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Philippine Forest Turtle

Philippine Forest Turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis)

The Philippine forest turtle is an enigmatic freshwater turtle species that was a mystery for 80 years. The turtle endemic to the island of Palawan in the Philippines is among the 25 most endangered turtle species worldwide.

In the late 1980s, there was a chance discovery of one specimen in a Palawan market, and it was rediscovered 24 years later, in 2004.

Philippine Forest Turtle (Heosemys leytensis)
Philippine Forest Turtle (Heosemys leytensis) sitting on sand with legs tucked in shell

Quick Reference Section

  • Scientific Name: Siebenrockiella leytensis.
  • Family: Geoemydidae
  • Other names: Philippine pond turtle, Palawan turtle, and Leyte pond turtle
  • Size: The average adult size is 3 cm.
  • Weight: It weighs as much as 3.5 kg.
  • Food: From the observation, this turtle is considered to be an omnivore. It means that the turtle feeds on commercial turtle food, small fish, and aquatic plants.
  • Habitat: It lives in forest habitats, near sea levels up to an altitude of 300 m.
  • Lifespan: It appears to have a long life span and reasonable survival rates.

Since the Philippine turtle is an endangered species, selling them is forbidden. Even though efforts have been made to stop the illegal trade, many of the turtles were sold in more significant Manila pet markets, where the turtles’ price is lower.

Interesting Facts About the Philippine Forest Turtle

head of a philippine forest turtle
Close up of the head of a philippine forest turtle

In the past, many believed that this turtle was a rare species. However, wildlife poachers thought that it was as widespread as the other geoemydid turtles on the island of Palawan.

The Philippine law legally protects the species, yet illegal trading is still present. The poachers use the turtles for the black market pet trade, food, and medicine.

Adult turtles are semi-aquatic, while the juveniles are entirely aquatic.

Female turtles lay one to two eggs.

Conservationists hatched a single egg from the Philippine forest turtle giving hope for the endangered species after ten years of hard work. The event happened in 2018.

This turtle is known to have other names: the Philippine pond turtle, the Palawan turtle, and the Leyte pond turtle. It is the only endemic specimen that lives in the Philippines.

Anatomy

Sideview of head of a Siebenrockiella leytensis (Philippine Forest Turtle)
Sideview of head of a Siebenrockiella leytensis (Philippine Forest Turtle)

It’s one of the largest and heaviest geoemydid turtles in the Philippines. The old turtles have a median carapace length of more than 3 cm.

Their median plastron length is over 2 cm, while their weight is almost 3.5 kg. Hatchlings’ median carapace length is usually 4.6 cm.

Adult males are different from adult females in that their plastron is more concave. They also have longer and thicker tails.

These traits are key in determining the gender of pretty much any turtle.

The plastron of female turtles is typically flat or slightly convex. Adult female turtles are smaller in size compared to the male ones.

The carapace’s color varies from chestnut brown to dark brown, while others might be pale yellow or pale brown. There isn’t a radiating color pattern in the plastron, as most of them are chestnut brown or pale yellow.

Their head is large and snout is rounded, while their nostrils are located anteriorly.

Where Do Philippine Forest Turtles Live?

The Philippine forest turtles had a legendary reputation for over 80 years, as their geographical distribution in the Philippines was a mystery.

Many thought that the species originated in the Philippine island of Leyte. However, in recent years, it was discovered that they live in the western Philippines’ Palawan region.

Habitat

This type of turtle needs a particular place to live: swamp forests. It’s what makes this species very range-restricted.

The Philippine forest turtles don’t benefit from the lowland swamp forest being converted into rice paddy fields to ensure long-term survival.

During the daytime, the turtles are hiding under rocks or near the streams and rivers. At night, they can be found near sandy shores or in the streams and rivers.

What Do Philippine Forest Turtles Eat?

Philippine forest turtle sitting in grass
Philippine forest turtle sitting in grass

From the many observations, it was discovered that they are omnivorous. It means they prefer eating commercial turtle food, small fish, and aquatic plants.

They also prey on crabs, shrimp, and freshwater gastropods.

Vegetation wise they will also feed on algae, figs and wild fruits.

Palawan turtles usually search for food in the early morning when they become active, or late at night.

Lifespan

Although not much is known about this species’ lifespan, they appear to have a long life and high adult survival rates. They reach sexual maturation later on, just like most turtles. However, they can mate multiple times.

Laying Eggs

The reproductive biology and natural selection of the species is poorly understood currently. Female turtles lay only one to two eggs. 

The shell of the eggs is brittle and has a pale pink color. When captive, they lay eggs from June to December. People found hatchlings and juvenile turtles in the wild during the dry season.

Threats to Survival

Even though laws protect the Philippine Forest turtle, many turtle enthusiasts demand endangered species in both local and international pet black markets. Under the Republic Act, anyone who illegally keeps a critically endangered animal can face up to four years of prison.

In the past 16 years, there have been records of 23 seizure incidents, which included 4.723 Philippine forest turtles, many of which occurred on the island of Palawan.

Check our guide on turtle laws to learn more about how you might be affected if you want to own a turtle.

Taking Conservation Measures

Since 2000, Siebenrockiella leytensis is on the list of Critically Endangered species. The Republic Act 9147 protects the specimen, the violation of which may lead to imprisonment.

Although legal acts protect the Philippine forest turtle, there has been an increase in wildlife conservation and trade. The agencies aren’t fully aware of the issue and are ill-equipped to control and prevent the problem.

Over 16 years, thousands of Philippine forest turtles have been trafficked as many collectors want to have one of the 25 most endangered species in their homes.

In recent years, many local and international groups are trying to gather more information on approaching illegal trading.

Being One of the Most Endangered Animals in Its Region

This species is one of the nine most endangered animals in the Philippines, as its number decreases over the years.

The below video shows just how serious the illegal pet turtle trade is and how seriously it can affect a turtle species.

Conclusion

The endemic Philippine forest turtle has been a mystery for decades. Known to inhibit the island of Palawan, the turtle faces many threats to its survival.

Keeping it as a pet is illegal as the numbers of this specimen decreases over the years. The Republic Act prohibits hobbyists from illegally trading it on the black market.

Many researchers are trying to find ways to protect one of the 25 most endangered species worldwide, as protecting it is the key to the turtle’s survival.

References:

  • (Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, 2012)
  • (Turtle Conservancy, 2021)
  • (Sabine Schoppe, 2010)

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