3800 Critically Endangered Turtles Rescued From Shipping Crate

3800 Critically Endangered Turtles Rescued From Shipping Crate

Turtle experts used to believe there were fewer than 3,000 Philippine Forest Turtles left in the world.

So imagine their surprise and horror when on June 18 they stumbled across 3,800 of these turtles stacked on top of each other in a cement tank in a Chinese-owned warehouse in the Philippines.

Were thieves trying to steal an entire species of turtles?

These turtles are solitary creatures, and don’t like being in a group. As a result, many of them had injuries, in some cases bites from other turtles. Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), said the discovery was “shocking” and “a nightmare” in an email to supporters. “Injuries were obvious,” he wrote. “Turtles were dying. There was chaos.”

These rescued turtles had been snatched from their forest homes by an organized syndicate of poachers. 

“It appears that a businessman, a Chinese national in the Philippines, had stored them in a warehouse in large cement tanks, piled a dozen deep, awaiting export to China,” Dr. Brian D. Horne told Horne is the Wildlife Conservation Society’s coordinator for freshwater turtle and tortoise conservation.

The Discovery and Rescue

Here’s how the TSA announced the discovery of these turtles on Facebook on June 19: “Yesterday, authorities in Palawan confiscated more than 4,000 turtles. More than 3,800 of them were endemic Philippine Forest Turtles. This number exceeds our current understanding of the existing wild population, and it will take years to comprehend the effects of this massive, highly coordinated poaching event.”

“Due to the fact that some of them were so emaciated and in such bad shape, we suspect that some of them were there for up to six months,” Hudson said.

On July 7, the TSA posted this: “Thanks to the heroic efforts of the excellent team of first responders, over 3,000 turtles have been released back into native habitat. Reports from the field indicate that we are now down to 246 turtles in intensive care, all of which were recently moved to the Katala Institute for Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation’s (KIEBC) facility.“

What Do We Know About These Turtles?

The Philippine Forest Turtle is one of the most endangered turtle species in the world and is classified as critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). In fact, for a long time it was believed to be extinct, but then a few live specimens were observed in 2003 in Palawan, an island of the southern Philippines, the only place where it is known to live.

Because there are so few of these freshwater turtles, and not much is known about them, the Philippine Forest Turtle Project is working to learn more about the tiny creatures, with the goal of making sure that they are no longer an endangered species. The group is also working to preserve their fragile habitat.

Why Is The Philippine Forest Turtle Critically Endangered?

One of the challenges the Project faces is illegal trading, such as that revealed last month. Thankfully, this time authorities were able to discover one of the illegal shipment centers, but that probably won’t be enough to deter future poachers. The fact that this turtle is extremely rare makes it eminently desirable for collectors, especially in China, but also in other places around the world.

“What’s disturbing is the level of trade that we’re seeing,” says Horne. Ever since its rediscovery on Palawan “there’s been this collecting frenzy for the pet trade, and all of a sudden the Chinese have ramped that up, collecting large numbers for turtle farms and really driving the species to the brink.”

This is not a problem unique to Philippine Forest Turtles. Millions of turtles die each year to meet Chinese demand, with countries like Vietnam having depleted native populations to send them abroad. And 75 percent of Asia’s freshwater turtle and tortoise species are threatened, according to National Geographic.

It’s not just in China. I visited Chinatown in San Francisco recently, and was horrified to see crates of live turtles for sale in a fish market. What makes people want to eat these adorable creatures?

And do these poachers have no scruples?