MANILA, September 29, 2005
 (MALAYA) Did you know that the Philippines is a haven for the sea turtle, or "pawikan?"

Out of the seven species of sea turtle, the Philippines is home to five of these heroes in a half-shell.

The pawikan has been around for 200 million years, but to this day very little is known about it. After it is born it leaves and spends most of its life traveling the seas. The female pawikan can’t seem to let go of her hometown. Every three years, she returns to the exact same beach where she was born to lay hundreds of eggs. We can therefore claim hundreds of pawikans as "Philippine citizens."

During a pawikan’s lifetime, scientists only have two opportunities to study it: when it is born and when it comes ashore to lay its eggs. This makes the Philippines incredibly important to worldwide efforts to protect this creature. Aside from being a nesting site for hundreds of turtles, our islands also lie along the migratory routes of various species of sea turtles from the Asia Pacific region.

Recently, the Turtle Islands Heritage Park (TIHPA) was formed out of nine islands in the Sulu-Sabah area. These areas have been declared sanctuaries for sea turtles by law, to be jointly managed by the Philippine and Malaysian governments. Many wildlife NGOs, such as WWF Philippines, use these islands as a home station to study these mysterious creatures that have been around since the time of the dinosaur.

When it’s time for the female pawikan to have her children, she crawls from the shore towards the dry sand where she digs a nest to lay a hundred or more eggs. Observers have reported seeing tears flow from the female pawikan’s eyes as she lays her eggs. After she finishes laying her clutch, she will carefully cover her nest with sand and crawl back to the ocean, returning after another three years to bear more children.

Turtle eggs fall prey to human poachers and animal predators during the two-month incubation period. Once they have hatched, the turtle hatchlings have to dodge predators such as crabs, sea gulls, vultures, dogs, and ants on their journey to the sea. They often mistake the lights of buildings for the moon and crawl in the wrong direction. The few that make it to the sea and survive the predators there will return once again to the beach where they were born to lay their own eggs.

What the hatchlings do and where they go during their early years in the open sea remains a mystery. Some turtle conservation programs have begun putting satellite tags on the adult sea turtles so we can track where the turtles go. However, there is still no device that can be put on the babies without making them sink.

Worldwide, pawikans are being ruthlessly hunted down by humans and killed for their meat and oil. Their shells are made into luxury items such as tortoise shell eyeglass frames, lighters, and combs.

Locally, egg poaching on islands with sea turtle populations is the biggest threat that the pawikan faces. The eggs, which are thought as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, are sold in local markets and eaten in soup or other dishes.

Meanwhile, increasing development and pollution are also destroying the pawikan’s nesting and feeding grounds. Many adult turtles swallow fishhooks or get caught in fishing nets and drown.

There are a number of sea turtle conservation projects here in the Philippines that have been saving thousands of mothers and hatchlings in the country. The efforts of these conservationists have resulted in more pawikans returning to Philippines shores, but the fate of the sea turtle is still grim. Today, the sea turtle is on the brink of extinction.

2006 holds good news for the sea turtle, however. The UN recently created an intergovernmental agreement to protect, conserve, replenish, and recover sea turtles and their environment in the Indian Ocean Southeast Asian region. The IOSEA Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding brought together officials and experts from 25 countries in the region in a three-day conference, and on the final day an official agreement dedicating the coming year to the protection of the sea turtle was signed. Thus, 2006 is officially the Year of the Turtle.

The Philippines was one of the countries to sign the agreement, and currently the IOSEA is working with various government and non-government organizations in the Philippines in preparation for this exciting global event.

"The conference represents a symbolic turning point and the first time the problems of marine turtles are seriously discussed among so many governments with a common commitment to take action," said Douglas Hykke, head of the UN secretariat overseeing the activities of the IOSEA MoU.

And so the future is looking a little brighter for the pawikan—a remarkable creature who has been around for hundreds of centuries, but needs our help to reach a few hundred more.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved