Amounting of P1.2 billion of giant clam shells was confiscated at Green Island, Roxas, Palawan.

The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a special body tasked to oversee the province’s environmental concerns, has uncovered a black market operation involving the trade of fossilized giant clam (Tridacna giga) shells, whose global demand has replaced that of the elephant tusk ivory that has been internationally banned.

The revelation came following two separate incidents last week involving the seizure by PCSD and other law enforcers of large stockpiles of fossilized giant clam shells in Roxas and Narra towns.

The biggest haul was on April 16 where some 200 tons of fossilized giant clam shells, valued at around P1.2 billion, were confiscated in the coastal village of Green Island, Barangay Tumarbong, Roxas. It was described by authorities as their largest haul so far in the increasing incidence of giant clam trade.

Four men were arrested following the raid in Roxas and will be facing charges of violating the Wildlife Act.

Days earlier, authorities also discovered some 26 tons of giant clam shells abandoned in a coastal community in Narra. Its black market value was estimated to be around P57 million.

PCSD executive director Teodoro Jose S. Matta told Palawan News in an interview Sunday they believe the global illegal ivory trade now strictly enforced in certain African and Asian countries has prompted wildlife traders to turn to fossilized giant clam shells as a substitute.

Locally known as “taklobo”, Matta said the giant clam shells are used as decorative items, and its derivatives, prepared in powdered form, are claimed to have medicinal benefits owing to its physical properties including calcium carbonate.

Prominent citizens involved

Matta said they have identified a group of individuals including a medical doctor and a former senior employee of the provincial government who are linked to the trade and are considered “persons of interest” in the case. He said among them is a certain Dr. Rosalee Tequillo who have sought a meeting with them following the Roxas raid.

“May mga informants kami na ang reports sa amin since last year na isang doktora [ang involved], pero no identity. We don’t know their exact participation, pero lumulutang kasi na sila ‘yong grupo na ‘yan,” Matta said.

“Right now, they are considered persons of interest. We are still building up a case, and if the evidence merits, then definitely we will press charges,” Matta added.

Palawan News has tried to reach Dr. Tequillo through her social media account but received no reply.

Matta said that during their meeting with Tequillo, she claimed that her group’s activity involving the collection of fossilized shells had proper government permits.

“During the meeting, she introduced to us this ‘national redemption program’ na may authority daw from the president and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR),” Matta said.

Matta said Tequillo also claimed their activity which was not intended for commercial trade but for collection and taxonomic study.

However, he said that Tequillo also contradicted herself when she admitted that they have “European buyers”.

“Initially, she said na it’s not for commercial trade kasi National Museum program daw ‘yon pero she contradicted kasi may nabanggit siya na European buyers,” Matta said.

When asked for documentary evidence to back her claims, Tequillo presented a document allegedly issued by BFAR National Director Commodore Eduardo B. Gongona. She also claimed that a Treasure Hunting Permit was extended to her group by a certain Joel M. Pamaran, asserting that they have the authority to collect, extract, or possess fossilized giant clams, with an undisclosed list of locations where stockpiles of the giant clam shells were stored throughout the Palawan province.

Upon examination of the documents presented by Tequillo, the PCSDS found no merits, concluding that Tequillo’s group was undertaking activities under the guise that they possess legal authority.

Matta insisted that the collection, possession, and trading of the giant clam shells were illegal and punishable under Republic Act No. 9147, or the Wildlife Resources and Conservation Act, with the PCSD acting as the lead agency in implementing all activities in the Palawan province relative to wildlife species, its by-products, and derivatives.

Other taklobo hauls in Palawan

Earlier this year, on February 6, 90 pieces of abandoned giant clam shells were also found at Barangay Sibaltan in El Nido town.

On November 24, 2020, about 25 tons of giant clam shells worth P25 million were retrieved at Sitio Dandulit in the village of Buliluyan in the southern Palawan municipality of Bataraza.

Local fishermen claimed that the giant clam shells were being sold for up to P2,000 per kilo, enough enticement to join the illegal trade that involved buyers who smuggle the shells into China, Japan and Europe, in an earlier statement by Jovic Fabello, spokesperson of PCSD.

“Due to the pandemic and poverty, news about the illegal trade would have traveled like wildfire because of the high price [that the shells fetch],” Fabello said.

PCSD spokesperson Jovic Fabello said in a press briefing Tuesday they have been monitoring the trade since 2019.

“Noong una, 2019 early 2020, P600 to 800 pesos per kilo. Ngayon, allegedly 2,000 per kilo. Sa black market, allegedly P10,000 per kilo ang bentahan. So far, wala pa tayong nakitang nagpalitan ng pera. Coming from the horses mouth, nasa 10,000 per kilo ang bentahan,” Fabello said.

At the same press briefing, an official of BFAR vowed to pursue “usurpation of authority” charges against Tequillo and her group for claiming they have approved their activity.

The waters of Palawan have a natural population of giant clams, which can grow a shell up to 1.4 meters long.

The giant clams came close to extinction in the 1980s due to indiscriminate harvesting by locals for food and shellcraft until strict laws were enforced, such as RA 9147, which was enacted in March 2001, to protect the species.

Groups like the Malampaya Foundation Inc. (MFI) released over 600 juvenile giant clams at a marine protected area of Cadlao Island, El Nido, in October last year to boost the population of the Tridacna gigas species that had been depleted by poachers.

MFI, through its String-of-Pearls program, has been restocking the giant clam population in partnership with the Western Philippines University and the PCSD.