SE Asian nations come together to protect turtles

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MANILA, Philippines—The governments of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have pledged to enhance cooperation in the regional crackdown on the illegal trade in marine turtles taken from the rich waters of the Coral Triangle.

Sea Turtle. AFP PHOTO

The commitment was made in a marine turtle trade workshop hosted by the Philippine government on June 3-4, according to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Philippines.

“With the ongoing issue of poaching of marine turtles, the country recognizes the need for an integrated approach in addressing this challenge,” Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said.

“The alarming trend over the past decade justifies the need for neighboring countries to make trans-boundary arrangements and improve the protection of turtles between governments,” Lim said in a WWF news release.

“Entire populations of turtles are being wiped out by persistent poaching, both targeted and as by-catch,” Joel Palma, WWF-Philippines vice president for conservation, said.

Organized trafficking

“As foreign fishing fleets are often involved, such intergovernmental collaboration is essential to strengthen local and trans-boundary law enforcement to prevent marine turtles from being poached and traded for use as food and luxury items,” Palma added.

The workshop came on the heels of an incident last month where Philippine authorities arrested Chinese fishermen off the coast of Palawan who had around 500 live and dead turtles in their boat.

The involvement of local fishermen in the incident “suggests a higher degree of organized supply and trafficking that requires a transnational response,” WWF-Philippines said.

The group said it was just one of several poaching and trafficking incidents that happened not only in the Philippines but also in the important marine turtle range countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam and across the wider Coral Triangle region.

The Coral Triangle refers to one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world bounded by the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands.

It is home to 600 coral species—comprising 76 percent of the world’s known coral species—and has the highest diversity of reef fish with 2,500 species, or 37 percent, of the world’s reef fish concentrated in one area.

The Coral Triangle also hosts six of the seven known species of marine turtles including the green, hawksbill, loggerhead, flatback, Olive Ridley and leatherback turtles, according to WWF-Philippines.

Illegal trade

“We need to halt the illegal turtle trade once and for all, otherwise the work of protecting nesting beaches and feeding grounds will be futile if thousands of turtles are being wiped out at sea,” said Palma.

Turtles are used mainly for food, souvenirs, jewelry and ornaments and in some traditional medicinal systems, WWF-Philippines said.

The shells of hawksbill turtles (known as bekko) have been carved into ornaments and jewelry for many centuries, particularly associated with Japanese traditional crafts, it added.

“Aside from the consumption of its meat and eggs, the demand for turtle shells and other parts in China, Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam is driving this trade,” said James Compton, traffic senior program director in the Asia Pacific.

Research by Traffic has identified the island province of Hainan as a major hub in the illegal trade in marine turtle products in China, and work over the past four years with Chinese government authorities and other local stakeholders has greatly increased attention on market regulation and control, according to WWF-Philippines.

“The need for interagency collaboration on this illegal trade is essential, including the Navy and coast guards in a national task force approach, to protect marine turtles in source countries,” said Compton.

“Greater law enforcement effectiveness, including investigations and prosecution, are important to increase deterrents against participating in wildlife crime,” he said.

All international commercial trade in marine turtles is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

“This timely workshop shows that these source countries are paying attention to what’s happening to marine turtles around the region and that they all share the same challenges,” said Palma.

“Since turtles are trans-boundary in nature, protecting them requires a more cohesive and integrated approach. This workshop is a major step in that direction,” he added.

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