endangered animals

Residents, local officials band together to protect Debangan Island’s sea turtles

Kenjie Lamo
Residents, local officials band together to protect Debangan Island’s sea turtles

TOURIST DRAW. A sea turtle swims in the waters of Debangan Island.

Municipality of Taytay

Green turtles are Debangan Island's main tourist attraction. Residents, NGOs, and local officials are in talks to protect the endangered species.

Ilonggo, a green turtle (Chelonia mydas), is the newest attraction in Debangan Island which is a three- to four-hour boat ride from the Taytay mainland in Palawan.

Ilonggo – who was named by children in the island – and other green turtles have settled in Debangan Island, which is known for its pristine waters, colorful coral reefs, and long stretch of white sand beaches.

Island local Rudy Ferrer said that sea turtles have made Debangan their pit stop while hopping from one island to another. 

For many years, Debangan residents relied solely on fishing. But in 2018, the island started gaining public attention because of its sea turtles as more tourists visited the island to swim with them. The turtles’ amiable nature won the hearts of locals and visitors, eventually making green turtles Debangan’s main attraction. 

The sea turtles have allowed Debangan to develop its ecotourism and help the local economy. But the island’s growing popularity also poses a threat to the sea turtles, as increased interaction with humans may also put them in harm’s way.

Sea turtles at risk

The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) has reminded the Debangan community of this very threat.

“It is still possible to interact with the sea turtles while preventing harm at the same time through limiting the extent of the interaction to simply taking pictures and watching them from a distance,” said PCSD spokesperson Jovic Fabello.

Fabello noted that riding, holding, and restraining the sea turtles are violations of Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act. Tourists must also be discouraged from disturbing the turtles’ nests, he added.

Fabello warned that increased interaction with humans may affect the turtles’ survival instincts, such as the ability to find food, shelter, and even evading predators and finding suitable mates.Fabello pointed out that this is because continued human interaction may affect the sea turtles’ imprinting process to wildlife.

A peaceful coexistence with these creatures is key to providing them a safe place for their species to continue to thrive in the island, he added. 

Green turtles are classified as endangered. The World Wildlife Fund said that they are “threatened by overharvesting of their eggs, hunting of adults, being caught in fishing gear, and loss of nesting beach sites.”

For his part, Debangan resident Ferrer believed that while the sea turtles’ growing popularity is a livelihood opportunity, it should also be sustainable.

“For me, the best thing is developing this as an ecotourism attraction. But first, the concerned agencies must come up with specific and clear set of guidelines in favor of the protection and sustainability of the marine ecosystem,” Ferrer said.

Saving the turtles

As of this writing, Ferrer and his fellow Debangan residents are in talks with several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the local government on the protection of the sea turtles.

The Taytay Tourism Office said it has laid out solutions to both manage the island’s growing ecotourism and take care of its sea turtles.

“At the moment, we have already established a community-based sustainable tourism organization in Debangan. They will manage all tourism activities in the area. As locals, they will be on the island all the time and we will equip them with the right knowledge and skills on managing wildlife observation tourism activities like the sea turtle watching that will be offered in Debangan,” said Taytay tourism officer Joie Matillano.

Matillano added that they have also started regulating the number of tourists visiting the island so as not to overexpose the sea turtles, especially when they feed and reproduce.

But while the local government has outlined some steps to take care of Debangan’s newest attraction, the conservation of the island’s sea turtles is still a joint effort of environment authorities and the community.

“People should come to realize that everything is interconnected with each other, living and non-living things alike. The fact is that wildlife and environment can co-exist without humans, but humans cannot exist without the environment,” Fabello said.

“If we tend to neglect the caring of other species and our environment, everything will cease to a halt,” he added. – Rappler.com

Kenjie Lamo wrote this story as a final output for the Association of Young Environmental Journalists’ Green Beat Program, an intensive virtual environmental journalism training for young writers and journalists.