PUERTO PRINCESA CITY - Authorities in Palawan confiscated on Thursday a shipment of 4,200 critically endangered forest turtles that are believed to be destined for the Chinese black market with an estimated value of around P18 million (S$533,000).
The endangered animals, comprised mostly of highly valued "Siebenrockiella leytensis", also known as the Philippine pond turtle, were rescued in a warehouse owned by a Chinese trader living in Bataraza town near the southernmost tip of the province.
Alex Marcaida, Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS) information head, told Inquirer that the raiding team, composed of PCSD enforcers and members of the Provincial Law Enforcement Task Force, were preparing to file charges against a certain Peter Lei, said to be a Chinese national but a long-time resident in the area and owner of the warehouse.
Lei was not present during the raid on Thursday morning in Barangay Rio Tuba, Bataraza. Arrested during the raid was the caretaker of the facility, identified as Albar Abdurakib.
The turtles were turned over to a government-run rehabilitation facility, the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center, and Katala Foundation in preparation for their release in the wild, according to Marcaida.
Marcaida said that at least 90 turtles were already dead when they conducted the raid.
The wildlife shipment, according to one of the enforcement team members, was being prepared for shipment to China, where the turtles are in demand both as food and as pet.
Marcaida said they believed the turtles were collected mainly from various parts of northern Palawan where the endangered species are believed to be abundant.
"The black market rate in China for these species is around $200 a kilo," Marcaida said.
Marcaida said they were preparing charges against the trader for violation of the Philippine Wildlife Act, Republic Act No. 9147.
The raid on Thursday was not the first case of poaching discovered in Palawan.
On April 8, 2013, 12 Chinese nationals were arrested and charged with poaching and attempted bribery after their boat got stuck on Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.
The marine park overseeing the reef said some 3,902 square meters (42,000 square feet) of centuries-old corals were destroyed by the Chinese fishing vessel.
Authorities also found hundreds of dead pangolins or anteaters, an internationally-protected species, hidden inside the vessel.
In August 2014, the 12 Chinese fishermen received prison terms ranging from five to 12 years after the Palawan Regional Trial Court (PRTC) found them guilty of illegal fishing and entry.
The poachers were also ordered to pay fines of P4.3 million each, or face an equivalent amount in "subsidiary imprisonment." Their boat was forfeited.
In May 2014, Philippine maritime police arrested 11 Chinese fishermen off Hasa-Hasa Shoal (Half Moon Shoal) after finding over 500 endangered marine turtles, most of them dead, on the fishermen's boat.
Two of the fishermen were sent home because they were minors.
The shoal lies 111 kilometers west of Palawan, the most westerly island in the Philippines.