February 2008

No way home for 71 turtles

By Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao Bureau
First Posted 18:30:00 02/02/2008

FRESHWATER TURTLES caught in the wild must be returned to their natural habitat. They belong there, and not in aquariums, terrariums, pig troughs or cooking pots.

This was the conservation lesson that the regional office of the Protected Area and Wildlife Division (PAWD-10) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources tried to impress on the public as its staff members released several box turtles here recently.

Seventy-one box turtles, locally called bao-o or iyon, and commonly called the Asian box turtle (Cuora amboinensis cuoro), were released near the Pulangi River in Barangay Dologon, about 60 kilometers south of Malaybalay City.

Belen Dacu, PAWD-10 chief wildlife officer, says the turtles are among the 140 that police officers confiscated from a Cagayan de Oro City-bound bus in Manolo Fortich on Jan. 10.

Acting on a tip, police found the turtles crammed inside three plastic sacks, 38 of them already dead. Police officers reported that the cargo came from Pikit, Maguindanao, and probably hunted along the Liguasan Marsh.

The 92 survivors were turned over to the PAWD rescue center over the weekend. One more turtle died before the trip to Maramag while 20 were left at the DENR?s Malaybalay office for release in Lake Apo in Valencia.

Wildlife officer Donato Bojo, who led the release, says the confiscation indicates that the wildlife illegal trade continue to be brisk and underscores the huge challenges that DENR personnel face in enforcing Republic Act No. 9147, the Philippine Wildlife Protection and Conservation Act.
The law, enacted in 2004, mandates the protection and conservation of the country?s wildlife resources and their habitats. It restricts and regulates wildlife trade.

But the silver lining, according to Bojo, lies in the people?s increasing awareness of the law. ?The tipster was aware that the cargo was illegally transported and the police officers have attended a training workshop late last year for deputized wildlife enforcement officers.?

Malou Clarete, also a wildlife staff member, says the plan was to release the 92 turtles along the Pulangi River in Maramag. ?Ideally, caught wildlife must be returned to their original habitat or within their home range,? she explains.

The Pulangi River drains into the Liguasan Marsh, Bojo says, and if the turtles are released, ?some might find their way back home.?

In Barangay Dologon, where the turtles were released, barangay chair Mario Jumawan notes that the small lake by the Pulangi River is actually an impoundment of the Transco hydroelectric dam.
?If these creatures will try to get home to the Liguasan Marsh, it would be a very hazardous journey to get through the dam. Just imagine, the surge of water and the sheer drop to get to the original river route,? Jumawan says.

Bojo says that even as the chelonians might not go home again to the Liguasan Marsh, the pond has abundant food, a requirement for survival. He notes the presence of several migratory birds, such as herons and ospreys, feeding on the lakeside.

Bojo says the ba-o is omnivorous and subsists on leaves, grass and shells. But it will take a few months to know whether the turtles will thrive here and whether they will be a positive impact on the pond?s bioecology.

Another positive thing, he notes, is that Dologon is the site of a project which has an environmental awareness and protection component, and so the villagers are more environmentally aware and responsible.

Some Dologon residents admit to keeping the ba-o in their homes. ?We keep a turtle in a basin and the water is used as drink for the fighting cocks,? says Rosie Pajo, barangay hall staff.
Pajo says that ?it is believed that the turtle?s excrement is health tonic for animals.?

Farmers who catch turtles in the rice fields put these in pig troughs or in the pasaw, pails containing scrap food for pigs. They believe that these help make the pigs healthy and fat.
Turtles are sold as food or pets. They are cooked as deluxe cuisine for tourists. Some buy them as cure for asthma and lumbago, and to ease birthing pains.

The Asian box turtle lays only three to five eggs to a clutch and it takes 76 days for the eggs to hatch. Conservation scientists say that because of their low reproductive rate and habitat destruction or degradation, the turtles are vulnerable to exploitation.

There are a few studies on the species and, therefore, little is known about their population and habitat.