DOH team accused of turtle eggs poaching in Tawi-Tawi
They are now walking on egg shells.
A medical team from the Department of Health is in hot water for allegedly smuggling eggs of endangered marine turtles, locally known as “pawikan,” from Turtle Islands, a protected wildlife sanctuary in the southern province of Tawi-Tawi.
Local environment officials have filed a complaint against Dr. Sangkula Laja, provincial health officer of Tawi-Tawi, after his team shipped out last year over 5,000 pieces of green turtle (Chelonia mydas) eggs, documents obtained by INQUIRER.net showed.
“The eggs were hidden in five carton boxes and were only visible when Dr. Sangkula personally distributed the eggs to his staff in “sando” bags aboard a Navy vessel,” a witness, who requested anonymity, said Thursday.
Poaching of endangered marine turtles and their eggs is punishable under the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act. Violators could face jail time of up to 6 years and fines of up to P500,000.
Laja, in a letter to Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial, explained that the eggs were actually a farewell gift from the locals during a medical and dental mission conducted from July 18 to 22 last year in the remote fishing towns of Turtle Islands and Mapun.
“It is (customary for them) to give gifts such as eggs to guests visiting their island municipality,” Laja wrote. “Locals also gave visitors who were with us fresh turtle eggs.”
For breakfast, they even had eggs of the endangered reptiles.
“During our stay in Turtle Islands, we were served breakfast with boiled turtle eggs at the house of a local leader,” he said.
Laja and his team were aware of this strict wildlife law.
“Admittedly, and to my consternation, many of our team members were given with such gift despite my policy of prohibiting the acceptance of such gifts and/or buying them as it is prohibited under the law,” he said.
The physician said he emphasized this policy during the annual mission’s pre-departure meeting.
“But I wish to state the irony anent such prohibition as I am made aware that some of the sources of these eggs came from those who I believe were supposed to be protecting the eggs of the endangered green turtles,” Laja said.
But the witness said the eggs were not sendoff gifts. The DOH personnel, he said, bought them.
“It is not customary for the people in Turtle Islands to give boiled marine turtle eggs as sendoff gifts,” he said. “The DENR-BMB national office has been very active in the municipality in addressing the issue on harvesting turtle eggs.”
“This doesn’t surprise me at all. Not anymore,” said Romeo Trono, member of the Marine Turtle Specialists Group under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
“In all probability, gathering and selling of turtle eggs in the Turtle Islands even in the Strict Protectionj Zone in Baguan Island is happening every day, every night,” he said.
During peak nesting season from July to September, tens of thousands of green turtle eggs are being sold illegally, Trono said.
Most of these eggs end up in Sandakan, a neighboring city in Sabah on the northeastern coast of Borneo.
Last year, a single enforcement operation netted 19,000 eggs, a local newspaper in Sabah reported.
‘Grave abuse of power’
Conservation groups believe punitive actions are necessary to make people aware that environmental crimes should not be taken lightly.
In a joint statement sent to INQUIRER.net, they said the action of the medical-dental team “shows grave abuse of power from those who are expected to uphold the law.”
“Illegal wildlife trade is a serious crime against humanity and future generations,” said Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines director A.A. Yaptinchay, Save Philippine Seas executive director Anna Oposa, and Greenpeace ocean campaigner Vince Cinches.
They urged the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the local government units to “strengthen their enforcement efforts and hold these government officials accountable (for) their actions.”
Asking for clemency
Ubial endorsed Laja’s letter to Environment Secretary Gina Lopez.
“The said head official recounts the circumstances surrounding the incident and asks for clemency for him and the team,” Ubial wrote.
Laja even declared his “commitment from now on to help preserve the natural resources of Tawi- Tawi,” she said.
“May this matter be treated with compassion and forgiveness,” she said.
Trono called on the DENR to deploy conservation personnel from its head office to, at the minimum, secure Baguan Island.
Unlike the five other islands comprising Turtle Islands, the 29-hectare Baguan is off limits to human habitation.
A strictly no-take zone, Baguan produces about 50 percent of eggs production in the entire municipality of Turtle Islands, said Trono.
Last year, the protected wildlife sanctuary produced an estimated 1.8 million eggs. On the shores of Baguan alone, 14,220 green turtle nests were recorded in 2011, breaking the previous record of 12,311 nests in 1995. The 2011 figures translate to 2,844 nesting green turtles and 1.44 million turtle eggs laid.
Focusing on the protection of Baguan was a key strategy employed by the Pawikan Conservation Project of the former Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (now Biodiversity Management Bureau) of the DENR during the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in the protection of at least 10 million eggs.
“Many of the hatchlings that emerged from Baguan Island during those two decades are now returningj to their natal beaches to nest,” Trono said. “This means more turtle eggs can now be harvested illegally.”
He added: “If we are really serious in conserving marine turtles and sustain the increasing trend of nesting, stricter enforcement and monitoring is seriously needed now more than ever.” /atm/rga
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