Scientists refer to sea turtles as the only living
remnants of the dinosaur age, but maybe not for long. Unless sincere
efforts are undertaken, sea turtles might follow dinosaurs into extinction.
Sea turtles, popularly known in the Philippines as pawikan, belong to
the sub-order Cryptodira, and to the families Dermochelyidae and Cheloniidae.
There are more than 220 species of turtles in the world, but only seven
are considered marine (saltwater). Five of these species are present
in the Philippines. These are the Green (Chelonia mydas). Hawksbill
(Eretmochelys imbricata), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Olive Ridley
(Lepidochelys olivacea) and the Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea).
Turtles are the only reptiles with shells. Scientists claim that turtles
have been here for more than 150 million years now, surviving the age
of dinosaurs. Using their shells as protectors, they have adapted well
to all types of weather, surviving the most rigid climatic changes.
A typical Philippine Sea Turtle weighs between 180 to 210 kilograms
and, unlike land turtles, cannot retract its head and limbs under its
streamlined shell. It has large upper eyelids that protect its eyes,
but has no external ear opening. Awkward on land, it is more active
and graceful in the water, traveling as fast as 32 kilometers per hour
using its long paddle-like fore and hind flippers.
Sea turtles vary in color - olive-green, yellow, greenish-brown, or
black. The most common species in the Philippines is the Green Sea Turtle,
which is also found in all tropical and sub-tropical seas. Its most
distinct feature is a more blunt and wider head than that of the Hawksbill
Turtle. It grows up to 1.5 meters long and weighs up to 185 kilograms.
The largest species is the Leatherback Turtle, which grows more than
two meters in length. The Hawksbill Turtle, as its name suggests, can
be identified with its pointed beak and attractively marked shell of
overlapping plates. On the other hand, the Loggerhead Turtle is known
for its disproportionately bulky head. Of the five Philippine species,
only the Olive Ridley Turtle is considered as carnivorous.
The last century saw the fastest decline in sea turtle population in
the world. In the Philippines alone, thousands of sea turtles were plucked
out of the wildlife to supply the heavy demand for turtle by-products
such as wall décor, jewelry pieces, guitars, bags and shoes.
Called the Pawikan trade, it was responsible for bringing about 32,921
kilos of Hawksbill bekko out of the country to the lucrative Japanese
market, deemed as the world's largest importer of sea turtles.
Even more disturbing is the news that, aside from Filipino fishermen,
foreign poachers are also exploiting the remaining stocks. On March
25, 1995, four Chinese vessels were caught carrying live and dead sea
turtles in Philippine waters.
The Philippine government has launched the Pawikan Conservation Project
(PCP), whose task is to secure the protection of all Philippine Sea
Turtles. In addition, nine islands between Malaysia and the Philippines
were renamed as the Turtle Islands, which serve as the largest green
turtle sanctuary in Southeast Asia. Sadly however, pawikan hunting remains
unabated elsewhere. Such efforts will go for naught unless people in
the area cooperate. To help secure the existence of the Philippine Sea
Turtles, coordinate with the Pawikan Conservation Project (Telephone
Number: 63-2-9246031 to 35).