Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon J. P. Paje today expressed appreciation for the gesture shown by Hongkong authorities in facilitating the repatriation of 36 Philippine turtles.

“We are most thankful for the cooperation shown by Hongkong authorities. The seizure and eventual repatriation of the smuggled 36 turtles will go a long way in strengthening the campaign against illegal wildlife trade within the region,” Paje said.

Of the 36 seized turtles, 20 are Philippine pond turtles (Siebenrockiela leytensis), considered one of the rarest turtle species in the world and found only in Palawan. It is also categorized as “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The remaining 16 are Malayan box turtles (Cuora amboinens), also categorized as “vulnerable” in the Philippines, although it is also found thriving in other tropical countries of Southeast Asia.

According to Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau Director Theresa Mundita Lim, both turtle species are covered by Republic Act No. 9147, otherwise known as the Philippine Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act. “Under the Philippine wildlife law, trafficking specifically of the Philippine pond turtles is punishable by a six-year prison term or a fine of up to a million pesos,” Lim said.

Records gathered by Lim’s office showed that the seized turtles were part of the cargo on board Cebu Pacific Airlines which left the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) on February 8, 2012.

“It was obvious that extra effort was taken by the Hongkong airport and wildlife officers to have these turtles properly handled and processed pursuant to the provisions of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES,” Lim said, explaining that China is one of CITES’s 175 signatory countries.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China.

Lim also cited the support of the Palawan local government and the Katala Foundation, Inc. (KFI), a Palawan-based non-government organization, which worked with the DENR to protect and conserve Philippine wildlife species, particularly the Philippine cockatoo and other threatened endemic wildlife in Palawan.

KFI and the Palawan provincial government helped foot the plane fare of the team that flew to Hong Kong to bring home the turtles.

“Being the first time for our country to be on the receiving end of repatriated seized wildlife species in accordance with CITES, the return of the Philippine turtles to Philippine waters is one more step to further solidify our collaborative ties with Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region of China, on wildlife conservation,” Lim explained.