Saving marine turtles from extinction

(Second of Two Parts)

“(Marine turtles) are majestic creatures found throughout the country. However, because of poaching, theft of their eggs for commercial purposes, and destruction of their habitat, they are in danger of becoming extinct.” – Senator Loren Legarda


Marine turtles are one of the longest-lived creatures Earth has ever known. Individual turtles can survive for centuries, bearing silent witness to epic swaths of human swagger. These air-breathing reptiles live their long legendary lives mostly in the sea.

Unknowingly, human beings hardly know them. All they understand is that this type of turtles belongs to the order Chelonia, an order of reptiles that has existed and flourished since pre-history.

“They’re a mystery,” commented Dr. Archie Carr, a visionary herpetologist who earned the moniker “Father of Marine Turtle Research.” And despite so many studies conducted on them, they remain vague. “I don’t know any branch of science where we have applied so much effort and learned so little,” complained Dr. Richard Byles of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

If marine turtles survived in the past, they may become soon extinct. “Today, man’s need for survival has endangered the very existence of these sea-dwelling creatures,” wrote Jonas H. Liwag in an article published in Mabuhay. “All over the world, these reptiles are threatened with extinction by indifferent and relentless commercial exploitation.”
Marine turtles are killed for meat and leather; their eggs are taken for food and aphrodisiacs. Their nesting sites have to go for development. They are ground up by dredges, run over by pleasure boats, poisoned by pollution, strangled by trash, and drowned by fishing and net.

Marine turtles need to be saved – if they have to survive in the Philippine waters. In Davao City, a marine turtle sanctuary in Punta Dumalag was established to serve as home and sanctuary of some of the marine turtles thriving in the Davao Gulf waters.

But that’s going ahead of the story. A long, long time ago, Punta Dumalag was an isolated island. People had to ride an outrigger (banca) to go to the area. In 1962, a freak storm washed-in sand to its shore that created a natural land bridge during low tide. In the late 1970s, developers came, dumped more sand and gravel and cemented the land bridge. Today, it is now connected to Matina Aplaya.

As a result, the former island is now teeming with houses and people. Some resorts built comes cottages near the shore. During summer and weekends, the beach fronts are full of people. Far from the island, you can see fishing cages.

But what the newer generations don’t know is that the entire island was — it still is! — a nesting ground of marine turtles, particularly Hawksbill turtle. Known in the science world as Eretmocheyls imbricata, it is now considered “critically endangered” because they were hunted for its “shell” which was used for guitar picks, combs and bracelets, among others.
There were also some sightings of Green Sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) and Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) in the area.

Marine turtles spend most of their life in the sea and get all the things they need there. They even mate in the sea. It has been said that most female marine turtles come ashore several times every two to three years to nest. And they usually go in the same place where they were hatched.

“If you imagine a first-time nester approaching its place of birth, how much do you think of its birth place or nesting beach remains over the last 35-50 years?” asked Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, founder and director of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines. “I would guess there would be very little space left for it to nest and enough disturbance developed to shoo it away. We are preventing them from fulfilling their life purpose. For me this is very tragic.”

The late councilor Leonardo Avila III was very much aware of this. That was the reason why he sponsored a bill which led to the declaration of the 37 hectares of Punta Dumalag as nesting ground for marine turtles. The government also created the Task Force Pawikan Davao, whose primary objective is to protect and conserve the marine reptiles.

Enter the Aboitiz Group, which owns eight hectares in the southeastern portion of the island. As its corporate responsibility, the power company decided to convert the place into a biodiversity learning center, which would be managed by its subsidiary, the Davao Light and Power Company (DLPC).

One of its main objectives is to save the critically-endangered marine turtles. “They are on the verge of extinction because of habitat loss due to coastal development and human settlement,” said Fermin Edillon, the community relations officer of DLPC.

The 2-kilometer stretch of white sand peninsula of Punta Dumalag was once called the Marine Turtle Sanctuary. It is part of the 37-hectare Marine Protected Area that was established through Council Resolution No. 02504-03. Swimming and fishing are not allowed in the area.

Rodolfo Manib, Jr., the 51-year-old DLPC caretaker, grew up in the area. He said that when he was still young, he used to see a lot of marine turtles nesting the beach fronts. Some children took these eggs to their homes and cooked them.

This was in the past. Today, whenever he sees a marine turtle laying eggs, he tries not to disturb it. Once the mother is gone, he carefully handpicks the eggs and transfers them to higher area so the seawater could not reach the eggs. The hatching area is also surrounded with screen to keep away natural predators.

Once the eggs are hatched, the hatchlings are released into the sea. Only the sides are dug; the hatchlings are allowed to emerge and eventually crawl towards the shoreline. “Only one hatchling survives out of every 100 to become an adult,” says Edillon.

Imprinting purposes is the reason cited why the hatchlings are not helped when they emerge from the nest and crawl towards the sea. “The hatchlings make an imprint, which is called magnetic field imprinting in their nest and in the sand, and another imprinting called chemical imprinting in the sea. This enables them to identify the area of the nest where they were laid, and after 20-25 years, the surviving one percent of these hatchlings will come back here to lay eggs,” Edillon was once quoted as saying.

Although man learned only very few things about marine turtles, recent studies have shown some progress. Each marine turtle species reportedly exhibits a distinctive behavior, habitat preferences and diet requirements. But in terms of reproduction, they share some behavioral similarities.

“Under this particularly life stage of marine turtle is critical to its conservation and management since it is during this period that they are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of human activities,” wrote Marizal Calpito and Lourdes P. Calacal in an article published in Canopy International.

If left alone, marine turtles would survive several centuries. In March 2006, a news dispatch reported of a giant tortoise said to be as old as 250 years which died in a Calcutta zoo. “Having been taken to India by British sailors, records suggest, during the reign of King George II,” the news said.

Three months later, newspapers around the world noted the passing of Harriet, a Galapagos tortoise that died in the Australia Zoo at age 176 – 171 years after Charles Darwin “plucked her from her equatorial home.”

Behind such Biblical longevity is the marine turtle’s stubborn refusal to senesce – to grow old. As such, don’t be fooled by the wrinkles, the halting gait and the rheumy gaze.

Here’s something for Ripley’s Believe It or Not: Researchers lately have been astonished to discover that in contrast to nearly every other animal studied, a turtle’s organs do not gradually break down or become less efficient over time.

But the question remains: Will marine turtles still exist in the next century?