Filipino texters urged to save 'dugong', turtle habitat in Davao Gulf

By Anna Valmero

MAKATI CITY, METRO MANILA—With more than two billion SMS or “texts” sent everyday, cellphone users are encouraged to help in the conservation of Davao Gulf, which shelters endangered global marine life.

Davao Gulf ranks as the second most densely populated marine habitat in the Philippines where the only remaining species of dugong (Dugong dugon) and five of seven species of turtles can be found, according to WWF Philippines vice chair and chief executive Lory Tan.

The gulf also ranks as a priority conservation site in the Sulu-Sulawesi marine eco-region.

“The number of individual dugong in the Philippine is unknown but it is highly likely it is below 500 individuals. This makes the preservation and restoration of Davao Gulf very important,” Tan said in an interview.

WWF Philippines partnered with Smart Communications Inc. to tap 46 million Smart and Talk 'N Text subscribers in the Philippines to fund wildlife conservation through its year-long “Text-To-Donate” program.

During an initial survey on marine biodiversity in the gulf, WWF Philippines found there is a healthy bed of the seagrass Halophila ovalis, which serves as the main food for herbivore dugongs and breeding grounds for fishes.

“Dugongs and sea turtles serve as lawn mowers of the sea grass beds and they are necessary to maintain a healthy marine ecosystem. If you have clean seagrass habitats, more fishes will thrive in the area and that means a sustainable food supply,” said Gregg Yan, information officer of WWF Philippines.

Poaching and hunting for international meat trade have drastically reduced the number of dugongs and sea turtles in the Philippines, said Yan. In China, stuffed sea turtles have become status symbols among the wealthy, prompting demand and illegal trade in countries such as the Philippines.

During his recent trips in Vigan and Quiapo in Manila, Yan noted that he saw stuffed endangered turtles selling for only P3,000 apiece. When the sellers are asked if they knew the turtle is a protected wildlife and that selling it is illegal, they only told him the stuffed animal has been there for a while and they did not know its origin.

It is not yet too late to prevent the extinction of the only remaining dugong species worldwide, he added.

Total population size of dugongs worldwide remains unknown, according to a compiled report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

“Aside from Dugong dugon, there is another dugong species called the stellars sea cow, which can grow to as large as a whale but became extinct in 1768, some 30 years only after its discovery.”

“Due to their meat, this unique species died from getting hunted by sailors, who lack of education about the marine wildlife's greater role in maintaining ecological balance. Let us not make this happen to the only dugong species we have,” Yan said.

Tan added that educating consumers to buy only common items and not products made from endangered wildlife and habitats will help stop the demand and illegal trade of dugongs and sea turtles, among others.

“Consumers should be vigilant and should know if their buying behaviors put a toll on the environment,” said Tan.

For the text donation program, Smart subscribers can donate in amounts of P5, P10, P25, P50, P100, P300, P500 and P1,000 for the program by texting WWF to 4483. The donated amount will be deducted from the subscriber's prepaid load or will be billed monthly for postpaid subscribers.

Subscribers may also choose to give regular donations by texting WWF ON to 4438, under which a P5 donation will be deducted or billed from the subscriber every 20 days.

“By texting these small amounts, Filipinos have easier access to donate amounts that does not hurt their pocket as well for advocacies like saving the Davao Gulf,” said Mon Isberto, head of public affairs group of Smart Communications.

Smart will also install a weather system in Davao City that can measure rainfall, salinity and fish density in the Gulf, Isberto added.

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