they have also started regulating the number of tourists visiting the island so as not to overexpose the sea turtles, especially when they feed and reproduce.
But while the local government has outlined some steps to take care of Debangan’s newest attraction, the conservation of the island’s sea turtles is still a joint effort between environment authorities and the community.
“People should come to realize that everything is interconnected with each other, living and non-living things alike. The fact is that wildlife and environment can co-exist without humans, but humans cannot exist without the environment,” Fabello adds.
“If we tend to neglect the caring of other species and our environment, everything will cease to a halt,” he said.
This story was written by Kenjie Lamo as a final output for AYEJ.org’s Green Beat Program – An Intensive Virtual Environmental Journalism Training for young writers and journalists.