Published 24 June 2015

Thousands of Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtles seized

Puerto Princesa, Philippines, 24th June 2015—Over 4,400 freshwater turtles, the majority of them Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtles Siebenrockiella leytensis, were seized last week in southern Palawan, Philippines.

Thousands of Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtles seized

The animals were subsequently transported to the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development in Puerto Princesa City, where they were handed over to wildlife group Katala Foundation Inc. (KFI) for safekeeping.

The massive haul included 3,907 Palawan Forest Turtles, including 159 dead, as well as 168 Asian Leaf Turtles Cyclemys dentata and 25 Southeast Asian Box Turtles Cuora amboinensis. The animals were in poor condition, showing signs of having been neglected in captivity over a long period. 

The animals were thought to have been collected from across their native range of northern Palawan over the past six months and were believed to have been destined for markets in China. 

Dr Sabine Schoppe, KFI founding member and Director of the Philippine Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program, which has the Palawan Forest Turtle as its focal species, is gravely concerned about what this bodes for the species. 

The staggering number of Palawan Forest Turtles represents a devastating blow to conservationist efforts to safeguard the species’s survival in the wild. 

Dr Schoppe said KFI hoped to release the surviving turtles but added that it would be a painstaking process involving DNA testing to identify the sources of the turtles, which were collected from sites across northern Palawan.

The Palawan Forest Turtle is listed in Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and due to its extreme rarity is sought after for the pet trade and for consumption. 

Philippine media report that the caretaker of the warehouse in which the turtles were found has been arrested. News reports also said Palawan Council for Sustainable Development enforcers and members of the Provincial Law Enforcement Task Force were preparing to file charges against a Chinese national believed to be the owner of the warehouse.

The Palawan Forest Turtle has turned up in previous seizures, with 186 found between December 2014 and January 2015. The case last week was the largest known seizure of this species to date. 

TRAFFIC applauds the Philippines authorities for making this important seizure, while condemning the actions of poachers and smugglers.

“TRAFFIC urges the authorities to track down and punish the perpetrators behind this heinous crime,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.

The illegal trade in all Asian tortoises and freshwater turtles has been in the spotlight since the Eleventh meeting of the Conference of Parties to CITES in 2000, where a resolution was passed calling on all countries, especially range States and those exporting and importing the species, to enhance and increase enforcement efforts as a matter of urgently. 

“TRAFFIC urges CITES Parties to take strong and immediate action against the illegal international trade in tortoises and freshwater turtles, which has reached crisis proportions,” said Shepherd. 

“The vast majority of the region’s tortoises and freshwater turtles are already threatened with extinction, with illegal and unsustainable trade the primary threat.”

“Parties should consider the merits of uplisting the Palawan Forest Turtle to Appendix I of the Convention,” he added. 

An Appendix I CITES listing for the Palawan Forest Turtle would ban all international commercial trade and would be in line with recommendations made during Conservation of Asian Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles workshop held in February 2011 in Singapore.