A Sanctuary for Green Sea Turtles in Southeast Asia

Date Published
May 22, 2020

The green sea turtle starts life as a tiny hatchling on a beach. If it survives, it can grow up to 5 feet long and help keep seagrass beds and coral reefs healthy. Photo credit: iStock/Jao Cuyos.

Local and regional partnerships ensure these gentle giants have somewhere to lay their eggs.


The Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary in the Sulu Archipelago is a major nesting ground for the endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) in Southeast Asia. Every year, more than 2,000 turtles make their way to this group of islands in the southernmost tip of the Philippines to lay their eggs, but only a small percentage of the tiny hatchlings reach adulthood as is the case in other regions. The young are highly vulnerable to predators, such as birds, dogs, and fish. Others swallow plastic debris accidentally. The eggs were also traditionally harvested and traded before these activities were made illegal.

The green sea turtles are one of the world’s largest species of turtle. The largest ever recorded was 5 feet long and weighed more than 800 pounds. The adult turtles are gentle herbivores that can live up to 80 years old. They are important to the marine ecosystem as they help maintain healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs.

The Turtle Islands sanctuary is part of Tawi-Tawi province in Mindanao. It is bounded by the Sulu and Mindanao seas in the western and northern portions, and on the eastern and southern tip by the Celebes Sea. Established as a protected area in 1999, the 242,967-hectare sanctuary includes its surrounding waters and the islands of Baguan, Taganak, Boan, Great Bakkungan, Langaan, and Lihiman. All the islands are inhabited except for Baguan.

The government works with local communities to protect and preserve the turtles’ nesting grounds and develop the surrounding area as an ecotourism destination.

A Transboundary Protected Area

The Philippines is also working with Indonesia and Malaysia to protect marine turtles in the region. In 2001, the three countries signed a memorandum of understanding on the conservation and management of marine turtles and their habitats in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. In 2009, the Sulu–Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion committee, which comprises representatives from the three countries, approved a tri-national Marine Turtle Protected Area Network design.

Even earlier, the Philippines has partnered with Malaysia to establish the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area in 1996 as the first transboundary protected area for marine turtles in the world. It is the 11th major marine turtle rookery in the world: an important nesting site for the green turtle and, to a lesser extent, the hawksbill turtle. The protected area was a recipient of the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize award in 1997.

Best Practices

  1. Governance. The Protected Area Management Board manages the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary. It is a 15-member policy-making body composed of representatives from national and local institutions and nongovernment organizations (NGOs). The office of the Protected Area Superintendent serves as the secretariat and implementing arm.

    The management board has passed resolutions not only on enforcement but also ecotourism development. It adopted an ecotourism development framework for the sanctuary in 2009.

  2. Creation of Task Force Pawikan. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region 9 office facilitated the creation of “Task Force Pawikan” (pawikan is the Filipino word for turtle), which is composed of enforcement agencies from the Philippine National Police-Maritime, Philippine National Police-Turtle Islands, Philippine Navy, and Philippine Marines. A memorandum of agreement identified the roles of each agency and drafted the enforcement protocol.

  3. Engagement with local communities. Nine park wardens were hired from local communities to safeguard marine turtle nesting and hatchery sites in four islands. They also monitor illegal activities.

    Communities in the five inhabited islands were organized in 2017 by DENR Region 9, in close coordination with the local government of Tawi-Tawi and the Department of Tourism office in the region. Initial capacity building relating to ecotourism operations was facilitated by the tourism department in May 2018, which will become a regular activity.

  4. Partnering with government and NGOs. The DENR has initiated meetings with the Office of the House of Representatives. Partner NGOs, such as Conservation International, have expressed their continued interest to support the sanctuary.

  5. Enhancement of Women’s Group in Taganak. The Women’s Group in Taganak is known for their souvenir items made from plastic waste and indigenous materials. Working with out-of-school youth, they attribute their increased annual income to the Adlaw Sin Payukan (Day of the Sea Turtle) festival, which is celebrated on World Turtle Day on 23 May.

    Under the Biodiversity Friendly Enterprise, the DENR has provided other livelihood activities, such as t-shirt printing and production of key chains, button pins, and mugs as souvenir items.

    Plastic shredders will be given to other people’s organizations in the sanctuary as additional equipment to enhance plastic waste recovery and recycling.

  6. Financing mechanism. The Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Efforts continue to pursue this distinction through regular provision of government funds and linkages with government institutions for capacity building on community-based ecotourism and livelihood support for enhanced fishery.

  7. Sustainable income. Community-based tourism activities in the sanctuary include the production of souvenir items, ecotourism products and services, the annual Adlaw Sin Payukan festival, and product development and packaging.

Benefits and Impact

  1. Social impact. An empowered community has resulted from continuous capacity building activities and financial and material assistance. In this way, the communities have become partners of the Protected Area Management Board in conservation and protection of resources in the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary.

  2. Equipment support. Provision of machinery, equipment, and materials to people’s organizations from partner agencies boosts economic activities and reduces illegal activities.

  3. Ecological benefits. The local government of Tawi-Tawi has ceased issuing permits to collect turtle eggs. It has committed to support all conservation and protection efforts of the Protected Area Management Board.

This article is adapted from the case study prepared by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Region 9 in the Philippines.