CEBU CITY, PHILIPPINES (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - An adult green sea turtle that had been rescued and tagged for conservation in Malaysia was no match for traders at Pasil fish market here, who butchered the marine creature along with other "pawikan" for their meat.
Agents of the Central Visayas regional offices of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Cebu City government on Tuesday confiscated about 60kg of pawikan meat from an eatery in Rallos Street here.
"One of the pawikan was already rescued and rehabilitated in Malaysia. The tag came from Sandakan, Malaysia. This species is migratory so when it came to Cebu, it was captured and killed," said Mr Rogelio Demelletes Jr, DENR senior ecosystem management officer.
The government team arrested five people during the operation - eatery cashier Donesa Bustamante, cook Cresley Obatay and helpers Ariesteo Pableo, Julio Abunta and Clifford Obatay.
They refused to issue any statement to reporters or divulge to the authorities their source of pawikan meat.
Mr Demelletes said Cebu City, particularly Barangay Pasil, had been a known site for illegal trade of wildlife meat.
"It is common knowledge here that pawikan meat is sold in Pasil. It's called 'power'. Even if you look at Google Earth, they have a map that points to Pasil with the word 'power' on it," he said.
Pawikan meat prepared as the local dish "larang" can be bought at roadside eateries in Pasil by using the code "power", a reference to the local belief that eating this exotic dish will improve sexual prowess.
"Power" is sold at the eatery for 90 pesos (S$2.35) per serving, more expensive than the regular larang prepared from fish, which costs 75 pesos per serving.
Those who buy or eat pawikan meat, Mr Demelletes said, may also be held liable because "nobody will sell if there is no buyer".
According to lawyer Habeas Corpuz of the NBI environmental crime division, his group received an intelligence report about the rampant illegal wildlife trade in Pasil.
DENR and NBI agents conducted a "test buy" of raw pawikan meat over a month ago to verify reports that sea turtles were being used in dishes offered in the area.
"Normally, they do not sell raw meat. Luckily, our men were able to buy raw meat. We used that to subject the sample to a DNA sequencing test," Mr Corpuz said.
The test, conducted by researchers at the University of the Philippines Diliman, reported that the DNA of the sample meat bought in Pasil matched by "99.83 to 100 per cent" with the DNA sequence of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas).
He said the pawikan meat that the team seized from the eatery was stored in a cooler. The body parts showed that the meat came from five to six juveniles and an adult green sea turtle.
"We want to identify where the supply is coming from because we want to cut this business from the source," Mr Corpuz said.
Charges of multiple counts of possessing, trading and killing endangered species were filed against the suspects on Tuesday. These offenses are bailable.
Under Republic Act No. 9147 (Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act), trading of endangered animals or their by-products is punishable with imprisonment of at least six months to one year, with accessory penalty of 10,000 to 100,000 pesos.
For the slaughter of pawikan, a violator may be imprisoned for six to 12 years and fined between 100,000 and one million pesos.
The green sea turtle, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is one of the largest species of sea turtles, growing to up to 180kg.
"Classified as endangered, green turtles are threatened by over harvesting of their eggs, hunting of adults, being caught in fishing gear and loss of nesting beach sites," the WWF said on its website.