This Rare Philippine Turtle Is Being Driven to Extinction by Pet Owners
February 3, 2015
by John R. Platt
Poachers are capturing the critically endangered Palawan forest turtle to sell as pets in Europe and North America.
(Photo: Sabine Schoppe/Katala Foundation)
When most people want a pet, they get a cat or a dog.
Other people steal endangered species from the wild.
That’s the sad situation confronting the Palawan forest turtle, a critically endangered species that lives on just a single island in the Philippines. Only about 3,000 of these rare turtles are believed to remain in the wild, a number that is shrinking rapidly. Over the past two months at least 186 forest turtles — more than 6 percent of the entire known population—have been rescued from five groups of poachers who intended to sell them on the illegal international pet trade, according to a report this week from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
The forest turtles’ very rarity makes them even more desired, as collectors will pay large amounts of money on the black market for endangered turtles and tortoises. The rarer they are, the higher the price they fetch. The turtles were most likely headed to Europe or North America, said Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s Southeast Asia regional director. “Southeast Asia is also seeing a booming increase in the exotic pet trade,” he said, “so it is not inconceivable that they were headed somewhere a little closer to home.” He said that no arrests have been made yet, although investigations are ongoing.
The Palawan forest turtle was once believed to be extinct. Unseen since 1920, the species was rediscovered in 2001. A scientific paper detailing that find was published in 2004. A booming illegal trade in the animals began soon after. “The trade of the Palawan forest turtle is rampant, and most past conservation work has failed,” said Pierre Fidenci, president of Endangered Species International, which has been active for several years in trying to protect the turtles. He said the poaching has become so bad that some of the sites that once held the turtles could now be depleted. “If trade continues at that level, this species could be gone within its major habitat sites in a decade or so,” Fidenci said.
Protecting the turtles won’t be expensive, but it will require effort. “To succeed in saving the Palawan forest turtle, we must create core habitat protection zones where active patrols are conducted using local communities,” he said. “Further inspections at ports, exchange transits, and other locations are necessary as well.” Fidenci also called for increased efforts to educate local people and authorities about the existing laws that already — in theory if not in execution — protect the turtles.
As for the 186 turtles rescued over the past two months, Shepherd reported that they are in quarantine to make sure they have not contracted any diseases from their captors. “If they are found healthy, they will be returned to the wild,” he said. Hopefully, this time they’ll be there to stay.