THE PHILIPPINE TURTLE ISLANDS — Poverty-stricken islanders are pushing one of the world's biggest turtle populations to extinction - by selling their eggs to Malaysian Muslims hungry for exotic delicacies.
Each summer, 80 percent of Southeast Asia's green turtles make an epic journey to nine tiny islands straddling the border between the Philippines and Borneo, to lay their eggs on the beaches.
This prehistoric species already faces plenty of perils, with birds of prey, dynamite and cyanide fishing, monitor lizards, sharks, and driftnets ensuring that only a fraction of eggs laid make it to adulthood.
But these are insignificant compared with the effects of long-term egg plundering on the six Philippine islands, whose human population has ballooned to almost 3,000 from refugees escaping Muslim conflicts in the south.
Although the islands form the world's only transnational Wildlife Heritage Area and won last year's John Paul Getty wildlife award, egg production has dropped almost 90 percent since the 1950s. The leathery Ping-Pong ball size eggs are sought after as a delicacy and aphrodisiac in nearby Malaysian Sabah - and permits are still issued in five of the Philippine islands, allowing locals to collect almost 70 percent of them.
These are then smuggled to markets in Sabah, where it is illegal to collect or sell turtle eggs. They fetch a price of around four pesos each. In five days of collection a permit holder can earn around 10,000 pesos ($247) - a fortune in this poverty-stricken part of the country.
Renato Cruz, director of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources turtle project, says, "We realize the irony of basically giving people permission to go and break the law in Malaysia. The Malaysian authorities are upset about this, but they have the luxury of their three islands being uninhabited.
"On our side, egg collection is part of the local people's traditional livelihood. If we ban egg collection, they will just resort to poaching. So it's better to regulate it."
Currently, regulation is in the hands of locally hired wardens, but several have been caught protecting their friends' poaching rather than the turtles. Once, the exasperated Department of the Environment team sought help from the military, which publicly punished a crooked warden by force-feeding him a boiled turtle egg.
Mr. Cruz remains quietly optimistic, however, even though his project has had its budget slashed from 7.9 million pesos in 1997 to 5.3 million pesos this year, and its staff often go without payment for as much as eight months at a time.
He hopes a carefully planned eco-tourism industry will bring in money and employment to the locals within the next few years. A successful luxury tourist resort on the Malaysian side already has a waiting list of up to three years for visitors eager for a turtle experience.
A local World Wildlife Fund (WWF) team is less convinced, however. It set up a turtle-protection project on Taganak island in 1996, planning to introduce alternative livelihoods, such as live-food fishing for the restaurant trade. But two years and a 130,000-peso loan later, their good intentions are in tatters.
Mon Romero, WWF marine program officer, says, "The tribes here are distrustful and resentful of people from Manila trying to change their traditional ways. Unfortunately, we found it impossible to keep a cooperative together.
"Right now," he says, "we're forgetting about alternative livelihoods and just trying to gain the trust of the people, especially the community leaders, who have always creamed off profits from the egg collection. Education and awareness are vital, if we are going to save the turtles. But these people are so poor they don't even have books in their local school."
He warns that tourism could be a big mistake, however, citing the problems of introducing rich tourists into a poor, mainly Muslim community. One potential investor had even suggested building a casino in the islands, he adds.