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Cooperation key to saving Coral Triangle’s green turtles

Cooperation key to saving Coral Triangle’s green turtles

Johnny Langenheim

The Philippines is taking the lead in creating a transnational network of safe havens for green turtles in one of the species’ most important habitats

onservationists recently took a major step forward in their efforts to protect green turtles in the Coral Triangle with the establishment of a ‘turtle corridor’ in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape, which encompasses the territorial waters of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the Coral Triangle.

The announcement was made at an event hosted by environmental organisation Conservation International at the 12th Conference of Parties of the Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS COP 12), held last month in the Philippines.

One of the major challenges in conserving marine species – or even getting accurate data about them – is that they tend to ignore borders. For migratory species like the endangered green turtle, localized Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are not enough: turtle numbers are declining despite significant funds going towards their conservation.

The Marine Turtle Protected Area Network (MTPAN) aims to reverse this trend by connecting four MPAs in the Philippines as a first step towards establishing a transboundary network of safe havens for turtles across the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape – home to one of the biggest nesting populations of green turtles in the world.

Turtles are among the most iconic creatures in the ocean and their popularity with tourists makes them an important source of revenue for local communities. But they continue to be illegally exploited for their eggs and meat – considered a delicacy by communities throughout the region – and their shells, which are still used to make tourist souvenirs. They often end up as bycatch in commercial fishing nets and have to contend with coastal pollution and destruction of habitats like coral reefs and sea grass beds.

“If we are only protecting one area, and the other area is exploiting [turtles]… that is a problem,” said Minda Bairulla, Superintendent of the Turtle Island Wildlife Sanctuary – one of the four MTPAN marine parks in the Philippines. “We are affected by our neighbours who do not protect their marine ecosystems,” she added.

A ranger from Tubbataha marine park in the Philippines returns a tagged turtle to the ocean
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 A ranger from Tubbataha marine park in the Philippines returns a tagged turtle to the ocean Photograph: Johnny Langenheim

Tubbataha National Park in the Philippines illustrates the point. It’s an important developmental habitat for green turtles, who stay there for between 13-23 years. “But if they don’t have a safe haven [elsewhere]…to lay their eggs, then we won’t have them in the future,” said Angelique Songco, the Park’s Superintendent.

Though turtles are the figurehead of the MTPAN, the project is also a crucial opportunity for the three countries to cooperate in managing shared marine resources effectively. By extension, a trilateral strategy to protect turtles also conserves key ecosystems that local people rely on for their livelihoods.

In 2009, the six Coral Triangle countries (Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste) established the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries & Food Security (CTI-CFF) in recognition of the interrelated nature of the six million sq km bio-region. Projects like MTPAN offer the possibility of putting policy into practice and establishing a model that can be replicated in other regions.

However, if MTPAN is to have real world impact, all three countries will have to come on board, while each of the 11 member MPAs will need to effectively managed in their own right.

“Each MPA needs to be strong in itself; then we collaborate to be an even stronger force,” said Angelique Songco.

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