Establishing a Refuge for the Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle
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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, its 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.
The Palawan Forest Turtle depends on specific areas of lowland swamp forest habitat. The species’ narrow elevational range and specific habitat requirements mean that the Palawan Forest Turtle is extremely range-restricted. In addition, almost all lowland swamp forest has been converted into rice paddy fields and little remains intact so all suitable habitat remaining is vital for the long-term survival of the species.
Rainforest Trust urgently seeks $174,429 to support our local partner Katala Foundation to purchase a 26-acre private property that would otherwise be deforested. Since the area is private land, the only way to protect this key site is by purchasing it. Once purchased, our partner will establish the Palawan Forest Turtle Reserve to provide a safe haven for the species. By preventing the conversion of this vital habitat to rice paddy fields and monitoring it to prohibit the illegal collection of the species, this reserve is a big step forward to protect the Palawan Forest Turtle.
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.
Our partner released over 230 Palawan Forest Turtles around this site for rehabilitation after confiscation in 2015. These released individuals compose about 23 percent of the current Palawan Forest Turtle population in the region. Regular monitoring from 2015 to 2016 showed that the area has the 3rd highest recapture rate among 10 release sites. The low dispersal and high site fidelity of the translocated turtles is an important prerequisite for the successful management and protection of the released turtles.
The proposed conservation site is also habitat for Endangered Palawan Pangolins and will provide a vital refuge for the species as pangolins are currently the most trafficked mammals in the world.
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. This tiny 26-acre property and surrounding watershed could in theory hold as much as 5 percent of the global population. Based on current rates of loss for lowland swamp forest, the remaining priority forest within this watershed – along with the turtle – is expected to disappear within the next three years if this project is not implemented. Destruction of key habitat for the species will continue in the coming years without formal protection, and with each passing year the value of remaining sites will increase.
This conservation opportunity’s timing is important. The property owner has not yet cleared the lowland rainforest swamp and is in the process of selling the property. Our partner quickly responded and signed a purchase agreement with the landowner with Rainforest Trust support. In return, the owner has ceased any forest clearance and burning on the site and will allow our partner to take over management of the site in June.
Members of the community have been a part of a turtle crisis education campaign. Photo by Katala Foundation.
Despite the lack of human settlements within the reserve, the area faces increasing external pressures from expanding rice production. To raise awareness on the turtle crisis, our partner has coordinated lectures, community gatherings and interview surveys. In addition, establishing this reserve will likely lead to a concerted effort to create a watershed-level protected area. This effort may also lead to a national protected area, given the current interest in this effort by the Department of Natural Resources.
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 $174,429 to help our local partner purchase the 26-acre private property and establish the Palawan Forest Turtle Reserve. The landowners have already agreed to halt slash-and-burn practices and rice cultivation and, after establishing the reserve, the site will be fenced and monitored to prevent intrusion. Since the local government bodies are supportive of conservation in the region, our partner will begin negotiations to designate additional forest sites across the larger Sandoval Critical Habitat as a government reserve after establishing the Palawan Forest Turtle Reserve. This landscape-wide protection will safeguard key natural populations of the Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle and provide a haven for the reintroduced rescued turtles.