No one knows how many Philippine forest turtles (Siebenrockiella leytensis) are left in the wild, but however many there are, the number is rapidly shrinking thanks to illegal trade, says Pierre Fidenci, President of Endangered Species International in San Francisco.

Once believed to be extinct, the forest turtle was rediscovered in 2001 when scientists found several turtles for sale in a local market. Since then, a single population has been located on the island of Palawan, but it is already dwindlng. "In some creeks where the Philippine forest turtle used be abundant, it is now very difficult to find it, if not impossible," Fidenci says.

Why the decline? The turtle is so rare, and so striking, it has become highly desirable in the pet trade, says Fidenci. Over the last four years, ESI staff have found more than 170 turtles for sale at pet markets in Manila. ESI found that the turtles were kept hidden in the back of stores and brought to potential buyers only when it was felt that there were no risks involved. "There is no doubt that more than 500 turtles are sold every year," Fidenci says. The species is legally protected in the Philippines, but enforcement is rare.

The species' rediscovery in the wild was, Fidenci says, "the trigger for its sharp decline. Demand amongst pet traders for this enigmatic and rare turtle was immediately rampant." ESI investigations have found the turtles selling for between $50 and $75 in the Philippines, but after export to Japan, Europe and the United States, prices skyrocketed as high as $2,500 each, says Fidenci.

The group has pressed local authorities to target illegal traders in Palawan, but nothing much has happened. So far, it’s “business as usual and no actions have been undertaken to really stop the trade because there is a lack of leadership to move forward," says Fidenci.

So how can the turtle be saved? Fidenci is calling for the creation of a special unit to monitor illegal trade and creation of alternative livelihoods for the people who are catching turtles in the wild. One approach he advocates is to transform “traders into conservationists and reward them for their protection achievement." Since the turtles' habitat is just 150 km by 50 km, Fidenci says this wouldn't require much in the way of resources, and "we can achieve our goal in saving this turtle from becoming extinct."

Image: Philippine forest turtle © Pierre Fidenci. Used with permission.