Chinese turtle heist sends rare Philippine species to brink of extinction, international rescue underway

0626_gs_IMG_3162On Friday, June 19, Philippine authorities raided a warehouse on the island of Palawan and confiscated more than 4,000 live, illegally harvested rare turtles, only days before they were to be shipped to foreign food and pet markets.

“It appears that a businessman, a Chinese national in the Philippines, had stored them in a warehouse in large cement tanks, piled a dozen deep, awaiting export to China,” Dr. Brian D. Horne told mongabay.com. Horne is the Wildlife Conservation Society’s coordinator for freshwater turtle and tortoise conservation.

The massive haul included over 3,800 critically endangered Philippine forest turtles – animals in very poor health and showing signs of severe neglect from long captivity.

An injured turtle enters rehab. Vets, handlers and helpers from around the world joined Philippine students in the rescue effort. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
An injured turtle enters rehab. Vets, handlers and helpers from around the world joined Philippine students in the rescue effort. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

“What’s startling is that our best understanding put the total number of this species left in the wild at about 2,500 individuals. So we’ve either seriously underestimated the number of turtles, or this very well could mean that [the illegal traffickers] pretty much captured almost all of the wild turtles remaining,” said Horne.

“The future of this species could be hanging in the balance,” Rick Hudson, President of the Turtle Survival Alliance told Mongabay. Hudson and his TSA team of turtle experts are coordinating the rescue effort.

Once considered extremely rare, the Philippine forest turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis) is endemic to only the northern half of Palawan Island and nearby Dumaran Island. It is one of the world’s most endangered turtle species, ranked Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. It is protected nationally by the Philippines Wildlife Act, and internationally by listing on CITES Appendix II (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

The turtle’s extreme rarity has generated an intense global demand among collectors, especially in China, and to a much lesser extent in North America, Europe and Japan. The demand has sparked a rapidly growing, wholly illegal, domestic and international trade in the animals. Most specimens, experts say, end up on Chinese turtle farms to be bred as pets and food.

More than 3800 live Philippine forest turtles were stacked in heaps at the warehouse, where they awaited shipment to pet and food markets in China. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
More than 3800 live Philippine forest turtles were stacked in heaps at the warehouse, where they awaited shipment to pet and food markets in China. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

This month’s seizure – possibly the largest ever of a single rare turtle species – stunned the global conservation community. Within hours, an international rescue response was underway to save as many of the animals as possible.

Turtle Conservation Alliance to the rescue

Spearheading the rescue effort is Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Director of the Philippine Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program for the Katala Foundation. She hurriedly organized transportation, triage, and nursing care for the animals.

“The condition of the turtles is worrisome,” Schoppe wrote in an email update to the member organizations of the Turtle Survival Alliance: “They were already weak at the [police] holding facility, then they were treated like cement sacks by the [initial] rescue team, kept for countless hours on the truck prior to release of needed paper work and transport to the rescue center. Many have died over night and today. We recruited students to help us build shading, shelter, and collect dead ones. We work and prepare all around the clock.”

Shade is added to a former crocodilian enclosure, soon to be an emergency turtle pond. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
Shade is added to a former crocodilian enclosure, soon to be an emergency turtle pond. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

Volunteers create shade for the animals. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
Volunteers create shade for the animals. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

This heroic local effort soon became international.

“The first wave of vets and handlers, people from around the world, have flown in,” TSA’s Hudson said. “There are a lot of people from U.S. and European zoos. Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Ocean Park Hong Kong, Turtle Conservancy, and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden have stepped up in a big way, and so has the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). They’ve sent a team consisting of a vet, a vet tech, a pathologist and a logistics person.”

Triaging and caring for the turtles has been complicated by the animal’s natural shyness. Philippine forest turtles are a solitary species, and sensitive to stress. They die quickly when maintained in groups.

“Many of the turtles are quite ill,” said Horne. “They’ve been living on concrete, so have open wounds on their front feet and hind limbs. They have ulcers on their plastrons, the bottom part of the shell. They are suffering from dehydration. And because this species tends to be aggressive towards each other in close quarters, some animals have suffered bite wounds.”

One of the emergency turtle ponds cobbled together within hours to house the animals. Triage, the sorting of the healthy from the wounded, and treatment follow. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
One of the emergency turtle ponds cobbled together within hours to house the animals. Triage, the sorting of the healthy from the wounded, and treatment follow. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

No one is willing to predict how many animals will die during the recovery process.

“There aren’t enough enclosures to keep all the turtles in any kind of adequate condition,” said Hudson. “So the ones deemed not to need extensive rehabilitative care are being released back into the wild as quickly as possible.” More than 2,200 have been released so far, though rescuers worry that as soon as the stressed animals go back into their native habitat, they will again be vulnerable to collectors.

Treatment is now underway for over 1,000 animals for bone infections, eye problems, emaciation, dehydration, and septicemia at a largely improvised facility. “We’ve put together a very organized response very fast,” said Hudson. “This is what TSA is geared to do. We pride ourselves at being able to deploy resources when there’s a crisis.” Though, Hudson admits, this confiscation is stretching resources to the limit.

Volunteers go to work to create an artificial turtle holding pond. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
Volunteers go to work to create an artificial turtle holding pond. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

The TSA and WCS have joined forces in the emergency with the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Specialist Group, Turtle Conservation Fund, Turtle Conservancy, and Chelonian Research Foundation. More than $11,000 US and 6,000 Euros have been pledged to the crisis so far. An initial funding goal of $50,000 has been set, with more likely needed later. The Turtle Survival Alliance is taking donations to help coordinate the response.

“First off there’s triage, where we’re just sorting out turtles to figure out who can be released, and who needs care,” said Hudson. “We’ve got a lot of turtles in big ponds, where we can at least feed them. But then we’ve got to thin those numbers down to small groups so we can tell who’s eating. That tells us a lot about whether the turtle is going to make it or not. If it’s not eating, then we’ve got another problem. We’ve got to start tube feeding, supplementing its diet.” Hudson’s voice trailed off as he counted the tasks ahead. “There’s just so many logistics, and a lot of turtles.”

Despite the many challenges, amazing progress has been made in just over a week. “I am overwhelmed!” wrote Dr. Schoppe in an email. “Yesterday by sadness and work, now by hope. With your help [from around the globe] we will be able to manage.”

Fresh greens get added to the holding ponds. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
Fresh greens get added to the holding ponds. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

One of the world’s rarest turtles

The Philippine forest turtle was unknown to science until 1920, when described by American herpetologist Edward Harrison Taylor. His description was based on two specimens, a male and female, mistakenly identified to have originated on Leyte Island. No one knew the animals’ true origin in the wild. Both specimens were destroyed in World War II during the bombing of Manila.

Philippine forest turtles are shy, solitary animals, and are highly stressed when kept in large groups. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
Philippine forest turtles are shy, solitary animals, and are highly stressed when kept in large groups. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

The species was rediscovered by scientists in 2001, when it was encountered in the wild on Palawan Island during endemic wildlife assessments. Since then, a concerted effort to conduct surveys and understand the species’ biology has been underway, and reintroduction studies have been conducted.

In 2009, the TSA and Turtle Conservancy partnered with the local Katala Foundation to construct a turtle rescue facility in anticipation of future confiscation events. No one ever imagined a crisis of the magnitude of the one now underway ¬– a crisis that has overwhelmed the facility, and could lead to a species’ extinction.

The Palawan forest turtle inhabits creeks and small rivers, living under a full forest canopy. A nocturnal species, it feeds and mates at night. During the day, adults leave the water to hide in riverbank burrows. This is where turtle hunters dig them out. The animals are highly susceptible to shell rot and skin issues, and do not do well in captivity. Like most turtle species, S. leytensis has a long life span and is slow to reach sexual maturity, making it extremely vulnerable to over-exploitation.

Some of the animals suffered obvious shell damage. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
Some of the animals suffered obvious shell damage. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

With the discovery of the turtles on Palawan, the illegal trade in the species quickly grew from a trickle to a flood. “What’s disturbing is the level of trade that we’re seeing,” said Horne. Ever since its rediscovery on Palawan “there’s been this collecting frenzy for the pet trade, and all of a sudden the Chinese have ramped that up, collecting large numbers for turtle farms and really driving the species to the brink.”

Pierre Fidenci of Endangered Species International and Jérôme Maran of L’Association du Refuge des Tortues reported on this escalating illegal trade in 2009 in a paper published in the TurtleLog , the online newsletter of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. “During our visits, we observed between two and ten S. leytensis for sale at each market, observing 171 animals over a 4-year period. The turtles were not sold openly… instead, they were kept hidden in the back of stores and brought to potential buyers only when it was felt that there were no risks involved,” write the researchers.

During the scientists’ last Philippine market survey the species was selling for between $53 and $75 per turtle. That means that the 3,800 forest turtles confiscated this June could have been worth as much as $285,000 at the wholesale level, and many times that value when bred in China, sold to collectors or as food. Turtles, it seems, are big business.

“Overall, illegal collecting of the Philippine forest turtle is the most prominent factor contributing to the decline of the species,” wrote Fidenci and Maran. “Our multiple [market] visits demonstrate that the illegal domestic trade of S. leytensis has never slowed down and continues to deplete remaining wild populations in Palawan… Trade is rampant.”

The Asian turtle crisis

The confiscation of more than 4,000 turtle on Palawan is symptomatic of a larger crisis that has been sweeping the globe for more than two decades.

“It’s a cycle of boom and bust that’s been going on since the 90’s,” explained Horne. “There’ll be a turtle species that will [suddenly become popular and] appear in trade, coming into China in vast numbers, until the species becomes rare in the wild, and economically less feasible to ship large numbers. Then the traffickers shift to another species.”

Loading trucks at the warehouse to transport the animals to the turtle rehab facility. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
Loading trucks at the warehouse to transport the animals to the turtle rehab facility. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

This trend marked the beginning of the Asian turtle crisis , which has severely impacted many dozens of turtle and tortoise species across South Asia, and is already reaching into Africa and South America.

“A billion people in China, formerly constrained from regular consumption of luxury foods like turtle by lack of cash, are wielding new-found economic power. Ross Perot might describe the ‘giant sucking sound’ of millions of turtles being wrenched from their habitats in Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia to meet the insatiable demand and high prices offered by Chinese markets,” writes Peter C. H. Pritchard, director of the Chelonia Research Institute.

To meet consumer and collector demand, and provide for the food and pet markets, the Chinese have instituted large turtle breeding farms.

The turtles arrive at the rehabilitation center. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
The turtles arrive at the rehabilitation center. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

“They’ve realized that harvesting from the wild is not sustainable, so they’re setting up farms, and raising a lot of species,” revealed Hudson. “Of course that puts a big drain on a lot of wild populations, capturing and pulling turtles out of the wild and putting them in these big breeding ponds.” Some species lend themselves well to being crowded into ponds to breed, like the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) from the U.S. Southeast. Others, like the Philippine forest turtle fail to thrive in captivity, even under the best of husbanding practices.

Curbing the crisis has been challenging. Funds for police education and enforcement are lacking, though the world’s turtle conservation organizations have spent considerable effort working with national authorities to confiscate and rehabilitate captive turtles and prosecute wildlife traffickers.

“It’s unfortunate,” says Hudson. “These animals are found mostly in rural areas where people live in poverty. If someone comes in and offers money for turtles, people are going to take it. Without enforcement, it’s a difficult trade to regulate.”

No matter, the organizational members of the Turtle Survival Alliance have made a pledge to each other. A decade ago, they established a list of the world’s 25 most endangered chelonians , vowing never to let one of those species go extinct. None of the 25 have since disappeared.

Stream bank turtle tunnels are easily spotted and excavated by collectors in order to capture the animals. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
Stream bank turtle tunnels are easily spotted and excavated by collectors in order to capture the animals. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

“Unfortunately, turtles don’t get as much media and public attention as other fauna,” said Horne. “Turtles are well liked and appreciated, but people often don’t consider them a conservation priority. There are 330 chelonian species, and about half are imperiled. As a major vertebrate group, it’s one of the most endangered.”

What makes turtles so vulnerable to wildlife trafficking is that they’re a long-lived animal. Their biology evolved so that adult females are supposed to live a long time and lay lots of eggs. Eggs and juveniles often have very low survivorship. The removal of large numbers of adults from the wild can lead quickly to a population crash and extinction.

Saving the Philippine forest turtle

Philippine media reports say that the caretaker of the warehouse in which the 4,000 turtles were found has been arrested, and that the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development and members of the Provincial Law Enforcement Task Force are preparing charges against a Chinese national thought to own the warehouse.

Meanwhile, the future of the Philippine forest turtle is uncertain, now relying on a single, hastily constructed turtle rehabilitation center on the island of Palawan, and on the human caregivers from around the planet who tend to them day and night.

Turtle experts say that rehabilitation of the confiscated turtles may take six months to a year, and they worry that mortality will be high. More than 300 animals have died since the June 19th confiscation.

The healthiest 2,200 turtles have been released back into their natural habitat, with the hope that they will survive the trauma of their captivity and be able to avoid future collection. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.
The healthiest 2,200 turtles have been released back into their natural habitat, with the hope that they will survive the trauma of their captivity and be able to avoid future collection. Photo credit: Dr. Sabine Schoppe, Katala Foundation.

Scientists refuse to predict an outcome. It will take many years, they say, to fully assess the impacts of this single, massive, highly coordinated poaching event, what Horne called: “looting for commerce that shows a certain callous mentality.”

“If we don’t get really serious about enforcement and conservation, a species like this, with the wide range of pressures now put upon it, can be gone really quickly,” warned Hudson. “It’s important that we treat this confiscation with the highest priority, and salvage these animals, stay with them throughout the process, and retain some for future conservation research and later introduction back into the wild. This is a species truly on the brink.”


This video shows the warehouse and appalling conditions under which the 4,000 turtles were kept, plus the sometimes clumsy efforts of initial rescuers as they transported the animals to the improvised turtle rehab facility. Video credit: Philippine Television.

Read More: http://news.mongabay.com/2015/0629-scherer-philippine-turtle-heist.html

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