Friday, 19 Apr 2002

QUEZON CITY, Philippines

I spent all of today at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ mask-making workshop. Unexpectedly, it was a back-breaking experience layering strips of paper with glue for my three masks — a rat, a bird, and a crab. This chance to learn mask-making came at an opportune time. These masks are direly needed as props for a biodiversity game that we at Happy Earth will be playing during the Earth Day celebration at the Arroceros Forest Park.

Mask-maker, mask-maker, make me a mask.

The Paawikan (Sea Turtle) Race is the result of our community education efforts with several coastal communities around San Juan, in the province of Batangas, which experienced sea turtle nesting last year. Through the information assistance, of Dan Torres, a representative of our governments’ Turtle Conservation Project, we were able to design a game that briefly shows the life-cycle of a sea turtle and allows the participants to experience the arduous and often dangerous life of a hatchling from the time it emerges from the nest up to the time it reaches the waterline of the beach.

The 30 players (in this case, children) will be asked to bunch up together and make their way to the finish line. Interestingly, I found out from Dan that hatchlings emerge from the nest in one burst, usually about 100 per nest, so as to assure their safety in numbers as they make their way to the sea. Because of their small size, it usually takes hours for them to traverse just a five yard stretch of beach. To emphasize this, the participants will take baby steps, one foot after another, all the way to the finish.

The masks.

The two-inch baby turtles experience a “paddling frenzy” during the first three days of their life, which gives them enough strength to reach the water and swim against the waves to the open sea. This assures their chances of survival against predators like rats, eagles, and crabs. To reenact this, the children will be asked to paddle their arms in a frenzy and at all times stay together while predators (dressed in the masks) attack from the sides and back, reducing the number of turtle participants.

In reality, only two or three of the baby turtles survive out of 100 in the wild. The poaching of eggs makes their chances of survival even worse. In our country, the eggs are considered a delicacy — and an aphrodisiac. If nests are left unchecked, poachers often raid them and whisk off the newly laid eggs to market.

Another contributing factor to low mortality is the presence of electricity and light along the beach. For a long time, I had been intrigued as to how turtles, small as they are, know exactly where to go and reach the waterline, even if their nests are far from the shore. Apparently, their reference point is the moonlight or the sunrise. This explains why turtles often hatch at night or shortly before early morning. Most residents settling along the coast now have electricity. These areas often become tourist destinations and are highly developed. When the turtles hatch in areas that are brightly lit, they get disoriented and use the strongest light source as their reference point. Thus, instead of making their way to the waterline, the turtles head for the settlements — and their deaths.

The plight of the sea turtle has been ignored in the Philippines for a long time. In the last 30 years, the number of turtles nesting on our beaches has reduced drastically. It is our hope that through novel and creative methods of education, like this game, we may be able to let the voice of the sea turtle be heard.

I have one more day to finish off the masks. All they need is a touch of paint and some varnish. As I look at the masks now, nothing about them strikes me as special. In fact, they look rather drab and unimpressive. But I suppose it is not how great they look or how laborious they were to make that matters. Rather, it is how these masks will be used to share an insight about sea turtles. By joining the fun with the learning, we can hopefully create a memorable experience for all. My fingers are crossed …