May 27, 2009

Islanders Come Together To Save Turtles

Four years ago the people of Runduma decided to start protecting the turtles that they once used on the Indonesian island to help with finances, such as to put children through school or keep the village kitty in petty cash.

Environmentalists now say that the turtle population is growing in the seas off southeast Sulawesi, and the turtle hunters have become their guardians in the battle to save the marine reptiles from extinction.

"We used to have a long and unique tradition of organizing the egg collection among the people here," Runduma village chief La Brani told AFP.

"Families took turns every night to collect eggs and 30 out of around 100 eggs from each nest were set aside for the village's petty cash."

The majority of the eggs were taken from nearby Anano, which is an uninhabited island that has ancient turtle nesting grounds between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The turtles eggs were sold to finance public spending on things like a new water filtration system, and helped poorer families cover expenses like school fees for their children.

"It was terribly difficult at the beginning to convince people not to collect eggs as it was a living for them," the village chief said.

However, the loss of this traditional source of income has yet to worry the residents like Hatipa, who would receive about nine cents per egg, which is enough to put two children through school.

"I stopped collecting eggs in 2005 because I was afraid that if it continued, future generations would never know what a turtle looked like," she said.

"Since then I've been struggling to protect the turtles. If people are gathering for a chat I tell them how we have to live side by side with the turtles."

The islanders pledged to stop their trade in eggs and turtle meat and instead protect the endangered creatures after an agreement was struck in 2005 between the local administration and environmental groups.

The government, in exchange, has sent teachers, topped up the community's public coffers and organized visits from celebrities.

"Nobody came here before but now we have celebrity visits. Turtles have given us their blessings," Hatipa said.

Donors can "adopt" a baby turtle or nest to supplement for poor fishing village's income for about $96 dollars.

The coordinator of a turtle conservation program, Purwanto, said the adoptions help educate local people about their marine environment as well as raise money.

"We occasionally keep one to five baby turtles from a nest... and allow visitors to release them into the sea as a symbolic act to save the endangered species. We hope to raise awareness this way," he said.

By just taking a quick boat ride to nearby Anano, it is clear that the population of turtles is on the rise.

Nests full of eggshells are scattered along the beach, each one representing a new generation of turtles being safely dispatched to sea.

"During the peak season from September to December, up to seven turtles will lay their eggs here every night," Purwanto said.

He said about 243 turtles are estimated to have laid about 3,000 eggs on the island last year, compared to only 20 in 2006 and 77 in 2007.

The most common visitors are the endangered green and hawksbill turtles.  The WWF says that about 203,000 breeding green turtle females exist in the wild, while only around 8,000 hawksbill do.

All of the seven marine turtle species are experiencing a threatened survival, especially from the destruction of habitats like coral reefs, beds of seagrass, nesting beaches and mangrove forests.

The hatchlings that survive the chase from their nest to the sea also face the risk of drowning in fishing gear or waste like plastic bags as they migrate to feeding grounds.

Conservationists said that although Anano might be a successful story, other places in Indonesia are putting the archipelago turtles at risk of being killed and exploited with impunity.

The fines of up to $10,000 and jail time of five years that is set out for anyone caught stealing eggs or poaching turtles is rarely enforced.

"Egg collection occurs in many parts of Indonesia, especially on Borneo and the western part of Sumatra Island where turtle eggs are still commercialized," said WWF's national coordinator of marine species conservation Creusa Hitipeuw.

"Bali has been a main destination market of turtle meat which is illegally smuggled from the nearby islands of West Nusa Tenggara such as Lombok and Sumbawa."

Anano and Runduma are amongst the cluster of islands in the Wakatobi district on the southern tip of Sulawesi Island.

In 1996, they were declared a national park, and are among 11 zones the local government has set aside for marine and reef conservation.

"For the last three years we included environmental subjects in the school curriculum for elementary and junior high school," said Wakatobi district chief Hugua, a former environmental activist.

"Wakatobi's biggest development income will focus on eco-tourism, which will maintain, among other things, the sustainability of sea turtle conservation."