Youth Eco-Scout Rescues Endangered Turtle in the Philippines

by Martin Nanawa, ChildFund Philippines

Twenty-year-old Necie “Nice” wasn’t precisely sure how she’d stare down five of the local tambays [idle men] in her neighborhood. But something had to be done.

A turtle with seemingly nine lives. Photo courtesy of Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Earlier in the day, a neighbor had caught a peculiar-looking turtle in the Agos River. By evening, the turtle was in a plastic basin, and it looked like it might soon be served as pulutan [finger-food] for the local tambays when they gathered for a drink. Nice wasn’t sure, but the turtle looked like a pawikan, a sea turtle, to her.

The most remarkable thing happened, however. The turtle managed to jump from the basin, and slip away unnoticed. In the confusion following its disappearance, Nice joined the search. She had no intention of helping her neighbors reacquire their meal; Nice was an Eco-Scout, and she knew she had to save that turtle.

Organized and trained by ChildFund and its local partner in the Philippines province of Quezon, the Ecological Scouts, or Eco-Scouts, are young environmental advocates age 10 to 21. Cognizant of Quezon’s rich and yet delicate ecology, ChildFund provides young people with training in biodiversity and environmental conservation techniques. Over the past two years, the Eco-Scouts have produced videos and materials to build understanding and support for environmental issues pertinent to Quezon.

Through her Eco-Scout training, Nice knew pawikans were endangered. She wondered, however, what one of these turtles would be doing so far inland, and in freshwater. She had to find it before the others did so she could explore the mystery further.

By sheer luck, Nice did find the turtle. She picked it up, and made a break for it, running past the tambays. When accosted over her precious cargo, Nice warned them of the steep penalties they would face under environmental protection laws if they harmed the turtle. Having that bit of legal knowledge from her Eco-Scout training came in handy. Her quick feet and equally quick wit got her home with the turtle. Not entirely sure what to do next, she reported the situation to her Eco-Scout trainer, ChildFund’s Erwin Galido. He contacted the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to arrange the turtle’s turnover. Nice would have to babysit the reptile until the DENR arrived.

youth and chilldren with turtle and basin of water

Nice shows the rare turtle to children in her neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

In the two days it took DENR reps to reach Nice’s home, she’d taken a liking to her little guest, whom she named Pauie. Nice and her cousin Ken would forage for moss to feed Pauie. During one of their forays, Ken and Nice returned to discover that the intrepid turtle had escaped again, but they were quickly able to find her.

DENR representatives retrieved Pauie and took her to the neighboring town of Real. It was there they determined Pauie was not, in fact, a sea turtle, but an even rarer and more endangered species—the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle (pelochelys cantorii). Unique to only a few Asian geographies, Cantor’s softshell was last seen in the Philippines in 2001, in neighboring Isabela province. Regional sitings have been equally rare, with the last recorded sighting in Cambodia in 2003. The Cantor’s softshell turtle lives in freshwater, spending most of its time burrowed motionless in mud.

The discovery of such a rare specimen, and its rescue from being stewed, was duly noted by the DENR, and official commendations for Nice are being scheduled.

Nice says she was only doing what she was trained to do as an Eco-Scout, supporting conservation and endangered species. Besides, she says, “You don’t need to be an Eco-Scout to know you shouldn’t eat them.”

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