COTABATO CITY, Philippines – Bangsamoro region officials on Wednesday, February 1, sounded alarm bells over the black market trade of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the Sulu Sea.
The warning came even as authorities pointed to the killing of 15 green sea turtles that infuriated officials of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
The endangered turtles, caught in the Sulu Sea, were allegedly to be sold to foreign buyers.
The green sea turtle, a species of marine turtle found in warm and tropical waters, has been declared endangered as a result of hunting and loss of habitat, among other factors.
Rosslaini Alonto-Sinarimbo, the director-general of the BARMM Ministry of Trade, Investments, and Tourism (MTIT), said the apprehension of a group of villagers in Sulu in late January highlighted the illegal practices of locals who were enticed by the promise of making quick profits.
Sinarimbo said the MTIT and other concerned BARMM offices would take immediate action to stop the illegal trade.
“These locals believe they could earn big time from illegal catching and killing of our sea turtles. They do not know that protecting the turtles would bring in more tourism money to their villages. Tourists would want to see these gentle sea creatures,” Sinarimbo said.
She said the BARMM Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MENRE), Ministry of the Interior and Local Government (MILG), local governments, MTIT, and environmental advocates were collaborating for a public awareness campaign for the protection of the endangered species.
The Maritime police arrested eight men from Pangutaran for illegal possession of 15 dead green sea turtles during a raid in Sitio Puh Higad, Barangay Bubuan in Hadji Panglima Tahil town in Sulu on January 22.
The suspects were identified as the following:
- Sawah Mnu Habil
- Albakre Jammad Basari
- Jal Hambay Sali
- Asdarun Jamil Akasa
- Sanibe Dirong Saali
- Mulsin Hamid Mahamod
- Mahadil Siri Mahamod
- Marvin Haril
Police also seized five motorized boats loaded with 15 dead green sea turtles.
Authorities said the turtles were allegedly about to be sold on the black market to Chinese buyers.
The incident also alarmed the region’s officials because the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary, a major nesting ground for the endangered species, is close to the area where the turtles were caught.
The sanctuary, part of Tawi-Tawi, is bounded by the Sulu and Mindanao seas in the western and northern portions and by the Celebes Sea on the eastern and southern tip. It was established as a protected area in 1999.
The suspects are facing charges under the Wildlife Conservation Act and the law against catching rare, threatened, or endangered species.
Based on RA 9147, the penalty for hunting and trading wildlife ranges from two to four years of imprisonment and/or a fine of P30,000 to P300,000 for hunting, and P5,000 to P300,000 for trading.
“People in the area need to understand the value of sea turtles,” Sinarimbo said.
BARMM Environment Minister Akmad Brahim blamed the flourishing illegal trade on the lack of awareness among people about environmental protection.
Brahim said the region’s environment ministry would step up operations to thwart such illegal activities especially in areas where fishing has been strictly regulated or restricted.
“We are closely coordinating with local officials and are glad our local residents are cooperating,” he said.
Brahim said the sanctuary areas for sea turtles and other endangered species need to have more security.
In the Bangsamoro parliament in Cotabato City, climate change and environmental protection advocate Baileng Utto-Mantawil proposed a law to strengthen multi-agency efforts on education and information dissemination for the protection and preservation of marine wildlife.
If approved, the local governments, MILG, MENRE, and the Fisheries Bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Agrarian Reform (MAFAR) would be tasked to work together in carrying out the campaign.
“We must collaborate our efforts to take care of our island provinces, the forefront of tourism and investment opportunities, and our wildlife in the ocean,” Mantawil said.
The area where the sea turtles were caught is close to a group of islands in the Sulu Archipelago which is a major nesting ground for the endangered green sea turtles in Southeast Asia.
Each year, more than 2,000 turtles make their way to the sanctuary to lay their eggs, but only a small percentage reach adulthood due to natural predators. Aggravating this are the poachers.
The 242,967-hectare sanctuary covers the islands of Baguan, Taganak, Boan, Great Bakkungan, Langaan, and Lihiman, and their surrounding waters.
The Philippines is also working with Indonesia and Malaysia to protect marine turtles in the region. In 2001, the three countries signed an agreement on the conservation and management of marine turtles along their borders. – Rappler.com
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