How did turtles become a flash point in the territorial spat in the South China Sea? Many would argue that it's because the endangered creatures are worth a fight.
In the Philippines -- where five of the world's seven species of sea turtle live -- poaching sea turtles is a crime that can come with up to 12 years imprisonment and fines of up to $22,500, depending on the type of turtle. Still, poachers seek them out for their meat, which is believed in some cultures to enhance virility, and their shells, which are used for jewelry.
On Wednesday, the Philippines arrested the crew of a Chinese fishing vessel near the disputed Spratly Islands after receiving reports of poachers in the area. The Chinese vessel contained around 500 sea turtles, some of them already dead, the police said. The arrest prompted rebuke from Beijing, which called on the Philippines to release the crew.
In recent years, other Chinese fishermen have been caught by Philippine authorities for poaching turtles or other endangered species such as clams and anteaters.
'Even if those turtles didn't come from the Philippines, [the alleged poachers] could still be prosecuted here because sea turtles are globally protected animals,' said Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The Southeast Asian country is a hotbed for poaching. Ms. Lim said all five species of sea turtles in the country are considered endangered, but more so the Hawksbill and Leatherback that are valued for their shells, which are used for ornaments and jewelry.
The other species found in the country are the Olive Ridley, Green Sea Turtle and the Loggerhead. The two other species not found in the Philippines are Kemp's Ridley and the Flatback. Leatherback and Hawksbill are considered the most threatened by possible extinction.
It takes decades before a sea turtle reaches maturity, and only then will females breed and return to the beaches where they hatched to lay their eggs. Aside from natural predators, including humans, loss of habitat and other environmental threats mean as few as one in every 1,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, poachers take around 30,000 green turtles in California alone while more than 50,000 sea turtles are killed in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. In the 1960s, over a million Olive Ridley turtles were butchered in Mexico.
Chinese and other East Asian cuisines use the meat, skin and innards of soft-shell turtles for soup. Turtles are also used in Chinese medicine. Japan is a major buyer of sea turtle shells, known as bekko.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images今年3月，印尼Sukamade岛，在一个保护区中孵出的小绿海龟被放出来后爬向大海。
海龟如何成为了南中国海(South China Sea, 中国称南海)领土争端的导火索？许多人会说，那是因为这种濒临灭绝的物种值得一争。
Palawan Council for Sustainable Development/Associated Press这张拍摄于2011年12月的照片显示，菲律宾海军将12只从中国渔民手中缴获的绿海龟运抵菲律宾南部的公主港(Puerto Princesa)，其中九只已经死亡，余下三只在做好标记后被放回大海。
菲律宾环境和自然资源部下属生物多样性管理局(Biodiversity Management Bureau)局长Theresa Mundita Lim称，即便海龟不是从菲律宾海域捕获的，菲律宾方面仍可以起诉偷猎者嫌疑人，因为海龟是全球受保护动物。
其它三种在菲律宾发现的海龟为太平洋丽龟(Olive Ridley)、绿海龟(Green Sea Turtle)和 龟(Loggerhead)。未在菲律宾发现的两种海龟为肯普氏丽龟(Kemp's Ridley)和平背龟(Flatback)。玳瑁龟和革龟被认为是所有种类海龟中最濒危物种，有可能灭绝。