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‘SET FREE THE TURTLES’

DENR orders Rainforest Park to release endangered species and show papers for other zoo animals

/ 07:34 AM March 07, 2013

Owners of a private mini-zoo in Cebu City have agreed to set free five sea turtles being displayed in a concrete and glass aquarium, and to improve the upkeep of other animals in their care.

They were reminded that as an endangered species, Hawksbill turtles should be left in the wild.

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The conditions and paperwork of other animals in the BG Rainforest Park Cebu are being reviewed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) following a report that some wildlife, including a Philippine crocodile, several bird species and a Burmese python, had no permits.

Visitors were also allowed to touch critically endangered wildlife like tarsiers and a Philippine spotted deer, which is harmful to the rare animals.

FEATURED STORIES

“Mere possession of the Hawksbill turtle is illegal so we asked them to release them immediately,” said Al Orolfo, regional technical director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Coastal Zone and Management Services of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

The turtles were hatchlings that were the size of a palm of a hand when they were donated to the year-old mini-zoo, said Butch Guillen, president and CEO of BG Rainforest Park Cebu.

“We told DENR that we agree that the turtles will be released this Saturday,” said Guillen.

“We are fully committed to support the conservation and protection of wildlife as we are advocating preservation of the environment and natural resources. We are willing to cooperate with DENR on how we could improve handling our animals,” Guillen said.

In a DENR technical conference last Tuesday, zoo representatives were told to submit an action plan to correct lapses noted in the care and maintenance of wildlife kept in the facility. A deadline of April 8 was set.

Guillen promised to submit the papers of each animal, a Wildlife Registration Certificate and Wildlife management plan.

The facility opened to the public in August, 2011 and has a “Clearance to Operate” a zoological park and botanical garden issued by the DENR.

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As part of its conditions, all wildlife species must be acquired from sources with permits from the DENR or accredited wildlife rescue centers.

The DENR said an inventory conducted in Nov. 12 last year showed there were 104 species in Rainforest Park Cebu. This includes 15 species of mammals, 16 species of reptiles and 73 bird species.

There were 34 wildlife fauna of which 24 are considered threatened species.

Of the 24, “five are critically endangered, 17 are endangered and two are listed vulnerable,” said Ariel Rica, chief of the DENR’s Biodiversity and Wildlife Management Section.

Among the animals zoo owners were asked to produce permits for are Philippine crocodile, Hawksbill turtle, Tarictic Hornbill, Philippine spotted deer, Philippine hawk eagle, Philippine eagle owl, Burmese python, Chattering Lory, Blue Lorikeets, Philippine tarsier, and Philippine crested eagle.

“We are asking for the legality of the sources of the species,” said Orolfo.

FIRST IN CEBU

Guillen said Rainforest Park in F. Cabahug Street was a first of its kind in Cebu City with three permanent caretakers trained in wildlife handling.

(The public zoo, operated by the Cebu City government in barangay Kalunasan , has long suffered from lack of funding, facilities and maintenance and has a limited collection of animals.)

“We came up with this so Cebu would have a tourist destination. We are amenable to the suggestions of DENR. We are open to their suggestions. Our goal is to promote public awareness and environmental conservation,” Guillen said.

DENR issued a notice of violation against BG Rainforest Park Cebu on Nov. 15, 2012 for failing to submit documents to prove they acquired the wildlife legally.

The review stemmed from a complaint from a private citizen to the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) which reached the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau headed by Theresa Mundita Lim in Manila. Lim asked the DENR in Cebu to look into the complaint.

Guillen told CDN the complainant was the spouse of a former zoo employee who was let go.

In an interview, Guillen assured that all their animals were acquired legally from sources accredited by DENR. “We acquired those endangered species in a legal way. We bought them or some were donated,” Guillen said.

The Hawksbill turtles, he said, were donated by a friend of his daughter when the sea mammals were still hatchlings. “We weren’t able to ask for individual certificates at the time when we bought them because we didn’t know there were individual certifications. I don’t know why they say it’s poorly managed when we have veterinarians, consultants. These animals are well fed,” he said.

He said the zoo kept some of these species for breeding like the Visayan spotted deer and the Philippine crocodile. But Orolfo said BG Rainforest Park needs a separate wildlife farm permit if it wants to run a wildlife breeding farm for conservation, trade or scientific purposes.

TURTLE MONITORING

A monitoring of the Hawksbill turtles in the zoo was made by marine scientists of the non-profit convservation group Physalus at the request of DENR.

Physalus is the same group studying the whalesharks of Oslob town as part of its Large Marine Vertebrates (Lamave) project in the Philippines.

It observed that the turtles were cramped inside concrete tanks about 1 cubic meter in size with a glass in front for viewing. “The turtles appear to be stressed and in poor skin condition due to inappropriate water quality, ventilation…according to the caretaker, they are fed only once a day with frozen shrimps,” says Alessandro Ponzo, Physalus president in his report.

Rica, DENR’s chief of the Biodiversity and Wildlife Management Section, said that when they first inspected the zoo, the turtles were still hatchlings.

“These should be released in the wild in an area that is carefully protected by the Bantay Dagat,” Rica said.

DISTURBING ANIMALS

Visitor access to the animals needs to be regulated. A distance must be kept to avoid disturbing the animals, said DENR.

“Upon inspection of your facility by the BWMS and PAWD, they noted some violations or lapses in the care and maintenance of the wildlife in your facility particularly putting five juvenile Hawksbill turtles in a small water tank and allowing visitors to touch a Philippine Spotted deer which are both critically endangered wildlife species,” DENR-7 Regional Executive Director Isabelo Montejo told Guillen in a letter dated February 18, 2013.

Ponzo of Physalus said the Philippine eagle owl and grass owls were kept awake and “forced to interact with the tourists” because they lack hiding places and had to stay in improperly designed cages.

“All of the birds show evident sign of stress and poor health conditions,” Ponzo said. He said nine tarsiers were placed in a cage.

Ponzo said he observed some unsupervised visitors touching the tarsiers. Sizes of some cages were too small, unshaded, and poorly maintained.

“There must be a space between the tourist and the animals to avoid stressing the animals. No glaring camera flashes, and other regulations must be imposed,” Orolfo told CDN.

Republic Act 9147 or the Conservation and Protection of Wildlife Resources and their Habitats Act seeks to protect wildife species.

Among the illegal acts listed are killing and destroying wildlife species, trading, collecting, hunting or possessing wildlife, inflicting injury which cripples and/or impairs the reproductive system of wildlife species.

The DENR technical conference last March 5 was attended by Butch and Bon Carlo Guillen of BG Rainforest Park Cebu.

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