Note: This photo-essay appeared in the 14-20 Mar 2014 issue of the weekly FilAm Star in San Francisco, CA with the title: "Celebrating inaugural World Wildlife Day 2014 / Going wild for sea turtles in Zambales, Bataan, Batangas". The author is the Special News/Photo Correspondent-Philippines of the said paper.
Our non-government organization (NGO) chairperson asked me if I am joining the trip home during the weekend to release baby turtles (they’re called hatchlings) on Monday, 03 March, and she said a representative of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) would be coming with us.
Our Katimpuyog Zambales, Inc., together with eighteen volunteer fisherfolks who call themselves La Paz Rangers organized our town-based PawiCare San Narciso, a pawikan (sea turtle) protection and conservation program. PawiCare stands for pawikan care that would involve a diligent sea turtle watch by the rangers: monitoring sea turtles nesting onshore, tagging them before they return to the sea, protecting the eggs by transferring them to the hatchery we built, and releasing hatchlings to the sea, all these to help conserve the marine species and thereby helping maintain ecological balance in the fishing grounds.
The rangers went on patrol from nightfall until the wee hours of the morning, scouring the four-kilometer coastal stretch for adult sea turtles who come to nest, measuring and tagging them before they’re released back to the West Philippine Sea, recovering the eggs with extreme care and re-nesting them at the hatchery. They tell about the night when four pawikans landed. Two patrols had to deal with four simultaneous nestings, and they could not assist each other because the nests were so far apart!
In the past, eggs were hunted for the market and the dining table. Poaching has now ended in our town, thanks to these volunteers and the support of the barangay council and the town government.
The nesting season is from October to March. We thought the season has ended with the release of the last batch of hatchlings on 03 March. Two days later, however, the rangers found a nester with 90 eggs, which they will care for at the hatchery until hatchlings emerge from their sand nest in 45 to 70 days.
During the season, especially when the eggs started hatching, friends and visitors flocked to the hatchery to see how baby turtles look like. If they came early morning or around sunset, they possibly had a chance to release hatchlings to the sea. It’s from them that PawiCare depended partly for material and financial support.
All in all, there were 53 adult sea turtles that laid 3,490 eggs from which 3,384 hatchlings emerged. This was part of around 23,000 hatchlings released to the sea that DENR-EMB reported in their annual report for 2013.
Our La Paz coastal area is the favorite nesting ground of the Olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea). There are four other species that nest in other places in the country, one is critically endangered, the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) , and the others including the Olive ridley are endangered: Green turtle (Chelonia mydas), the Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea).
On that Sunday trip to Zambales, I was told that the next day’s fun-filled event at our La Paz hatchery area was part of the inaugural World Wildlife Day celebration around the globe, in the 179 countries signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The Philippines would have celebrations also in three other coastal areas. Hatchlings would be released at our site and at the pawikan center in Nagbalayong, Morong, Bataan. Juvenile and sub-adult species would be released at Tali Beach in Nasugbu and in Anilao, both in Batangas province. San Juan, La Union could have been another site, but the season is really over and there were more hatchlings to release.
As an aside: Nagbalayong had their 13th Pawikan Festival on 30 November, while our La Paz group held our 1st Pawikan Festival on 28 December, in 2013.
The chairman of an inland barangay of our town came with his family to join our coastal event. They brought a juvenile Olive ridley that they had kept as a pet for four years. This long domesticity had made the turtle disoriented, and it was obvious when it was brought to the sea, and it had become too friendly with people. We thought it better to bring it to the Ocean Adventure in Subic for rehabilitation. The attending veterinarian said it may take quite some time for it to learn how to get familiar with the deep sea and how to hunt for food before it could be liberated at sea.
In Tali Beach, Nasugbu, three Green sea turtles were released, one of them a rescued sub-adult, and two were juveniles turned over by concerned citizens and rehabbed at the Manila Ocean Park (MOP) since August. In Anilao, two juveniles were released, a Green and a Hawksbill from MOP.
All these coastal events were conducted jointly by the local community, friends of sea turtles, and representatives of DENR-BMB, the national leader for the inaugural celebration, which carried the theme “Everybody has a role in wildlife conservation.”
At the Ninoy Aquino Park and Wildlife Center in Quezon City, the day’s programme organized by the DENR-BMB included a forum on wildlife research development focusing on the state of Philippine birds, herpetology, mammal research, barcoding of life, and Philippine flora.
These were our country’s response to the call of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to “go wild for wildlife, protect diversity, halt trafficking,” in his first World Wildlife Day message. He reminded that “[f]or millennia,people and cultures have relied on nature’s rich diversity of wild plants and animals for food, clothing, medicine and spiritual sustenance. Wildlife remains integral to our future through its essential role in science, technology and recreation, as well as its place in our continued heritage.”
The UN General Assembly proclaimed 03 March as World Wildlife Day on 20 December 2013 during its 68th Session. It’s now a special day in the UN calendar. That also marked the day the CITES was signed 41 years ago in 1973.
The inaugural celebration gave the international community opportunity to “celebrate the many beautiful and varied forms of wild fauna and flora; raise awareness of the multitude of benefits that wildlife provides to people, and of the urgent need to step up the fight against wildlife crime, which has wide-ranging economic, environmental and social impacts.”
While John E. Scanlon, CITES Secretary General, invited everyone to the celebration, he reminded also that wildlife today suffers from habitat loss and is gravely threatened by illegal trade. He spoke of “collective responsibility - as citizens and consumers - to bring the illegal wildlife trade to an end.”
Netizens worldwide were mobilized under the hash tag #WorldWildlifeDay and the slogan “let’s go wild for wildlife.” People heeded the call, and special events were organized in the 179 CITES signatory countries.
China was reported to have started mobilizing their first Word Wildlife Day celebrations as early as January 2014 in schools, zoos and nature parks, and in public and private venues. There’s an interesting account about the launch of a campaign in Liaoning Province to have restaurants there take away the names of exotic animals from their menus. In the CITES news updates, former NBA star Yao Ming, a member of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, was reported to have proposed that China should make ivory sales illegal.
Thailand promoted public awareness programs on wildlife conservation in the non-hunting area of Chonburi Province to protect endangered species and restore forest areas. In India, they held several village-level awareness programs about wildlife in tiger reserves to stop wildlife crime.
The main event in Zimbabwe was held at the Hwange National Park, its largest protected area, with the theme “Wildlife Protection for Community Empowerment and National Economic Development”. They could not forget that last year, 115 elephants were lost in Hwange and vicinities due to wildlife cyanide poisoning.
Kenya had “Our Wildlife, My responsibility, My Heritage” as theme, and their focus was to stop illegal wildlife crime. Last year, they lost 50 rhinos and 300 elephants to poachers.
Peru launched the national campaign on illegal wildlife trafficking. The country is one of 12 mega-diverse countries in the world with more than 25,000 flora species, about 10 percent of the world’s diversity. Some 400 species including the huge Andean condor are facing extinction.
“Everybody has a role,” our DENR-BMB strongly reminds, “in conservation.” The agency has listed threatened Philippine flora and fauna, which can be critically endangered species (like the popular tamaraw, dugong, Philippine eagle, Hawksbill turtle, Philippine crocodile, among others), endangered (like the four other sea turtles), vulnerable (like the Philippine eagle-owl); other threatened species like the Philippine tarsier; and other wildlife species, non-threatened but may become threatened due to causes like predation or loss of habitat.
The CITES list contains all the threatened species of wildlife in the world. “While the threats to wildlife are great,” Ban ki-Moon said, “we can reduce them through our collective efforts. ... I urge all sectors of society to end illegal wildlife trafficking and commit to trading and using wild plants and animals sustainably and equitably. Let us work for a future where people and wildlife coexist in harmony. Let’s go wild for wildlife!”