Conservationists say a mass-scale rescue operation in the Philippines has prevented the extinction of critically endangered turtles.
Described as one of the biggest ever wildlife rescues in the Philippines, an operation on the country's western island of Palawan has led to the discovery of 4,000 endangered turtles.
The freshwater reptiles, which were found in June in a dry concrete pond inside a warehouse, included 3,800 Palawan forest turtles. The endangered species is native to a small area at the northern end of the island, miles from where they were being held captive.
In a statement, director of the #link:http://www.turtleconservancy.org/crisis-in-philippines/:Philippine Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program#, Sabine Schoppe, referred to a "highly coordinated poaching event."
She said the animals had been kept in "terrible conditions", and had been deprived of food or water for as long as six months. A separate report from the Turtle Survival Alliance said the creatures were suffering from eye ulcers, dehydration and other health problems.
A population of loners
Schoppe referred to the forest turtles as an aggressive species that can't be kept in groups. Males in particular are known to defend their territory with vigor, which makes them inappropriate candidates for living in tight and enclosed spaces.
Schoppe said the size of the group found in June was equal to the estimated remaining wild population of the species, which brought it "to the brink of extinction."
Since the find, vets have been working non-stop to try and save as many animals as possible. Besides the 90 that were dead at the time of the raid, 360 more have since died, and another 230 are still being treated. The rest have been released back into the wild.
Although trapping or trading in the endangered reptiles carries jail terms and fines, authorities on the richly diverse island of Palawan have failed to prevent poaching. Exactly how the animals came to the warehouse is unknown, and the owner of the building has not been found.
The island of Palawan is rich in biodiversity. Conservationists want it to stay that way
Jennifer Lyn Yap of the #link:http://pcsd.gov.ph/:Palawan Council for Sustainable Development# believes the animals would all have perished or faced a life in captivity.
"Our assumption is they would have ended in the Chinese markets, where they are sought after as food or pets," Yap said.
The turtles, which were first described in 1920, were thought extinct following the Second World War firebombing of Manila. It wasn't until 2001 during an assessment of wildlife on Palawan that they were rediscovered.