MANILA, Philippines - Authorities seized an enormous haul of illegally harvested corals and more than 100 preserved sea turtles before they could be smuggled abroad, officials said Thursday.
Customs and fisheries officials seized about 124,000 pieces of sea fan and sea whip corals, as well as 158 stuffed sea turtles -- all protected species -- at Manila's port on Wednesday.
The turtles, corals and 209 boxes of shells -- misdeclared as "rubber" -- were hidden inside 2 huge containers that had been shipped from the southern city of Cotabato, customs officials said.
Although the corals and shells were estimated to have a sale price overseas of about P20 million, the environmental damage was far more, said fisheries bureau senior marine biologist Ludivina Lave.
"This is worth even billions in environmental and economic costs, because if you remove these reefs from their natural habitat, the effect is exponential," she told AFP.
"Coral reefs are homes of many organisms. Technically speaking, the organisms are interrelated. If you lose one, all of the organisms are affected."
It is illegal in the Philippines to gather and sell endangered coral, although other countries allow it to be traded.
The value of the sea turtles cannot be estimated since trading them has been banned globally since the 1980s, said Nilo Ramoso, a biologist with the government sea turtle protection program.
The sea turtles had been preserved so that they looked like they were alive.
Customs officials said the shipment may have been intended for China, Europe, or the United States.
Illegal possession of coral is punishable by up to 2 years in jail in the Philippines, while illegal possession of sea turtles carries a maximum penalty of four years imprisonment, the fisheries bureau said.
Authorities said it was not clear who was behind the shipment.