The ultimate patriots, the Pawikans (Filipino for Marine Turtles) return after 25-30 years and go back to where they were hatched to lay eggs. This cycle remained unbroken for ages until recently when these beautiful sea animals have become highly threatened for extinction, due to poaching and hunting- their numbers are alarmingly dwindling. The time is now to take action. Read on and learn how you or your organization can help.
About 4 hours away from Manila is the sleepy fishing village of Nagbalayong in the town of Morong on the Bataan Peninsula. Along a patch of sandy coastal road a tiny place fenced with aged bamboo and a driftwood sign with the name Pawikan Conservation Center written on it greeted us. The coastline where Pawikan Conservation Centre sits is home to the original nesting sites of the Olive Ridley turtle species. We were greeted by Mr Manolo Ibias one of the center’s leaders, who is a former poacher himself but now one of the staunchest defenders of the pawikans. We were then introduced to a gathering of some of the volunteers having after dinner rounds of local whiskey mixed with congenial and spirited conversations about the challenges of turtle conservation, community development and environmental protection. And thus, counting the hours away before we would join them doing night patrolling the beaches, we listened to their stories.
Photo by Racaza
Called as Pawikans in most local dialects in the Philippines, the marine turtles are reptiles related to snakes, lizards and dinosaurs. Being cold-blooded creatures, their body temperatures fluctuate with the environment and they have a pair of lungs that need to breathe every few minutes while swimming unknown distances in the vast seas. Marine turtles have powerful flippers which help the pawikans navigate but cannot retract into their protective shells called carapace which sets them apart from their freshwater relatives that can easily hide their heads and legs inside their bony shells.
Most marine turtles (especially the male ones) spend their entire lives at sea while the females come to their nesting beach during the coldest months of the year to lay their eggs (which look and feel like soft and leathery ping-pong balls). If the clutch of eggs is lucky enough not to be eaten by many predatory animals like lizards, crabs or taken by poachers, these eggs will hatch after 40-60 days depending on the temperature of the sand. The volunteers and Department of Environment Natural Resources (DENR) regularly patrol the beaches at night (as this is the time when turtles lay their eggs) to gather them and bring them to the centre’s hatchery where they are more protected until they hatch and are subsequently released back into the sea.
Photo by Dave Ryan
During the Pawikan Festival which is usually held every end of November, involves the release of these super cute baby turtles racing into the sea where they will feed, grow and explore the vast oceans only to return one day back to the beaches where they were hatched when they are ready to lat their own eggs. However, this would have been a perfect scenario if not for the years and years of poaching and gathering of eggs and killing these gentle creatures for meat as a staple for the people of these coastal villages – not only in Nagbalayong in Morong, Bataan but all throughout the world. Likewise, the shells and skins have been used for many illegal by-products like combs, guitars and other ornaments. It is no secret as well that a lot of the Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Chinese regularly poach in Philippine waters and they do so with so much impunity. Sadly, such activities have received a lukewarm response from the Philippine government like the case a few years ago where a boatload of Chinese fishermen were caught entering Philippine waters illegally and fishing in the protected and UNESCO World Heritage area – the Tubbataha Reef. Because of severe pressure from powerful Beijing, these criminals were released with nary a punishment or even an outcry. Next time you sit down in a restaurant in Hong Kong or wherever around the world- remember that the turtle soup or the sharks fin soup that you are having for dinner meant that you are part and complicit in the tacit rape and murder not only of Philippine seas but our Mother Nature as well. With the survival of these creatures already challenged with a lot of these turtles falling prey to birds, crabs, sharks and many other natural predators, the thought of someone having turtle eggs for their misconceived aphrodisiac is just totally sickening.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Because of this only 1-3% of baby turtles ever reach maturity. Since 1999 when a Bataan community organization called Bantay Pawikan Inc. (a duly registered people’s organization) was initiated in the town of Morong with just 28 men composed of former egg poachers and sellers, over 40,000 turtles were successfully released into the sea. The program was met with opposition at first, with the local community thinking that this was one of Manila’s antics of taking over their community. Gradually, people were able to realize that this was a valid initiative and that the turtles are one of the major lynchpins in the entire ecological cycle. Soon enough, with the help of the provincial government of Bataan (which I say is doing an awesome job initiating environmentally friendly tourism projects) as well as the United Nations, Pawikan Conservation Unit of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, other communities and groups in neighboring towns followed suit and replicated the conservation efforts.
Today, many challenges remain, though never insurmountable. The group still needs a regular veterinarian, and the costs of medicines for rescued turtles as well as maintenance of the center which could use a facelift. There is also a need for increased support to the communities through better access to livelihood programs and better education for its populace. I hope that by raising awareness about the plight of these marine turtles as well as the communities that protect them, everyone could take positive action and help out in preserving not only the pawikans, or our national marine heritage, but our environment as well.
Photo by Dave Ryan
How to Help
Share this webpage around. Blog it. Link back. Volunteer. If you are a company, you may want to include Bantay Pawikan in your Corporate Social Responsibility projects. Donate in cash or in kind.
You may deposit it through this bank account-
Landbank of the Philippines- Balanga City (Bataan) Branch
Bank Account Name : Bantay Pawikan Inc. Livelihood Project
Address: Purok VI-Aplaya, Nagbalayong, Morong Bataan
Account Number : 0441-1942-26
Bantay Pawikan Inc. – (Nida- +63.928.7185721/ Manolo- +63.906.6155546) firstname.lastname@example.org ; or if you wish to visit the centre and don’t know how, the lovely folks at Bataan Tourism can certainly help you (+6347.2374476/+6347.2374785) – email@example.com.