Leatherback turtle. Photo: Stephen Broadbridge, Caribbean Discovery Tours
Turtle lovers and the wider conservation world celebrated in October 2011 when our current administration, the People’s Partnership removed the open season for hunting sea turtles by amending national legislation. It was proudly announced that “No person shall, at any time, kill, harpoon, catch or otherwise take possession of any turtle, or purchase, sell, offer or expose for sale or cause to be sold or offered for sale any turtle or turtle meat”.
In Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) when we start the turtle talk, what leaps to mind is the huge Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). It is the most recognised sea turtle on both islands. Efforts to protect these animals are well known particularly in Trinidad with organisations like Nature Seekers whose incredible work and success are inspiring to say the least. But what’s up with our sister isle and her turtles?
Hawksbill Hatchlings - Photo NEST (G. Walker)
Though it’s sweet T&T, Tobago is an entirely different island, moving to a beat that is uniquely and proudly Tobagonian. The waters of Trinidad and Tobago host the Leatherback, Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Green (Chelonia mydas) and Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), five of the seven marine turtles found globally! So yes, Tobago has turtles and Leatherback, Hawksbill and more rarely, Green all nest on her beaches. Indeed, Tobago’s coastal communities have an intimate relationship with the sea and her creatures, including her turtles.
Tobago’s Relationship with Turtles
Sea turtles in Tobago are a relatively common sight. They can be seen from boats and fishermen encounter them, sometimes tangled in their nets. If you are out snorkelling, or on a glass-bottom boat, it is not unusual to see a Hawksbill glide by or to catch a glimpse of them taking a breath. Joining a turtle patrol on Grafton Beach at night, you may well come across a nesting turtle at this time of year. Many divers come to Tobago from all over the world for a chance to dive with a sea turtle, and more often than not, they surface thrilled by an intimate encounter.
I had my own out-of-this-world turtle experience just last week with the Charlotteville Shark Shack’s owner, Caroline Hardie, who was kind enough to include my husband and I on a turtle patrol to some isolated bays only accessible by boat. While diving, we were joined by a rare Loggerhead turtle. Imagine glancing up to see a turtle, its shell trailing a green carpet of algae, gliding slowly above you. Imagine watching it turn peacefully towards you, coming within arm’s length, watching you curiously with its ancient eye before slipping calmly off into the blue. This is actually a BIG deal, given that Loggerheads are known to have an “infrequent occurrence in Trinidad and Tobago's waters” according to the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST). I was humbled and in awe to share space with such a remarkable creature.
Tobago has another aspect to her relationship with her turtles, eating them. Turtle meat, considered a delicacy, sells for about $30 TTD a pound. Reports and stories from communities indicate that turtle harvesting occurs in Tobago, particularly of the Greens and Hawksbills for their meat and to a lesser extent, their shell. Though it is now illegal it pops up on menus during harvest festivals and other celebrations which occur in different villages throughout the year.
Given the relative abundance of sea turtles on and around the island, you can see why people would not feel a sense of urgency or loss over a few dead turtles and some in the pot. So why do some people get so worried about sea turtles in Tobago, and in Trinidad?
All our Turtles are Globally Threatened
The five species of sea turtles currently found in T&T’s waters are all considered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to be globally threatened. This body is the accepted international authority for assessing the relative risk of global (permanent) extinction for a wide range of living species. Species are listed on a seven-point scale from ‘Least Concern’ (not in serious trouble) to ‘Extinct’ (gone forever). Of the species that nest on our beaches, the two most common (the Leatherback and Hawksbill) are as endangered as a species can get without disappearing from the wild. The next step on the scale for them is surviving only in captivity (in zoos or aquariums). Let’s hope we never get there.
On this IUCN rating scale, our Leatherbacks and Hawksbills are globally as endangered as black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) and the most endangered orangutan, the Sumatran (Pongo abelii). They are listed at a higher risk than blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), tigers (Panthera tigris) and giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). From this perspective, swimming with a Hawksbill is like diving with a blue whale, petting a giant panda, or bouncing up a tiger on your walk in the bush (although admittedly a little less dangerous).
Tobago is an Incredibly Unusual Place Blessed with Sea Turtles
So in a way Tobago is a strange place. There may be some places in the world where you have to be careful of the tigers when you put out the garbage, or where you are late for work because that pesky black rhinoceros was lounging in the middle of the road again. Maybe there are places where people cut back the bamboo so those irritating pandas don’t poo on the deck, or where dogs from the village chase around baby mountain gorillas. But I think those places are pretty rare. In a nutshell, Tobago is a very special place for sea turtles. So who is working in Tobago to promote a more sustainable relationship between people and sea turtles?
Though a small island, Tobago is divided into the bustling south-western end and the more remote north-eastern end. In the south-western end, turtle conservation efforts are spearheaded by Save Our Sea Turtles (SOS) Tobago, a registered community-based organisation. With the help of volunteers and various funders, their dedicated staff monitor sea turtle nesting and hatching activity mainly on Courland Bay (Turtle Beach), Grafton Beach and Mt. Irvine Back Bay and undertake a range of educational programmes.
Heading north-east in Tobago, towns give way to sleepy fishing villages nestled in steep valleys that are bordered by the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Villages such as Speyside, Charlotteville, L’anse Formi and Parlatuvier all have long, interconnected histories with turtles and the sea. Speaking up for sea turtles on this remote end are two small community-based groups, the Speyside Eco-Marine Park Rangers (SEMPR) and North East Sea Turtles (NEST), led by Mr. Jace Bishop and Mr. Ancil Kent respectively. Both are young groups with a passion for looking after their communities and their natural resources.
According to these groups, turtle harvesting in the north-eastern end is quite common. As one NEST member explained, “People here grow up knowing the sea have plenty and we always have turtles. We eating them all our lives. Many don’t even know the Law is there and having a Law doesn’t make much difference if nobody obeying or enforcing it. We don’t realise that the sea has less and less and our turtles disappearing really fast! People don’t know yet that the turtles need our help but we also need them to look after our sea.”
For several years, NEST members patrolled when possible to protect nesting turtles on the beaches at night, though they had no funding. Members face tricky topographical challenges as some beaches are totally inaccessible except by boat and others require some serious trekking through hilly terrain. Many members don’t own a vehicle and transport either by boat or car is challenging. Unfortunately, 45% of turtle events in north-east Tobago recorded for 2011 were illegal poaching of nesting turtles. Mutilated carcasses were found on beaches and skeletal remains of partially decomposing turtles with missing fins and other body parts were seen in the sea, presumably from turtles being harvested in the water.
2012 looks hopeful for NEST and SEMPR. The groups have pooled their precious resources of people and spare time. Through a grant from the Global Environment Facility's Small Grants Programme administered by the United Nations Development Programme, (GEF/SGP/UNDP) they are promoting eco-tourism, negotiating with their communities on the benefits of having turtles alive rather than dead, and protecting nesting turtles by patrolling beaches. They are also taking the opportunity to learn more about how to run an organisation and how to track and monitor their own turtle populations. It’s a lot of work when everyone has a full life to lead (imagine patrolling all night and then going to work in the morning!).
But NEST and SEMPR see something important in what they are doing. Sea turtles are a lot like Tobago itself, clean, green, safe and serene. Like Tobago, they are fragile and threatened in a quickly changing world. Without active care and respect for each other and our surroundings, we will lose our precious turtles and our beautiful, green island. On the other hand, by working together to help our turtles, NEST and SEMPR are taking an important step to promote sea turtle conservation and the more elusive goal of a sustainable future.
Special thanks to NEST’s mentoring committee – Mrs. Pat Turpin, Ms. Heather Pepe, Mrs. Zoe Mason-Alkins, Mr. Gervais Alkins and the hard working NEST/SEMPR crew.
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