Program in the Turtle Islands
he institutionalization of turtle conservation in the Republic of the Philippines began in 1979 through Executive Order No. 542, which created the Task Force Pawikan (pawikan is the Filipino term for marine turtle) to protect the country's dwindling marine turtle resource from continuing over-exploitation. In 1982, to operationalize this presidential edict, the then Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR, now the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) issued two administrative orders:
Today, these orders are being implemented in the Municipality of Turtle Islands by the TFP, now referred to as Pawikan Conservation Project (PCP), a special project under the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau of the DENR (PAWB-DENR).
The PCP is responsible for implementing a nationwide marine turtle conservation program (as well as a nationwide dugong conservation program), but it has so far concentrated much of its efforts on the Turtle Islands, which host one of the major green turtle nesting aggregations in the world. Teams of PCP technical staff are deployed regularly to the Turtle Islands to ensure that rules and regulations pertaining to turtle conservation are properly implemented. Working with local rangers, they also do research work on resource management and conduct information and education campaigns to increase public awareness of turtle conservation issues.
The PCP arrived on the Turtle Islands in 1984 with these two major objectives:
Baguan Island Marine Turtle
Baguan, the sanctuary island, is of particular concern to the PCP. Because turtle eggs are both culturally and economically important to the local people, excessive egg collection has long been a problem in the area. This is especially true on Baguan. Probably the most productive of all the Turtle Islands, Baguan attracts egg collectors like a magnet and is thus particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation.
To address the situation, the PCP has solicited the assistance of the military to secure the sanctuary island. The presence of the military has not only stopped the illegal harvesting of eggs on the island but has also abated the destruction of the surrounding coral reefs from illegal practices such as blast fishing.
The PCP is getting help from other sources as well. For example, in 1990, WWF-Philippines donated radio communications equipment, generator, an outboard motor and hull for the Project's operations in the area.
For nearly two decades now, despite long, arduous sea journeys to the islands, relatively primitive living conditions, and limited funding and logistical support, the PCP has managed to continue its turtle conservation work on Baguan. Since it began operations there, the PCP has not only protected the nests and nesting turtles from poaching, it has also been carrying out basic research and monitoring.
Thousands of nesting female green turtles have been measured and, every year, hundreds of nesters are marked with metal flipper tags. Anyone who finds a turtle with a tag should inform the DENR about the location of the turtle, date, and other conditions. This way, the DENR can keep track of where the turtles go when they leave the Turtle Islands.
But finding turtles with flipper tags depends largely on good luck. With assistance from USAID, Smithsonian Institution, WWF-Philippines, and the DENR's Coastal Resource Management Project, PCP has begun studying green turtle migrations directly by using satellite transmitters.
Meanwhile, on-site conservation activities continue. Every morning, fresh tracks are monitored to estimate the number of female turtles that climb up the beach to lay eggs. Through the nesting incidence monitoring activity undertaken by the PCP, the peak and lean seasons of nesting have been determined. Nesting peaks are from June to September while the lean season is from November to February. Since 1984, more than 98,000 completed nests have been documented on the sanctuary island.
Much of the research done by the PCP relates to hatchery management, collection of internesting and remigration data and detection of tumor-like diseases. In addition, the PCP collaborates with WWF-Philippines and some universities in studies on genetics, physical characterization of the islands and biodiversity assessment.
Outside Baguan, on the other five Philippine Turtle Islands, egg collection is allowed under regulation. Historically, control of egg collection was vested in whoever was in charge of the islands. Before the 1950s, the British North Borneo Corporation had the authority, but people from neighboring islands and transients such as workers at the company's coconut plantations might have also collected eggs. Subsequently, the municipal government took control, retaining its authority until the early 1980s, when control and management of the collection was finally institutionalized through the DENR-PCP by virtue of MNR Administrative Order No. 33, Series of 1982.
Before 1984, egg collection was close to 100%. More than 2,000 permits to gather marine turtle eggs were issued to the residents of the Turtle Islands. Under the current law (MNR AO No. 33 ), only 60% of the eggs produced on the islands of Taganak, Lihiman, Langaan and Great Bakkungan can be collected by the residents. The law requires that 30% of the eggs are transferred to hatcheries for incubation and subsequent release of the hatchlings, while the remainder (10%) can be legally sold to fund conservation activities on the islands through the Marine Turtle Foundation (MTF). Despite 15 years of management by the DENR-PCP, however, it is apparent that residents of the Turtle Islands have yet to fully accept the change from uncontrolled exploitation to managed, reasonable levels of egg collection.
With the Turtle Islands' population growing year after year, the PCP has had to adopt an application system to benefit all qualified residents, and work towards equity in access to the turtle egg resource. Any member of the community who is of legal age (18 years and above) and a resident of the Turtle Islands Municipality for at least one year can apply for a permit to collect marine turtle eggs. Qualified applicants are those who have not been granted permits for a period of at least 4 years. Photos of each applicant are taken and these are used to verify their identity from previous years, as some residents change their names or documents so they can qualify for permits more often than the system would allow.
Each year, a total of 168 egg collection permits are given to qualified residents of the Turtle Islands. Since there are always more qualified applicants than the available permits, a lottery system has been devised to institute fairness in the selection. The lottery is usually carried out on Taganak Island, where the seat of the municipal government is located. To ensure transparency, representatives from the Local Government are invited to witness the drawing of lots. Also very visible during the lottery are the egg buyers.
The PCP schedules 3-4 lotteries every year. Each lucky applicant is assigned a collection area on one of the five inhabited islands (regardless of the applicant's area of residence) and a set period of five days in which to gather as many turtle eggs as he or she is able. As the luck of the draw has it, some applicants are assigned better collection areas and collection periods than the others .
Whatever the case may be, however, the permit holders usually do not harvest the eggs themselves. This is where the Turtle Islands' more than 10 egg buyers come in. Having no means to protect their assigned areas from poachers, some permit-holders will only too gladly sell their permits to egg buyers willing to pay the price (the amount depends on the collection area, collection period and the municipal fee). Egg buyers are rich enough to easily be able to hire aides to protect the nests from poachers. If they do not harvest the eggs themselves, egg buyer serve as middlemen who buy the eggs from the residents and transport these to the market.
As provided by law (MNR AO No. 33 ), 30% of all the eggs collected are to be transplanted into hatcheries by the PCP rangers. Each artificial nest in a hatchery contains 50-65 eggs which are left to incubate for about two months. On Baguan Island, where egg collection is not allowed, nearly all the eggs are left alone on the nesting beach to incubate. Clutches of eggs in danger of inundation by saltwater and those in the farthest and not-easy-to-patrol parts of the island are transferred to the hatchery.
Once the eggs hatch, the little turtles dig their way out of the nest, with most of them arriving at the surface of the sand at the same time. A cylinder made of plastic netting contains the hatchlings until a ranger picks them up and counts them before they are released on the shore. On Baguan alone, more than 800,000 hatchlings have been released to the sea from the hatcheries.
No amount of conservation effort by government will succeed if the community does not cooperate, and the PCP realizes this only too well. Each year, the Project invites a group of students and teachers from Taganak Island to stay overnight at the sanctuary to learn about their islands' unique marine environment as well as to get first-hand experience in tagging turtles, transplanting eggs and releasing hatchlings to the sea. This activity, the PCP hopes, will instill in the Turtle Islands' youth an appreciation for the importance of marine ecosystems in general and sea turtle conservation in particular.
Every September, during the International Coastal Cleanup Day, PCP staff travel from island to island to urge the townsfolk to participate in the clean-up activity. The PCP undertakes at least two other coastal clean-ups each year.
The Turtle Islands
Heritage Protected Area:
The PCP's efforts go beyond the boundaries of the Philippine Turtle Islands. In 1996, the PCP, along with WWF-Philippines, joined up with Malaysia's Sabah Parks to establish the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area (TIHPA), the world's first transfrontier protected area for marine turtles. This earned them the 20th J. Paul Getty Award for Wildlife Conservation "in recognition of their outstanding contribution to the conservation of sea turtles and efforts in establishing the first transboundary marine reserve for sea turtles." The awards body also commended PCP for making marine turtle conservation "part of the fabric of national life and policy". The PCP and Sabah Parks serve as the Secretariat of the Joint Management Committee of the TIHPA. The PCP also represents the Philippines in ASEAN meetings pertaining to the conservation of marine turtles in the Region.
a Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary:
Despite all this dedication and activity, much more needs to be done. Baguan is the only island of the six Philippine Turtle Islands that is fully protected (in contrast, all three Malaysian Turtle Islands have been fully protected since 1977). Despite regulations, where "controlled" harvesting is allowed, egg collection is difficult to control on the other five, inhabited Philippine Turtle Islands. So, the future for the turtles depends ultimately on the future of Baguan Island.
The turtle egg trade is an important part of the tradition for the people of Turtle Islands. Until new, alternative sources of income become available, intense egg harvesting will probably continue and the turtle population will continue to dwindle.The enhancement of the residents' present sources of income is envisioned to ease egg colletion. Problems on health, education and basic infrastructure also need to be addressed.
To assure the long-term success of the PCP's and other groups' conservation efforts, the government is studying a proposal to declare the entire Turtle Islands a protected area. Already, the area is listed as one of the 10 priority sites identified for conservation under the World Bank-funded Integrated Protected Areas System (IPAS) Project, largely because of its status as one of the world's major rookeries for green turtles and its relatively pristine condition. A rapid resource assessment conducted in 1992 revealed yet another reason for protecting the Turtle Islands: the area has the most diverse marine species among the marine priority areas of the IPAS Project.
The DENR through the Conservation of Priority Protected Areas Program (CPPAP) and Region IX, with assistance from the PCP, is now working for the establishment of the area as the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary (TIWS) as a long-term strategy for conservation and management of this unique national treasure.
Sounds like a good deal in which nobody would lose and the turtles would only win!