PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Palawan -- Hope springs eternal for the critically endangered Palawan forest turtle after conservationists in the province successfully hatched a single egg following about 10 years of hard work.
An extremely sought-after species in the illegal wildlife trade, the Palawan forest turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis), is an endemic freshwater turtle in the province that has faced threats, mainly due to the brazen collection.
Dr. Sabine Schoppe, director of the Palawan Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program (PFTCP) of the Katala Foundation, Inc. (KFI), on Friday said they have hatched the first recorded egg from captive parents of the freshwater turtle with support from the Wildlife Reserve Singapore (WRS).
The hatchling that emerged from its egg on June 24 was named “Sonja,” and it is from parents that have been dwelling for years in their “assurance colony” facilities in Palawan.
“Five years ago, with support from WRS, we intensified research on the Palawan forest turtle, and now have a better understanding of their food preferences, incubation requirements like humidity and temperature, incubation time, nesting prerequisites, enclosure and furniture design, and necessary environmental conditions to trigger reproduction,” she said.
Schoppe, who has been studying and researching the species for the past 15 years, explained that assurance colonies are usually established for species that are facing threats and might go extinct in the wild.
Any Palawan forest turtle that will be raised in captivity will be part of this colony for release later in areas where its population has seriously declined due to poaching for the wildlife trade.
“After hatching the first one, we are very positive that we will have more. The aim of the assurance colony is to breed them for conservation for eventual release back to the wild,” she said. Schoppe added while there has been successful incubation of eggs from “wild-caught” Palawan forest turtle, she warned against referring to such cases as “captive breed” as it might predictably launder the act to facilitate trade.
“Captive breeding implies the production of offspring from parents under human care, so the hatching of eggs of gravid wild-caught females does not qualify as true captive breeding,” said. Dr. Sonja Luz, director of the Conservation, Research and Veterinary Services of WRS and to whom the newly-hatched freshwater turtle was named.
Luz said the hatching is a landmark accomplishment in reproduction efforts to save the species. “The recent breeding success is a true milestone in the conservation of this important species and gives us hope that we can turn things around even for lesser known species in this region,” she said.
Jovic Fabello, staff spokesperson of the independent and multi-disciplinary body Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), said the hatching of the turtle egg is an optimistic achievement in the conservation of the species that has importance in the balance of the ecological system.
“This is encouraging news for the conservation of the Palawan forest turtle and it is a testimony to the effective breeding practices put in place as far back as years ago. It shows the dedication of the people who work with them,” he said.
Also known as Philippine forest turtle, Philippine pond turtle or the Palawan turtle, this freshwater turtle is recognizable by its brown to reddish brown to black shell covering called “carapace.”
The Palawan forest turtle can reach a measurement of 35 centimeters or 14 inches in length, though this size is very rare in occurrence.
“It’s not something that can be easily found; it’s in the forest, it’s in streams, and it’s night active -- comes out only in the night, and it doesn’t go to the houses or the rice fields,” Schoppe described.
They mature at about six to eight years, and then a female may lay one or two eggs in one clutch.
“Maybe a female will lay one to six eggs in one year. If you consider the chance that one egg will hatch and reach maturity in about 1 percent only and you can compute how many you need to repopulate a certain area,” she added.
Palawan forest turtles live in their habitats alongside more common native turtle species, like the Asian box turtles.
However, the species’ conservation status became more important following the rediscovery in 1988 of a specimen in the province.
“It took another 20 years until it was really found out that the species is from Palawan not from Leyte,” Schoppe said about developments from when it was first described in 1920.
The advent in the hunt due to the peak in demand for the Palawan forest turtle in the black market became known in 2004. People would go to the conservation of elephants, tigers, rhinos, but not many pay attention to the not so charismatic species.
“They have equal rights to be protected, especially because of the important role they do in the ecosystem. They are helping to reduce pest species. For example, they feed on the golden kuhol, which is a pest species. The hatchlings, among others, feed on mosquito larvae that are transmitting malaria and dengue,” she said.
Since the Palawan forest turtles are between land and water, they make a link between the aquatic and terrestrial environment and bring in nutrients, which is also another ecological role.
“They are digging tunnels in the riverbanks so they turn the soil and make it more fertile. They feed on the fruits of riverine vegetation, and the seeds, when they defecate them, they germinate so they help in planting forests,” she added.
In June 2015, Schoppe’s expertise was called to the task following the confiscation of around 4,000 Palawan Forest Turtle from the warehouse of a Chinese businessman Peter Lei in Bataraza town, southern Palawan. The shipments were destined for the Chinese black market, an underground economy that sells to turtle hobbyists and overseas collectors presumably to bring luck to their households.
“The species is critically endangered and the main threat is the collection for the illegal wildlife trade, followed by food, and traditional medicine,” Schoppe said.
This is the reason why the KFI, WRS, and organizations like Turtle Conservancy, Rainforest Trust, and Chester Zoo (England), are working together with local partners like the PCSD staff and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) to save the species through assurance colony breeding, establishment of protected areas, and setting up a team of forest wardens to look after their habitats.
All Palawan forest turtles are found in the northern part of the province in the municipalities of Roxas, Dumaran, San Vicente, Taytay, and northern parts of Puerto Princesa City.
In Roxas, Schoppe said, their cooperation work with the municipal government, the PCSD and DENR, has now established three sites as protected areas.
“If the trade continues the way it does, and there are no protected areas, this species can easily go extinct,” she said.
Dumaran, another town in the northern part of the province, still has populations, but they are very low now due to the unabashed collection in the past.
She disclosed the Palawan forest turtle’s habitat in Taytay municipality is already locally extinct as there are habitats that have no more population. They found out about it after the municipal government requested the KFI to help do surveys and information and education campaign in the municipality.
“Taytay has local extinction already, there are sites where it doesn’t occur anymore due to over-exploitation. The findings were really very sad,” Schoppe said.
The KFI, WRS, and their partners are still in the phase of finding out how many Palawan forest turtles are left dwelling in their natural habitats.
Schoppe said they estimate there are about 10,000 individuals scattered in the identified Palawan municipalities.
“We have some estimate of about 6,000 individuals as of 2014, but after the confiscation in 2015, we realized that we have to do more surveys because the population is bigger than we thought, and that’s a positive thing. But the exploitation is going on in a very high volume,” she added.
There are enough policies to cover enforcement in protecting the species, and the PCSD is helping improve the situation over the years.
Considering Palawan’s size and its issue on manpower to protect its forests and all other species that need conservation, Schoppe agrees it will be hard to be comfortable.
“We established protected areas, we worked with the locals in the communities, we are giving incentives for former poachers to become wardens of the environment, and we’re working with municipal governments to strengthen protection,” she added.
Fabello said they are currently working on a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with Schoppe’s group that would cover strengthening the enforcement in protected areas and known habitats.
“Meron kaming MOA na pinag-aaralan ngayon para mapirmahan at kasama doon ay kung paano pa mapapalakas ang pagbabantay sa mga natural habitat ng Palawan forest turtle (We are currently crafting a MOA that we can sign and it will include enforcement to further strengthen the protection of the natural habitats of the Palawan forest turtle),” he said.
Long-term conservation goal
In the long-term, Schoppe’s and the KFI’s dream is to downgrade the status of the Palawan forest turtle from critically endangered to “endangered” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Wildlife Act of the Philippines (Republic Act No. 9147).
“We hope through the joint conservation efforts, this species will be downgraded to endangered. At the moment, it’s critically-endangered under the IUCN and under the Philippine Wildlife Act,” Schoppe said.
She believes this can be done if the local people, municipal governments in areas where they occur, and other government and non-government agencies will pay enough attention.
More than the elephants, the tigers, and other species in school textbooks that students read, Schoppe said endemic wildlife species in Palawan should be included in the curriculum.
“If you look at school books they are using in the Philippines, there are giraffes, elephants, and tigers, but there are no pangolin (scaly anteater), no Palawan forest turtle, and there is not even a Philippine cockatoo,” she said.
Awareness raising on the conservation of the species cannot be done in communities without continuous presence because this will not leave permanent knowledge.
“As far as awareness is concerned, I think the continuous presence in the areas is very important. If you just go and visit a certain area once, you cannot leave a permanent knowledge. It needs to be repeated,” Schoppe said. (PNA)