Giant clams and corals for décor. Sharks for their fins, for soup. Pangolins, seahorses and snakes for their supposed medicinal properties. And sea turtles for their meat, also believed to bring health benefits. All these creatures have been confiscated in the past years by Philippine authorities from Chinese poachers venturing into waters way beyond their shores.
That the creatures are endangered or protected have not deterred the Chinese, even if their country acceded way back in 1981 to CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The Philippines, which ratified the treaty in the same year, has had its share of activities that threaten endangered wildlife. Unlike the Chinese, however, Filipino violators have largely kept their activities within national territory.
Chinese poachers have ventured as far as Palau, perhaps laying the groundwork for a territorial claim over the entire Pacific Ocean as they hunt for sharks and giant clams. In 2012, fishery and wildlife police in Palau, where shark fishing is banned, fired what officials described as warning shots at Chinese poachers, killing one of them and arresting the rest who burned down their own ship.
Chinese poachers have avoided Palau since then. But they continue to harvest endangered species all over the South China Sea, which they claim almost in its entirety. They have ventured even into the Sulu Sea, which may soon be covered by an expanded 18-Dash-Line territorial claim.
Sulu Sea, home to the Tubbataha Reefs World Heritage Site, opens out to the West Philippine Sea, near the spot 60 miles off the southern tip of Palawan where Philippine maritime police arrested on Tuesday morning 11 Chinese fishermen with a cargo of some 300 sea turtles. A boat with five Filipinos and about 40 turtles were intercepted along with the Chinese boat.
As in similar arrests in the past, Manila is again considering a Chinese demand for the release of the poachers. Unless the government starts dealing more firmly with the theft of its endangered wildlife, we will not see the end of this illegal activity, and it may even escalate.