Establishing a Refuge for the Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle

Philippines

Thanks to generous support from our donors, we have successfully reached our fundraising goal for this project.

  • A young Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle. Photo by N. Cegalerba and J. Szwemberg

The Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle is among the 25 most threatened turtle species in the world. An enigmatic freshwater species endemic to the island of Palawan in the Philippines, the Palawan Forest Turtle was surrounded by more misconceptions than almost any other turtle in the region. For over 80 years, it’s true geographic distribution in the Philippines remained a mystery – until a recent discovery on Palawan. Unfortunately, this important discovery has spurred a collecting frenzy to supply illegal wildlife markets. The lack of reserves and parks protecting the species has exacerbated the illegal trapping of the Palawan Forest Turtle.

The range of the species is limited to the north of the island. Preliminary population surveys throughout its range indicate that it is concentrated in just two municipalities, Roxas and Taytay. Subpopulations of the Palawan Forest Turtle in Taytay are likely to be the source of most illegally caught turtles that are available in the trade. This has led to local extinction in some areas in Taytay, making Roxas a priority conservation area for the species.

Rainforest Trust and our local partner Katala Foundation seek $299,178 to support a comprehensive strategy to protect key habitat for the Palawan Forest Turtle. The strategy will focus on securing two key areas which will result in a 4,578-acre protected landscape in the heart of the Palawan Forest Turtle habitat.

 

Biodiversity

  • Close-up view of a Palawan Forest Turtle. Photo by N. Cegalerba and J. Szwemberg

The Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle is a highly aquatic species with site fidelity to an extremely narrow environment, preferring cool streams with dense riverine vegetation and soft river bottoms and banks. These preferences make swamp forests the perfect habitat for the species. Swamp forests store and accumulate large amounts of carbon. In fact, peat swamp forests are among the largest near-surface reserves of terrestrial organic carbon. Unfortunately, only a few swamp forests remain today in Palawan, most having been converted to agricultural lands, primarily rice paddy fields.

With the support of Rainforest Trust, our partner recently conducted a Rapid Biological Assessment where over 100 vertebrate species were documented within the proposed protected area, 34 percent of which are endemic to the Palawan islands and 15 percent are considered threatened by IUCN. Most notably was the abundance of the Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle. It is estimated that these protected areas contain over 30 percent of the remaining wild population, confirming the area’s suitability as turtle habitat. This heartening news bodes well for the possibility of safely reintroducing captive-bred or confiscated specimens. Other important species found include the Endangered Palawan Horned Frog and Philippine Pangolin, as well as the Vulnerable Philippine Flat-headed Frog, Busuanga Wart Frog, Griffin’s Keel-scaled Tree Skink, Philippine Porcupine, Palawan Binturong, Palawan Bearded Pig and Asian Small-clawed Otter.

 

Challenges

  • A truck full of confiscated Palawan Forest Turtles. Photo by Katala Foundation.

The main threats to the Palawan Forest Turtle are over-collection for the illegal pet trade and the lack of adequately protected areas for the species. In addition, the rapidly expanding network of rice paddy fields along streams and lowland swamp forest have meant almost all of the turtles’ habitat has been destroyed.

Another threat comes from migrants contributing significantly to local population growth. These families practice traditional slash and burn farming and are in essence illegally squatting as they do not possess their own farmland (but the practice is usually tolerated unless a conflict arises). Known as kaingin, these small landholdings of about 12 acres replace primary forest with fruit trees, rice, vegetables and other staples for an ever-growing family. These plots grow larger and larger as the family grows until such time that the original fields need to be left fallow to rejuvenate for re-planting. The only way to halt this destruction is by placing the land under official government protection or by outright purchase for conservation use.

 

Communities

  • Members of the community have been a part of a turtle crisis education campaign. Photo by Katala Foundation.

Mendoza is one of 31 barangays under the jurisdiction of the municipality of Roxas. The community is composed of seven sitios with 319 households and a total population of 1,337, the majority of which are indigenous Cuyunon and the remainder are migrants. Three of the seven sitios are in the direct vicinity of the proposed protected area.

At the start of the campaign, many objected to the establishment of a protected area, but our partner has coordinated lectures, community gatherings and interview surveys to raise awareness on the turtle crisis. Upon learning the purpose and process of creating a refuge for these turtles, as well as the creation of additional livelihood options, the majority of communities are now in support.

 

 Solutions

  • Research on Palawan Forest Turtles will fill knowledge gaps and help recommend the best way to conserve the species. Photo by N. Cegalerba and J. Szwemberg

Rainforest Trust seeks a total of $299,178 to support our local partner in purchasing a 26-acre private parcel and establishing a new 4,552-acre permanent protected area in Mendoza for the Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle. The landowners of the private property have agreed to halt slash and burn practices, while the larger proposed area has already been delineated and numerous meetings and public consultations have been conducted with the local community to gain the recent majority vote in favor of the new protected area. A management board will be created to shepherd the proposal for the creation of the new area as Critical Habitat under Philippine law. Once both are accomplished, they will provide 4,578 acres of protected habitat for the Palawan Forest Turtle and other threatened species.