S O S TOBAGO (Save Our Sea Turtles)
In 1980 the population of nesting female Leatherback turtles worldwide was estimated at 115,000. In 1995 it had dropped to 34,500. Tobago is privileged to be one of the few places in the world where this critically endangered species comes to nest and although our nesting population is far less than that of Trinidad, we have a responsibility to protect these gentle creatures and their eggs.
Environment TOBAGO is pleased to announce the formation of SOS Tobago, a turtle conservation action group. The name is derived from the distress call, and also stands for Save Our Sea Turtles. While there have always been a few conservationists who have monitored the turtles, along with the understaffed and underfunded Forestry Division, there has never been a formal organization existing in Tobago until this year.
Our goals are to actively monitor Tobago's current Sea Turtle population and to share our findings with the public, concerned Governmental agencies and various International organizations, such as Widecast (Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network), the World Wildlife Foundation, Earthwatch and others. We also plan to hold educational seminars at schools and public forums concerning how we can collectively conserve the turtles and even, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work increase their numbers.
SOS Tobago is currently patrolling several beaches collecting data and making sure that all nesting turtles make it safely up to nest and back into the water when their chore is complete. Some of our patrol areas have hotels and we have been fortunate to have the aid of hotel security guards on 2 of our beaches. Being a relatively small group, this help has proved invaluable. The guards have, for the most part, gone above and beyond their own territories to ensure the safety of the turtles. Many have even stayed on duty when their shift has ended. Heartfelt thanks to all of them.
Besides poachers, which are the main threat to female turtles, Tobago's rapid coastal development has also worked against the turtles. Where there once was just sea and sand, there are now gazebos to shade the sun worshipper, beach chairs, vendor's stands, volleyball nets and other beach toys. Where once there was only a darkened beach, we now have lights due to all the seaside development. This is especially tough on the hatchlings who, newly emerged from the nest, become confused and head towards the lights instead of the moonlit sea. Turtle Beach Hotel has always been very sympathetic to the plight of the turtles and should be congratulated for their efforts. They always dim their beachside lighting when turtles and/or hatchlings are nearby. If other beachside establishments can follow this example, then perhaps the turtles can survive Tobago's rapid development.
Leatherback turtles nest every 2 years, therefore the females we have this year are some of the same ones we had in 1998, plus any new sexually mature turtles (Female Leatherbacks take approximately 25 years to reach nesting maturity). Leatherbacks prefer soft, dry sand to nest in and our widest expanse of beach this year was that between Turtle Beach Hotel and the Black Rock River. (This was due to Hurricane Lenny in November of last year and extremely rough seas for the first quarter of 2000 causing serious erosion and a severe shift of sand affecting 50% of the beach).
In 1998 we counted 53 nests on Turtle Beach for the season. This year we are ending the season with a total of 84 nests so far. This is more than a 50% increase over 1998, and should be reason for optimism, except for one thing. With the decrease of available beach, nesting was highly concentrated in the aforementioned area between the hotel and the river. When the rains started to come in June, the Black Rock River became very swollen and started to back up to the dismay of homeowners in the area. There was an increase in mosquitoes and the threat of flooding to their homes. The THA's
"Works & Transport" division was called in to alleviate the problem. Unfortunately, the majority of nests were in this same wide sandbank which caused the river to back-up, and sadly many nests were lost to the ravages of the backhoe that came to unblock the river.
Increased mooring of boats also presents problems as turtles often become entangled in anchor lines. Luckily, this year, all entanglements had happy endings due to some sympathetic dive operators and a very patient fisherman who took the time to untangle the one who got trapped in his seine boat line.
As for the poachers, perhaps with increased awareness and education, the balance will begin to shift and they will be recognized for the cowards that they really are. Cowards who don't fight fair and continue to slaughter these helpless mothers. Surely even they can figure out that if they keep killing all the females, eventually the turtles will die out.
Trinidad and many other Caribbean islands have turtle conservation programmes and this is a plus in terms of tourism and the much sought after "Eco-tourist". It's time for Tobago to take responsibility for its' valuable natural resources before they are all gone. Despite all the obstacles Tobago's turtles face, we optimistic that with education of the problems, cooperation and a little understanding, we can work together to find solutions so that the "ENDANGERED" does not become the "EXTINCT". - Wendy Herron