By Chino Gaston
PUERTO PRINCESA, Palawan - I feel my anger building within, as the number of sea turtle carcasses piled on the concrete pier continued to be grow.
More than a dozen turtles in varying degrees of decay were already rotting in the sun as policemen struggled to transfer each carcass from a small boat onto the pier.
These were gentle and beautiful sea creatures, mercilessly butchered for profit. That these graceful denizens of the deep were killed by Chinese fishermen conspiring with a few of my countrymen makes the crime even more painful.
It was ironic that despite the increasing tension between both countries, a handful of Chinese and Filipino fishermen were cooperating within disputed territorial waters to do something as destructive as poaching endangered wildlife.
The stench is overpowering as I move between the lifeless hulks of shell and putrefied flesh. The bigger hawksbill turtles, over a meter long and weighing close to 100 kilograms, seem frozen in repose, lidded eyes half-closed, their mouths set in an almost serene smile.
I try to nudge one turtle with my foot, hoping it would show signs of life. But these turtles would never perform their graceful ballet over the coral reefs they once called home.
Smaller species of turtle had also perished within the cramped hold of the ship and lay alongside their bigger brethren. To the casual passerby, they looked like baby hawksbills.
A particularly large turtle was missing its right flipper. The wound had long healed, a short stump replacing the severed appendage. It was an injustice that this grand old dame of the sea had survived for so long with its handicap, only to die at the hands of men.
Any scuba diver will tell you that it is a privilege to see sea turtles in the wild. The shy giants are inquisitive creatures that often swim with divers above the reef. I've seen them before, their large, bulging eyes peering at at from behind rocks, curious and always gentle.
I swallow an upwelling choke and soldier on with coverage.
Call it Slaughter Shoal
For hundreds of years, fishermen have considered sea turtles as harbingers of hope and good luck.
Yet here they lie, slaughtered, suffocated or starved to death, prisoners within the hold of the Chinese fishing boat moored a few meters away. The very men who looked to them once for good fortune, had become their executioners.
Eleven Chinese fishermen were arrested by members of the PNP Martime Group while patrolling Hasa-Hasa Shoal, some 80 nautical miles off the coast of Palawan. A group of five Filipino fishermen was also arrested aboard a separate boat that was laden with around 70 live sea turtles.
Disputed territory or not, environmentalists in Palawan like Gerthie Anda, a lawyer with the Environmental Legal Assistance Council or ELAC, says the large-scale slaughter of endangered wildlife is a travesty to be condemned by both countries.
"We have enough international and national laws to protect our marine environment and conserve wildlife. The full force of these laws must be applied."
A member of the police team that made the arrests agreed to speak to us on condition of anonymity.
He said the Chinese were slaughtering the turtles while anchored near the shoal, where sea turtles are in abundance. He says severed heads and discarded entrails of the turtles littered the reef.
"We no longer call it Hasa-Hasa Shoal. Slaughter Shoal is more appropriate.", he says with a dark, grim smile.
The Filipinos arrested near the area were allegedly part of the operation. "The Filipinos catch the turtles and sell them to the Chinese," he said.
A video clip from the arrest showed live turtles swimming inside the hull of the ship in what looked like a make-shift holding tank. The deck, on the other hand, was stained red from the blood of the newly-butchered turtles. Over a hundred of the aquatic reptiles lay upside down, their throats slit.
Freezers full of turtle meat were discovered inside the ship as were as over 200 stuffed turtles and 76 turtle shells.
Our source believes the operation is being financed by local wildlife poaching syndicates who take advantage of the government's limited monitoring and patrolling capabilities, especially in the high seas.
He says there were indications that the illegal trade between the Chinese and Filipino fishermen had been going on for quite some time.
For instance, the captain of the captured Chinese vessel already possesed a smattering of Filipino words when he was interrogated by the police.
Both Chinese and Filipino fishermen have already been charged with violations of environmental laws before the Palawan Provincial Prosecutor's Office.
This could mean imprisonment for up to 12 years but the offense is bailable, which means the perpetrators can go free once they pay the reccommended bail bond.
Survivors released into the sea
Thankfully, not all turtles within the Chinese ship had perished. Over 177 turtles were still alive and released into the sea.
As the large turtles were released into Honda Bay in Puerto Princesa, they promptly dove into the water and disappeared from sight.
The smaller ones were already weakened from their ordeal and lay limp in the hands of their rescuers. But as the policemen carrying them neared the water, they seemed to come alive, their small flippers rotating like propellers at the sight and smell of water.
One small turtle briefly floated on the surface, seemingly unsure of its freedom. Then, with a flurry of its flippers it seemed to wave goodbye before disappearing under the waves.