For much of the 20th century, the existence of the Philippine forest turtle was little more than a myth, fueled by a spare handful of specimens. But in 2001, a survey of the Palawan islands uncovered relatively large numbers of these freshwater turtles in their natural habitat. Experts have classified the turtles as critically endangered, and they believed that were around 3,000 alive. That was, until the shocking discovery of some 3,800 of the turtles stacked roughly in a shipping crate bound for China, raising the question: did experts underestimate the turtle population, or did traffickers capture an entire species from the wild?
The endangered Philippine forest turtles were discovered by authorities on Friday June 19, when a warehouse raid uncovered the animals stacked some 12 deep in crates without access to food and water. Law enforcement in the area believes that the turtles were just days away from being shipped out to China, where they would have been worth around $285,000 to those looking to breed them as pets and food.
The turtles are typically solitary creatures, and will fight with one another when placed in close quarters. This combined with the lack of access to food and water has left many turtles in need of veterinary care. A number of conservation organizations came together to provide immediate assistance for the animals, transforming unused crocodile ponds into makeshift turtle habitats and treating their wounds.
Thanks to the expedient efforts of conservationists and volunteers, around 3,000 of the turtles have been returned to the wild; The Dodo reports that an additional 246 or so remain in the care of experts, while several hundred perished.
While the discovery and rescue of the Philippine forest turtles is undoubtedly a victory, the status of the animals remains in jeopardy. As Rick Hudson, President of the Turtle Survival Alliance told Mongabay: “The future of this species could be hanging in the balance.”
Not only must the freed turtles survive the trauma that they have experienced, but they are also at risk of being seized by poachers again in the future. As Hudson explained: “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.”
All images courtesy the Katala Foundation