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  Philippines Information Agency 4 Dec 06
From poachers to marine conservationists

From poachers to marine conservationists -- this is the amazing transformation of some fishermen and farmers of Nagbalayong, Morong, Bataan.

The 360-degree turn came about after a meeting held in the coastal community by members of Bantay Kalikasan sometime in 1999, relates Rosalie V. Ona, chief of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) in Bataan.

An environmental-protection group composed of concerned government agencies led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and non-government organizations like the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), Bantay Kalikasan's agenda for its meeting during that time was the alarming destruction of Morong's forest resources, recalls Ona.

By a twist of fate, it was mentioned at the meeting that one of the major sources of income in the barangay was pawikan eggs gathering which was then sold at P5 each. Pawikans are sea turtles that play an important role in the overall marine eco-system, but are considered an endangered species, Ona stressed.

According to the DOST official, there are five known species of sea turtles in the Philippines and two of them, the Hawk's Bill and Olive Ridley, are spotted along the coasts of Bataan.

The continued destruction of the pawikans, starting from the gathering of their eggs for human consumption to the catching of the matured turtles for decorative and other purposes, coupled with their very low survival rate (1%) had pushed the migratory animals into the brink of extinction, Ona lamented.

After that Bantay Kalikasan meeting in Morong in 1999, the group started to pool efforts and meager resources to help save the endangered species. The group organized meetings among residents of Morong, specially those living in Nagbalayong, where the sea turtles had been spotted, to make the people aware of the importance of the pawikans in maintaining ecological balance.

The concerted efforts led to the formation of Bantay Pawikan, Inc., a people's organization in Nagbalayong composed mostly of local fishermen and farmers who used to poach pawikan eggs along the shores of the municipality.

Thus, the former poachers became volunteers in the conservation of the pawikans. In 2001, a pawikan center was established in Nagbalayong after the United Nations Development Programme released funds for the community's conservation work.

Japan also donated a delivery van, motorboat, warehouse and a lambaklad (fishing gear) to the community so that local fishermen can have their regular source of income. The daily catch from the lambaklad is divided among the 20 active members of Bantay Pawikan.

At present, people in Bataan, specifically in Morong town, are now fully aware of the importance of the pawikans, in fact, the month of November every year is observed with a pawikan festival, participated in by conservationists and tourists, both local and from other countries.

The way things are happening, it would not be farfetched for these sea animals to be stricken out from the endangered list a few years from now.

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