The Philippine government is set to accept today (Thursday) the return of five Philippine sailfin lizards that were smuggled into Hong Kong earlier this year.

The lizards will return to the Philippines on board Philippine Airlines Flight PR 319 scheduled to arrive at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport at around 3:30 in the afternoon. They will be brought to the National Wildlife Research and Rescue Center of the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) for care and rehabilitation before their possible release to their natural habitat.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Ramon J. P. Paje said that the repatriation of the five reptiles is an affirmation of Hong Kong’s support to Philippine wildlife conservation. “Their government has a high regard for our own domestic wildlife policy, knowing that the Philippines has a highly diverse flora and fauna,” he said.

He said that the Philippine sailfin lizard, locally known as ibid, is endemic to the Philippines and is classified “vulnerable” under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The lizards were among the wild animals smuggled from the Philippines to Hong Kong on February 8, 2012 by a certain Chinese national named Zhang Wenwei on board a Cebu Pacific flight. Customs officials of the Hong Kong International Airport promptly confiscated the animals in Zhang’s baggage and charged him under domestic policies.

Zhang’s “loot” included 18 Philippine pond turtles and 13 Asian box turtles that were also returned to the Philippines last April 27. He was subsequently convicted for cruelty to animals and illegal importation of species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. He was also penalized with a fine of HK$8,000 (PhP45,000).

Since their confiscation in February, the lizards had been under the temporary custody and care of the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.

Paje said that the repatriation was the result of a request by the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) to Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD). The request was approved last Monday (June 4).

He also thanked Philippine Consul-General Noel Servigon and Vice-Consul Lorena Joy Banagodos for assisting the PAWB in making the detailed arrangements with the AFCD and the Kadoorie Farm for the return of the animals.

According to PAWB Director Theresa Mundita Lim, the Philippine sailfin lizard (scientific name: Hydrosaurus pustulatus) is so-called because of its characteristic “sail,” a crest of tooth-like scales that run from the nape down to the back, that provides a driving force when the lizard swims. She also said their large, flattened toes enable them to “run” across the water’s surface.

Adult lizards are usually greenish-gray in color and can measure up to a meter in length. They feed on a wide variety of plant parts, as well as on insects and crustaceans.

The Philippine sailfin lizard is also known as sailfin water lizard, crested lizard, and Soa-soa water lizard. It has been recorded in the Luzon and Mindanao mainlands, and on the islands of Polillo, Mindoro, Negros, Cebu, Guimaras, Masbate, Tablas, Romblon, Sibuyan, Catanduanes, Dinagat and Panay.