Turtle Patrollers Threatened by Poachers
At midnight on Thursday 14th June 2005, 3 students from the University of Glasgow were threatened by a group of 4 young men at Mt. Irvine Back Bay. The students, here as part of their school’s second annual expedition program with SOS Tobago, have been turtle watching on that beach, without incident, for the last five weeks. They were sitting with a hawksbill and a leatherback when the young men who were armed with cutlasses brazenly approached them and took the hawksbill, ordering the students to leave the beach. Police arrived on the scene after the men had already fled with the meat, senior patrollers who arrived just prior passed on the license plate information to the authorities and investigations are underway.
The desire for wild meat at harvest tends to fuel an increase in poaching activity in the months of June and July, despite the valiant efforts by the government and the NGOs to promote conservation in the schools and through the local media. National law protects nesting sea turtles and their eggs year round and until the end of September it is illegal to even be in possession of turtle meat. Although more attention is often given to the leatherback, hawksbills are also critically endangered and even more difficult to monitor and protect because they tend to prefer nesting on isolated rocky beaches.
The rotting carcass of a hawksbill turtle buried in a shallow grave.
Picture courtesy Gervais Alkins
Every nesting season, hundreds of tourists participate in turtle watching tours and almost every hotel and guesthouse from Mt Irvine to Plymouth, uses the turtles in their promotional materials. Students, like those who were threatened at Back Bay, contribute culturally and economically to the area as well by staying for long periods at small guest houses that would otherwise be empty in the traditionally quiet tourist months of May and June and by interacting fully throughout their stay with the communities in which they are based. They save and fundraise throughout the year to be able to afford this trip and with local youth groups like YEAH and the Black Rock Police Youth Group, assist in a range of SOS activities from education to research.
Sea turtles are a valuable part of our natural heritage and an important asset to our economy. Sea turtles do not mature until they are in their twenties and once they do, the females can lay up to 1000 eggs in a season. However, only 1-2 out of those 1000 will survive to adulthood so it is even more critical that adult females are protected because when they are all gone, it will be years before the nesting population can recover. A healthy mature sea turtle population is not only a viable subject for research and eco-tourism but also plays a critical role in the balance of life in our seas. The leatherbacks for example can eat over one thousand pounds of jellyfish in a day, providing a valuable service to our fishermen and recreational beach users.
SOS Tobago is appealing to members of the public to think before they eat, the future of our turtles is in our hands, act now before it is too late. Get involved in conservation efforts in your area or start your own turtle watch program if one does not exist, SOS would be happy to assist with training and networking. Ask before you eat and take a stand against the thoughtless consumption of Tobago’s endangered species, poachers are simply supplying the demand – do your part to reduce that demand. A thriving sea turtle population is a strong indicator of a coastal community that is creating harmony rather than causing harm to their beaches and seas. Greater advocacy and community involvement is key to ensuring that issues of turtle conservation and coastal preservation be taken more seriously by the authorities not just for the obvious eco-tourism benefits but also for the benefit of future generations of Tobagonians.