By NESTOR B. RAMIREZ, VERA Files
CEBU CITY—Business is brisk, judging from the throng of people and cars parked outside this makeshift eatery in Pasil, a shoreline barangay.
The customers, some in long sleeves and tie, do not mind the heat and the disheveled slum area. They are here for one reason: To eat their favorite stewed dish of sea turtle or pawikan, an endangered species whose hunting, sale and killing have been banned by law since 2001.
The Wildlife Conservation Act, or Republic Act No. 9147, penalizes violators with a fine of up to P100,000 and imprisonment of up to one year.
The pawikan appears on the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), having become endangered because of poaching, slaughter, blast fishing, illegal trade and pollution.
A signatory of the CITES, the Philippines, through the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, has implemented the Pawikan Conservation Project nationwide.
Animal welfare groups, meanwhile, consider the whole month of May as the Month of the Ocean, which promotes conservation and protection of sea creatures.
But Basilisa Piaquinto, head of the Protected Area and Wildlife (PAW) of the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) here, expressed helplessness over the sale of the contraband in Pasil.
Vendors, mostly ambulant, have wised up and now sell pawikan meat already cut up, making it difficult for authorities to tell it apart from other meat, she said. And eateries are temporary structures that are easy to dismantle, allowing them to elude authorities.
Piaquinto said the vendors themselves know they are violating the law, but the demand for pawikan meat has kept the trade going.
Often eaten with corn grits and sold for P60 a bowl, the stewed pawikan is commonly believed to be an aphrodisiac, explaining its popularity among men.
"People come here because they believe that pawikan is like Viagra and some also come just for the thrill and curiosity of eating an endangered species," said Henry Lumanang, who has lived for 15 years on Rallos Street where the eatery is located. Viagra is a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction.
The sale of the marine species in the neighborhood is an open secret known even to policemen, who are among the eatery's customers, he said.
Elinore Malagar, a student from the University of San Jose Recoletos, visited the makeshift restaurant, located less than 300 meters from the nearest police station, a parish church and barangay hall, in mid-April after she was told that pawikan meat was being sold openly.
When she got to the place at 11.a.m., a handful of customers were already eating at the tables housed under a tent with tarpaulin roof and two large cauldronscontaining a steaming hot stew had obviously just come off the wood-fired stove.
Beside the cauldrons was a plastic pail that contained the raw meat, four flippers and the head of a sea turtle. "I was shocked and could not believe what I saw inside the pail," Malagar said.
A man in his fifties who was preparing the exotic dish said the eatery gets its daily supply of pawikan meat from middlemen who buy the turtle meat from fishermen from islets in Bohol.
The merchandise enters through the small port in the barangay and is sold for P250 to P350 a kilo, depending on the supply, he said.
But the deliveries are not easily detected by authorities because the contraband is stored inside a styropor box and covered with fish to camouflage, unlike in the past when live sea turtles were delivered to the barangay, the man said.
"Now they deliver the meat; that is why it is hard to detect," he said in the dialect.
The supply of pawikan meat is continuous because of the sea turtle's nature to lie on the seashore where it dries its carapace or top shell in the sun, makes a nest, and lays eggs, making it easy to capture, the man said. The pawikan would also get accidentally trapped in the fishermen's nets.
The Pasil eatery cooks an average of 80 kilos of pawikan meat every day. The dish is cooked in two batches—the first at 9 a.m., in time for customers who start coming at 10. The second batch is prepared at 1 p.m. because by then the 40 kilos of meat cooked in the morning would usually have been consumed.
VERA Files saw how the old man prepares the stew. He first sautés about two kilos of tomatoes, garlic and onions in the big cauldron, then puts in the pawikan meat and lets it simmer.Water is added and brought to a boil before the man throws in a bunch of raw tamarind (sampaloc) to give the dish its sour taste and finally two glasses of black beans (tausi) to give it the salty taste.
The man explained that the pawikan meat he was cooking that day was still young and weighed only six kilos. (A pawikan can weigh up to 200 kilos depending on its age and size.) It took him less than an hour to finish cooking because, he said, the meat from the young turtle is still tender. There are days when it would take him an hour or two to cook the dish if the meat that is delivered comes from a big sea turtle, he said.
CENRO's Piaquinto said her office has looked into reports of pawikan being sold in Barangay Pasil but has been unable to catch violators who, she said, are ambulant. "(T)he reports could not pinpoint the exact location (of the sellers) since they move around,"she said.
Piaquinto also said that it is hard to identify pawikan meat because it looks like any other meat. "We need to have scientific basis in order to establish the evidence, and we don't have the equipment needed," she said.
Police seized last year 20 kilos of pawikan meat at the Pasil Port—only because they got lucky.
The couriers hurriedly left when they saw law enforcers. If the contraband had not been abandoned, police would have no idea it was pawikan meat, Piaquinto said.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")