Every time I see a sea turtle, I silently thank it for bringing me here. Right now, ‘here’ means Kure but in the past it has meant a dozen different countries with beaches adjacent to the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. ‘Here’ means pursuing a graduate degree and career as a conservation biologist even though my bachelors is in journalism and new media.
Despite my background in communications, when I try to find words to describe why I value sea turtles so much, I tend to come up with obnoxiously vague words and phrases comparable to nausea inducing self-help books. There’s a chance I don’t actually need to describe why I like sea turtles because they are often categorized as ‘charismatic megafauna’ which means they are widely loved and if you are trying to raise money, a photo of a sea turtle is more likely to garner interest than say a close up of a gnat.
Unfortunately for sea turtles, they are also valuable dead. Sea turtle shells are made into drums and jewelry and then sold as handicrafts in markets. Some people like to use sea turtle eggs in their baked goods because they are thought to last longer without going bad (extra convenient when you don’t own a refrigerator) and others believe sea turtle eggs have aphrodisiac properties. I worked with men in Guatemala who said they go to the market every year for a ‘man’s only’ drink made of sea turtles eggs, the gelatinous part of a cow eyeball and juice. Eight years ago, the drink cost them the equivalent of $5 US dollars and as far as I could tell, didn’t turn them into Casanovas. Sea turtle meat is also sold and consumed in many countries with the calipee, the fatty tissue above the plastron (lower shell), considered to be a delicacy. Decades of supply and demand of sea turtles and their eggs has severely depleted populations. Six out of seven species of sea turtles are categorized as endangered or critically endangered on IUCN’s Red List. The seventh species, flatback sea turtles, is not ranked due to deficient data.
If life were two-dimensional it would be easy to say consumers and suppliers of sea turtle products are bad people. Fortunately, that’s not the case and the truth is much more interesting. In Guatemala, I met a palmero, egg collector, who told me she appreciated the work our NGO was doing to conserve sea turtles because she worried about the decreasing number of turtles and her dwindling income. When I encouraged her to donate the nest of eggs she’d found to our hatchery, a safe place for the eggs to incubate, she declined explaining that the money from the nest would be used to send her child to school. In Thailand, I worked with a quiet, reflective man named Bundee who had been a poacher most of his life and had transitioned into a sea turtle protector. At night, as we patrolled a beach for nesting sea turtles, Bundee would tell me stories of going to the same beach as a kid with his father. He looked sad when he said there were so many turtles everyone would kick them as they impatiently waited for eggs. Bundee and I walked the beach every night for three weeks and we only found one sea turtle track and no nest. Bundee worried about his children and their children’s children and often said he hoped that they will have the opportunity to come face to face with sea turtles in their lifetimes.
One of my favorite principles of conservation is making animals and plants worth more alive than dead. I worked for an eco-tourism outfit in Costa Rica where another poacher turned protector, Jose, told me how he used to only be able to sell a dead sea turtle once and now he earns money every week by showing tourists the same turtles over and over. Jose remains one of the best guides I’ve ever walked on a sea turtle nesting beach with as he also grew up looking for turtles and could smell them walking out of the ocean. When I first heard about Jose’s turtle-detecting-nose I thought he was boasting but in the pitch black night Jose never failed to tell me there was a turtle ahead, 100 meters before we were next to her track.
Conservation projects tend to have lofty goals that take worldwide cooperation and patience. Animals, like sea turtles, often have large home ranges where they could be killed by a variety of man-made threats from habitat destruction to hunting which means protection in one location doesn’t guarantee an increase in population numbers. In order to reverse the trend of decreasing sea turtle populations, multiple stakeholders like locals in coastal communities, fisheries, government agencies and tourism industries have to work together. The process can be difficult but when it works, the results are exponential. For instance, on Cousin Island in the Seychelles, sea turtle numbers have experienced an eight-fold increase since the island was classified as a protected reserve in 1968. These positive numbers reflect years of hard work and collaboration but there are still many more years to go until sea turtle populations worldwide fully recover, their status on the Red List improves and conversations about sustainable take can begin.
Still, the seemingly impossible feat of even some conservation success is exciting beyond words. In this blog I’m only discussing a few issues surrounding sea turtles because going into more detail would take hundreds of pages. Equally rich arguments can be made for thousands of flora and fauna species. Often, when I am asked about my interest in conservation and/or sea turtles, I hesitate because I wonder just how much time and interest the person asking the question possesses. Usually, I lamely reply by simply saying, ‘I just really like turtles,’ but each time I wince, because I know that one small sentence is as universal and uninteresting as someone on Tinder (an app that makes dating as easy as ordering pizza) who’s bio reads, ‘I like to smile, have fun and laugh.’ Who doesn’t?
Allen ZC, Shah NJ, Grant A, Derand GD, Bell D 2010 Hawksbill turtle monitoring in Cousin Island Special Reserve, Seychelles: an eight-fold increase in annual nesting numbers. Endangered Species Research 11(3): 195-200.