101 critically endangered hawksbill turtles found dead on Vietnamese fishing boat
29 August. The pair of Philippine Navy gunboats from expected nothing more than a quiet and uneventful sweep through Linapacan, Northern Palawan, but by the end of the day they had seized one of the largest illegal wildlife hauls of the year.
– WWF El Nido Project Manager RJ dela Calzada carefully examines the carapace of one of the 101 recovered Hawksbill Turtles. (WWF-Philippines)
The two boats came across a Vietnamese fishing vessel, which suddenly attempted to escape. Having been caught by the fast gunboats, the fishing vessel attempted to scuttle the vessel but this was quickly thwarted by the boarding team.
101 Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricate) were discovered to have drowned in the vessel's cargo hold. Though sea turtles can remain submerged for up to two hours, stressed individuals must resurface every few minutes.
Hawsbill turtle facts - Critically endangered
Growing to a metre in length and weighing as much as 80 kilograms, huge numbers of Hawksbill Turtles once plied the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic regions. Distinguished from other sea turtles by a hooked beak and heavily-serrated carapace, the Hawksbill has for millennia been hunted for food and tortoiseshell - a material used as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman eras to fashion jewellery, combs and brushes.
It is now classified by the IUCN as critically-endangered - the highest risk rating for a living animal (save for being completely extinct in the wild). Under Philippine and international law, it is illegal to capture and kill sea turtles and to trade in turtle by-products.
Poacher's paradise - 1000 arrests, no one in jail!
The incident echoes the previous September's Tawi-Tawi poaching case, where 126 endangered Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas) and 10,000 turtle eggs were found aboard a Chinese fishing vessel in Sulu. Accounting for the fact that the crew were attempting to ditch the evidence, the final tally was officially pegged at over 200 adult turtles. The case remains unresolved.
WWF Project Manager RJ de la Calzada said, "Again and again, foreign nationals have encroached upon Philippine waters to plunder our nation's dwindling marine resources. It disheartens us to find the animals we work so hard to conserve slaughtered on a wholesale basis."
6 July four Vietnamese nationals were arrested for alleged poaching off Guntao Isle, El Nido. Four other fishing boats, believed to be Vietnamese, escaped.
On 13 April, a 23-man Vietnamese poaching detail aboard the Quang Mei was arrested in Balabac, Southern Palawan. Found on board the craft were assorted fish and a sea turtle.
In December of 2006, the M/V Hoi Wan, a Chinese fishing vessel, was caught poaching off the Tubbataha Reefs in Palawan. Amongst its catch were 359 CITES-protected Napoleon Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus). The case is unresolved.
In the last decade over a thousand non Philippine nationals have been arrested and charged for poaching in the waters of Palawan alone. Over 660 poachers were Chinese.
Only one case, the January 2004 arrest of 17 Chinese poachers caught with 54 dead sea turtles, has ever led to a conviction - but even they were pardoned after paying a light fine. Amidst fears that justice might again be elusive, WWF is acting as a watchdog to ensure that these charges are pushed through.
WWF President Dave Valdes said "WWF condemns such blatant poaching of internationally-protected marine life and hopes that the Philippine government will finally have the resolve to dispense due justice against foreign poachers who disregard both local and international laws."