SINGAPORE - Efforts to save the critically endangered Palawan forest turtle from the brink of extinction have paid off, with the hatching of the first turtle under human care in nearly five years.
The Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) and Palawan-based non-governmental organisation Katala Foundation Inc announced the milestone hatching in a joint statement on Monday (July 16).
It hatched on June 24 and belongs to parents that have been living for years at assurance colony facilities in Palawan.
At six days old, the hatchling measured 4cm in length and weighed 14g, the statement said.
The Palawan forest turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis), which is native to the Philippines, is a highly sought-after and yet little-known species in the illegal wildlife trade.
It is known to be extremely sensitive to stress and has high requirements in captive environments when it comes to reproduction.
Dr Sabine Schoppe, the director of Katala Foundation's Palawan freshwater turtle conservation programme, said that the foundation was able to intensify its research on the species five years ago with support from WRS.
"(We) now have a better understanding of their food preferences, incubation requirements like humidity and temperature, incubation time, nesting requirements, enclosure and furniture design, and necessary environmental conditions to trigger reproduction," she said.
WRS director of conservation, research and veterinary services Sonja Luz said: "The recent breeding success is a true milestone in the conservation of this important species, and gives us hope that we can turn things around even for lesser-known species in this region."
While there are two public records of successful incubation of eggs from wild-caught Palawan forest turtles, Dr Schoppe said in the statement that these cases should not be termed as captive breeding.
Doing so would "inevitably bring about laundering of wild-caught animals to facilitate trade", she said.
"Captive breeding implies the production of offspring from parents under human care, so the hatching of eggs of gravid wild-caught females does not qualify as true captive breeding," she added.
Since 2008, Palawan forest turtles that were alleged to be captive-bred have been offered for sale on the Internet. Turtle enthusiasts and zoological institutions have also made anecdotal claims of captive breeding in the Philippines.
In the statement, Katala Foundation and WRS said that the false declaration of many reptiles species as being captive-bred continues to provide a major loophole in controlling the illegal wildlife trade.
"The lack of transparency and sufficient knowledge on the biology and reproductive physiology of many reptiles still allows traders to fool the authorities into believing such animals are captive-bred," the statement said.
Both organisations added that they take a strong stand against the illegal wildlife trade and hope that ongoing research at Katala Foundation's facilities can shed more light on the issue.
WRS has been a key partner, funding the Katala Foundation since 2014. It has supported the foundation in building capacities in veterinary medicine, breeding research and the conservation of other critically endangered species, including the Philippine cockatoo.