Meet the Partners

Rapid response saves Critically Endangered turtle hatchlings from flooding

Dr Sabine Schoppe is the Director of Katala Foundation International’s Palawan Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program (PFTCP). ASAP is proud to have supported to the program through the ASAP Rapid Action Fund, supported by Fondation Segré. Read more about the project here.

We spoke to Sabine about conservation milestones and how the programme overcame impacts from La Niña in 2021-2022.

  1. Tell us about the Palawan Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program (PFTCP).

The Philippine Province of Palawan is home to four freshwater turtle species, two of which are threatened with extinction. The PFTCP addresses the conservation needs of these four species. Of special concern and focal species of the programme is the Palawan Forest Turtle Siebenrockiella leytensis which is endemic to the Province of Palawan where it can only be found over a range of some 2,700km2.

Its limited range of distribution and high exploitation rate makes it one of the 25 most threatened freshwater turtle species of the world. For the past 15 years, we implemented a holistic approach aimed at downgrading S. leytensis from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Our approach starts with research about the biology and ecology of the species, and the threats the species and its habitat are facing. Research knowledge and conservation needs are then fed back to the various stakeholder groups such as youth, decision makers, resource users (of the turtle and/or habitat), and relevant government offices.

This is subsequently followed by the establishment of local protected areas jointly managed by Katala Foundation Inc. (KFI), the local government and the communities from the area. Another arm of the PFTCP is the ex-situ conservation of the species through the maintenance of an assurance colony and conservation breeding at our Katala Institute for Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation (KIEBC) in Narra, Palawan. As I am writing, captive-bred hatching No. 31 – to be named “ASAP” – is about to face the challenges of a threatened turtle species.

  1. What is your role in the project, and what is an average day like for you? 

I designed the PFTCP in 2007 and I have been handling the programme ever since. In the early years I also conducted research under the programme, then I trained staff, and lately I am more and more occupied with the overall management, fundraising, reporting, staff management, monitoring visits to the various project sites, overseeing the wardening scheme to actively protect the three protected areas, sitting in the management boards of the protected areas, as well as coordinating projects and program work with the local authorities. I also engage with funders, continue to do data analysis, which explains why I am usually running short of time when in comes to publications!

Engaging in the management and conservation of threatened species in the wild and in captivity is a 24/7 job as you need to act on illegal acts observed, on issues in the protected areas, on health issues of your focal species, and concerns of your staff at any day of the week and any time of the day.

  1. What are some of the key milestones of PFTCP since its establishment? 

In 2006 we signed a Memorandum of Agreements first with the National authority, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and then with the Provincial authority, the Palawan Council for the Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS), to officially recognise PFTCP as the entity to address all concerns related to the species in collaboration with the government authorities.

In 2013 we established the first ever protected area for the Palawan Forest Turtle in Dumarao, Roxas, and in 2015 we rehabilitated and released some 4,000 Palawan Forest Turtles that were confiscated. This event came to be known as the Palawan Forest Turtle Crisis. Subsequently I was awarded the 2015 Andrew Sabin Family Foundation Prize for Excellence in Chelonian Conservation.

In 2017 we established two reserves for the Palawan Forest Turtle Reserve in Sandoval and Mendoza. In 2018 the local government of Roxas committed to financially assist the wardening scheme of the protected area and we also had our first ever captive-bred Palawan Forest Turtle hatchling at our assurance colony in KIEBC, Narra, Palawan.

In 2021 we had the successful release of the first captive-bred Palawan Forest Turtles in a protected area in Roxas and earlier this year we expanded the Palawan Forest Turtle Reserve in Sandoval by ten times its previous size.

  1. Palawan was hit by several typhoons and cyclones throughout 2021 and 2022. How was PFTCP affected and how did you respond? 

Strong rainstorms and typhoons are normal during the rainy season in Palawan, and an average of 20 tropical cyclones enter the Philippines yearly. The Philippines is the most exposed country in the world to tropical storms. What worsens the situation is the La Niña phenomenon, as we experienced in 2021 and 2022, which is characterised by stronger-than-usual rains. The tropical cyclones that entered during the northeast monsoon season between October and March further enhanced the wind and triggered floods, flashfloods, and rain-induced landslides, over susceptible areas.

On 10 October 2021, Narra, where KIEBC is located, was hit by typhoon Kompasu. In no time, KIEBC was flooded by some 60cm of water, and including the building where we kept turtle hatchlings in aquaria. Likewise, the outdoor enclosures where we kept juvenile and adults including their nesting areas got flooded, and the mass of water washed out eggs and displaced several turtles. We recovered most of them but lost three eggs that were about to hatch.

This loss called for urgent action and we were in touch with ASAP to see if the ASAP Species Rapid Action Fund would consider funding the construction of a hatchery. Within a few weeks we were excited to be notified about the approval of funding for our proposal! Construction started immediately with back-filling and elevating the area by 0.7m from the ground to make it flood-proof. The hatchery and the installation of a solar system to circulate water were completed in April this year. The hatchery can now accommodate at least 57 turtles at different development stages (20 late eggs, 25 hatchings, 12 small juveniles and up to 10 larger juveniles) for the first 12 months of their lives.

On 21 July 2022, we transferred the first 15 hatchlings of different ages to the hatchery. The 1st hatchling that was named “ASAP” emerged from its egg in the incubation cubicle of the hatchery on 14 November 2022.

New turtle hatchery under construction © Katala Foundation Inc.

  1. For the future of the Palawan Forest Turtle, what are your hopes and next steps for its conservation? 

We hope to continue managing existing, and expand new protected areas that are not only home to the Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle but also Critically Endangered species such as the Philippine Pangolin and other globally threatened species. We are also in the process of finalising management plans for these existing protected areas

Our team will continue to raise awareness about the conservation needs of the Palawan Forest Turtle, while persisting in our conservation breeding efforts to replenish overexploited wild populations and ensuring the species’s in the wild. As for next steps we also hope to establish a Stud book for the Palawan Forest Turtle and develop a species management plan together with national and international partners.

  1. Is there anything you would like to ask or share with the ASAP Partnership? 

We are happy to have ASAP as a partner. The “ASAP” acronym does not only stand for Asian Species Action Partnership but holds what we best know it for “as soon as possible”. If not for the rapid response to our needs, we would have had losses again this 2022 rainy season.

A juvenile Palawan Forest Turtle being transferred to one of the pools © Katala Foundation Inc.

Featured image by Katala Foundation Inc.

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