Witnessing turtles nest and hatch

Story and Photos by Beau Baconguis

Watching a turtle hatchling crawl its way to the sea and swim away draws out a mix of emotions: exhilaration and hope, but at the same time, sadness and fear.

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The Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area is one place I never thought I would be able to reach in my lifetime until the opportunity was handed to me on a silver plate through the Turtle Conservation Society of the Philippines and the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities. These islands, nine in total, are located in waters shared by the Philippines and Malaysia and are considered as globally important nesting grounds for sea turtles. Six of the islands belong to the Philippines while three belong to Malaysia. Of the six Philippine islands, I was able to visit Taganak, the main island and seat of the municipal government, Great Bakkungan, Lihiman and Baguan.

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In Taganak and Baguan, I was able to witness turtles nesting while in Baguan, a strict protection zone, I documented Green turtle hatchlings crawl to the sea where it will spend most of its lifetime. Because of high predation rates from rodents, monitor lizards, sea birds and sharks only about 1% of them will grow to adulthood and return to the land of its birth for its turn to nest.

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In one case of turtle nestings we saw, one turtle was digging on an existing active nest which sacrificed the earlier eggs that were laid by another turtle. Our partners had to carefully extract some of the eggs that were still salvageable, dig a hole close by and cover it hoping that no monitor lizards will be able to smell the broken eggs and hunt for more eggs.

Sea turtles are listed under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix I, which means, harvesting them or their products for commercial use is prohibited. Despite this, some poaching and smuggling still occurs, further pushing the sea turtles to extinction. Turtles are also one of the species sensitive to climate change; a slight increase in temperature could mean gender imbalance.

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Despite CITES, an existing agreement between government and the local residents allows them to harvest 60% of the eggs while the 40% is set aside for conservation. How the 60/40 arrangement is enforced leaves questions in my mind. To me, it is more a case of government neglect and abuse that kept them poor and lacking in economic opportunities that forces them to harvest and sell eggs. Following the elections, they are hoping that their new leaders will finally take steps to lift them out of their poverty and save the pride of their islands, their clean environment and the sea turtles.

Beau Baconguis is a board member of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities.