‘Protect PH forest turtle,’ advocates urge

Published September 3, 2020, 4:19 PM

by Ellalyn De Vera-Ruiz

The illegal pet trade remains a key threat to the survival of endangered Philippine forest turtles (Siebenrockiella leytensis) as it had been in the past 15 years, according to a report by the international wildlife conservation group Traffic.

The report titled “Endangered by trade: seizure analysis of the critically endangered Philippine Forest Turtle Siebenrockiella leytensis from 2004–2018” showed 23 seizure incidents resulting in the confiscation of 4,723 turtles. 

Dr. Sabine Schoppe, co-author of the study and head of a programme for the conservation of the species at Katala Foundation Inc., said they have unearthed recent evidence that illegal collection and trade continue, and that the demand for the Philippine forest turtle has not diminished.

In 2015 alone, a single bust in Palawan accounted for 83 percent of all the animals seized involving close to 4,000 turtles, Traffic noted in its report released on Thursday.

At least 12 of 23 recorded incidents resulted in the arrest of 21 suspected traffickers but only two suspects were known to be convicted, fined, and served jail sentences.  This includes a man who was arrested twice the same year at the Hong Kong International Airport, having come from the Philippines carrying with him a total of 157 turtles, it pointed out.

The report also found that eight out of 15 seizure cases in Palawan occurred in the municipality of Taytay, which suggests its significance as an exit point of the Philippine forest turtle. 

Traffic said that the endemic turtle has long been a fascination among hobbyists with collection pressure increasing after new populations were found in the early 2000s. 

It is uncertain, however, if illegally-collected turtles were also destined for the food market. 

Citing a study published in the Philippine Journal of Systematic Biology, Traffic said the turtle has also been illegally offered for trade online in the past 15 years, in the domestic and international pet trade.

The study recorded 22 of the turtles for sale online through monitoring of social media groups in the Philippines between 2017 and 2018. 

More recent unpublished trade monitoring found no individuals for sale in 2019, but four individuals were advertised online in April 2020. 

The study separately observed over 1,000 Philippine forest turtles for sale online on a turtle trading site in China between February and September 2015.

The Traffic’s report also highlighted the issues of captive breeding and laundering of wild-caught species as captive bred.

It noted that the Philippines reported exporting 74 apparently captive bred individuals between 2011 and 2018. However, the Philippine forest turtle—banned from any wild collection and trade since 2001—is widely recognized as notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. 

The first known successful instance of captive breeding was documented only after a 10-year effort in June 2018. 

The researchers said there was a lack of credible evidence to authenticate captive breeding successes in the Philippines or elsewhere prior to 2018, and the Philippine government recently rejected an application by a facility attempting to export specimens declared as captive bred. 

“The findings point towards the likelihood of wild-caught specimens being laundered as captive bred,” Traffic lead author Emerson Sy said in a statement.

“Declaring an immediate moratorium on trade in the Philippine Forest Turtle would close this loophole, help the government prevent illegal trade and help ensure the continued survival of this endemic species,” he added.

The group also urged wildlife authorities to boost site-based protection, as well as enforcement and prosecution against smugglers. 

It also called for an inventory of all previously-registered captive Philippine forest turtles in private and public facilities in the country and ensure that these are not permitted for any trade.