Philippine officials filed criminal charges Friday over a huge shipment of endangered sea turtles and rare black corals whose seizure raised alarm that the archipelago's rich marine life is being devastated by illegal trade.
The cargo worth more than $800,000 was seized by customs officials at a Manila port last month and included 21,169 pieces of black corals as tall as shrubs.
Their sheer number suggests illegal traders had to destroy at least 73 square miles (190 square kilometers) of coral reef _ almost five times the size of the Philippine capital, Manila, said Mundita Lim, chief of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau.
According to the complaint Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez filed at the Justice Department, the owner, consignee, shippers and haulers of the cargo are facing charges of violating the ban on coral exploitation and exportation and related offenses.
The shipment also included 163 endangered stuffed hawksbill and green turtles, 7,340 pieces of Trumpet and Helmet shells and 430 pounds (196 kilograms) of sea whips _ a coral species that grows in clusters of long fingers _ that were transported from southern Zamboanga city and declared as raw rubber.
Exequiel Navarro, who is listed in the shipment's manifest as the consignee, has denied the charges saying he was not aware what was in the cargo, Alvarez said.
None of those linked to the shipment has been arrested. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said her office will put them on an immigration watch list to prevent them from leaving the country.
The penalty for violating the wildlife act is a maximum prison term of 12 years plus a fine if the animals involved are on the list of critical species. Those charged with illegally gathering corals face up to two years imprisonment and a fine. Gathering and selling of the rare shells is penalized by up to four years imprisonment and a fine.
The seizure "brought to the fore the devastation being caused on the marine ecosystem by the illegal harvesters of endangered and threatened marine life and the greediness of those who finance their search-and-destroy operation," Alvarez told reporters.
The Philippines is one of six countries straddling the Coral Triangle _ a 2.1 million-square-mile (5.4 million-square-kilometer) stretch of ocean that contains 75 percent of the world's coral species, one-third of the Earth's coral reefs, and more than 3,000 species of fish.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, a conservation group, 50 years of nonstop destructive commercial fishing and poorly managed artisanal fishing has left only 5 percent of coral reefs in the Philippines in excellent condition, with only 1 percent said to be in a "pristine" state.
(This version CORRECTS southern city to Zamboanga instead of Cotabato.)