MANILA - Thirty-six turtles seized from smugglers, including 20 of one of the world's rarest species, are to be returned from Hong Kong to the Philippines, an official said Wednesday.
It will mark the first time a protected Philippine species seized from the illegal wildlife trade abroad has been returned, Philippine environment department deputy chief Luz Corpuz told AFP.
Wildlife authorities in Hong Kong will hand the 20 pond turtles and 16 South Asian box turtles to Philippine enforcement officers on Friday, she said.
"They are Philippine species, and returning them back to their natural habitat is a big accomplishment for our conservation efforts," Corpuz said of the Philippine pond turtles, which are found only in the island of Palawan.
"In the past we had routinely allowed protected wildlife confiscated abroad to be turned over to their local shelters because we do not have money.
"This time we're lucky because we have a little money left and we would like to enhance our enforcement activities."
Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the 21-centimetre (8.3-inch) pond turtle, Siebenrockiella leytensis, as "critically endangered" and "one of the rarest and least known turtles in the world".
The 20-centimetre box turtle, Cuora amboinensis, is listed by as "vulnerable" in the Philippines, though it is also found in other tropical countries of Southeast Asia.
Corpuz said airport authorities in Hong Kong seized the 36 turtles in February after a flight from Manila.
They will be released back into the wild in Palawan, she added.
Trafficking in pond turtles is punishable by a six-year prison term and a million-peso (S$29,300) fine in the Philippines, but Corpuz admitted the government did not have enough resources to enforce the law.
"We don't know who were responsible for smuggling them to Hong Kong, but the turtles could have most likely ended up as medicine, as pets, or as food in Chinese restaurants," she said.