Taking steps to protect leatherback sea turtles

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By IAN KAUKUI 

SOLOMON Islands, a country with one of the world’s most extensive shorelines, has taken a step towards conserving the nesting beaches and protection of Pacific leatherback sea turtles.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) office in Honiara, with the support from their main branch in United Kingdom is the main driver of the turtle conservation work.

“Across the world, turtle species are already endangered and in Solomon Islands, we want to focus on Isabel Province since it was one of the main nesting sites for the Leatherback turtles including other species not only in Solomon Islands but also in the Pacific region.

“This was known following assessment done in the past by National Oceania and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a US based organization that deals with different species such as the Leatherback,” TNC Country Director Willie Atu said.   

He said in Isabel, they have four active sites but only two of them engaged with the conservation activities until this month where the other two have formally signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to be part of the conservation. The two sites include Sasakolo and Lithogahira.

“Sasakolo nesting beach was the first to carryout conservation and monitoring work way back in 1992 but it was halted in 2012 following land dispute whilst Lithogahira is a new comer in the project,” he said.

Isabel Paramount Chief, Bishop James Philip Mason who is one of the hardworking persons supporting the idea to converse the Lithogahira nesting beach said he is very happy to be part of the initiative and would continue to support the project.

“I can still remember when I was attending primary school in Lithogahira during 1940’s where we used to eat those leatherback turtles, but now we have learned the importance of conserving them given their less appearance on our beaches compared to the past.

“Since they are now regarded as endangered species, their survival depends on our attitude towards them and so it is time we together to help protect and allow their population to grow as far as they can,” he said. 

Isabel Provincial Premier Leslie Kikolo said the province is also fully support anything to do with conservation but just that customary land issues have to be sorted out by responsible authorities.

“Our province is so honored and privileged to host such projects given we are the only province those leatherback turtles love to nest on and we want to be role model to other provinces when it comes to conservation of such endangered species.

“I hope that the conservation programs will continue and more Leatherback turtles will come to our shores so that in future we can provide more nesting sites for the turtles,” Kikolo said.

TNC Marine Conservation Scientist Simon Peter Vuto said they also have the satellite tracking journey of those stocked species that fed as far as north California, USA and yet make their treacherous migration thousands of miles just to nest in Isabel islands.

Vuto said the critically endangered Western Pacific leatherback sea turtles embark on an annual migration of over 6,000 miles each year to feed on dense aggregations of their favorite food, jellyfish.

“As the largest of all sea turtles, Leatherback have experienced a catastrophic 95% decline in their Pacific nesting populations over the last several decades due to constant threats of entanglement in commercial fishing gear, poaching of turtles and turtle eggs from nesting beaches, ingestion of plastics and pollutants, and habitat loss on tropical nesting beaches.

“Past scientific assessments already compliment local knowledge which had shown Isabel Province to host some of the most active nesting beaches for leatherback turtles in Solomon Islands.  

“Records also shows those leatherback turtles after their eggs were hatched and released out to sea where they migrated to other parts of the ocean, they will return as they get matured to lay their eggs on the same beach where they know they were born out from and is becoming like a life cycle of any particular thing,” Vuto explained.

TNC Isabel Coordinator, John Pita said for Sasakolo as one of the active nesting beaches for the leatherback turtles, it took around 11 years to carry out the conservation.

“Sasakolo has recorded a total of 227 nests in 6 seasons from 1993-2009 until in 2012 when it was halted due to land issue.

“After Sasakolo, we have Sosoilo where we recorded 77 nests from the 4 seasons beginning from 2015- 2019 and later on we have Haevo where we have recorded 316 nests for the 7 seasons starting from 2013 -2019.”

He said TNC is yet to get the updated data of the figure for the recent years from each conservation sites but from the recent monitoring findings, it shows an increase of the number of nesting sites especially on the already established conservation sites such as Haevo and Sosoilo.

A representative and Chief of the Kolebara decedents at the Lithogahira nesting beach, Chief Clement Eta said with the recent signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the two landowning groups from Sasakolo and Lithogahira, that increases the conservation sites to four.

But Eta said, prior to all those conservations, harvesting of those leatherback turtle with their eggs is a normal thing for them to do.

“Given the ongoing practice of slaughtering turtles by people, it seems the number of leatherback turtle nesting per week is slowly declining compared to the past.

“Our conviction to offer our beach for the purpose of conservation was after we realized the importance of conserving the species as explained to us when attending several leatherback turtles’ workshops and consultations organized by TNC office together with the Isabel Provincial Government (IPG) as part of encouraging us to protect and conserve leatherback in our shores and in Solomon Islands.

“The other reason to engage with the conservation again is that we want to see the increase of the leatherback turtle population again just as it was in the past where the whole beach is regarded as the nesting sites.

“At first, the whole beach is regarded as the nesting sites but as time goes on and people continue to kill and eat the turtles and their eggs, the nesting sites getting narrowed and it’s a sad thing to see,” he said.

He said with the support from TNC, they are looking forward to participate in ensuring the conservation is effectively carried out including the training of Rangers as they are the front liners to do the work.

Anet Ofu which represent Sasakolo leatherback turtle nesting beach said one of the challenges to such conservation is land issues which endangers conservation efforts.

But she said they are so pleased to be back with the conservation efforts after several years of operation and later got halt in 2012 after some land issues arising.

“Sasakolo leatherback turtle beach is the second longest nesting beach in Isabel province with 3.4 km in length and is one of the active beaches during the period of its conservation.

“At first it was the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources who led the conservation operation and it was not properly set up until the TNC office stepped in later on.

“Following its start off in 1993, later in 2006 a team from US came and conducted a satellite tracking of the leatherback turtle movement in and out of Isabel province to the great Pacific Ocean linking to the California in South America, she said.

“We continue with the work until in 2012 when some issue of land dispute arises, we then halted the conservation until now that we have decided together with the other parties to leave the issue of land aside and allow the conservation work to go ahead,” Mrs. Ofu said.

She said during the first conservation period, communities in and around Sasakolo were aware of the conservation and respect the efforts until it comes to halt in 2012 where they started to harvest the eggs and turtle again.

“Since we are already into it now, I don’t think we have a problem in conserving our beaches, but we really need support from TNC in pushing this effort forward by way of providing equipment, materials and to support the plan to also built an accommodation centre for the Rangers when carrying out the monitoring activities,” she said.

“We are so happy to join Lithogahira in supporting the conservation efforts by signing up the MOU together with TNC as now our main objective is to help get the endangered species population increases again through conservation given its population is now slowly declining.

“Not only that, it’s a pride for us given that apart from other beaches in Solomon Islands and in the Western Pacific, Sasakolo including other beaches in Isabel province are already regarded as one of the highest active sites for those leatherback turtles to nest and we want to see that in the many years to come,” she added.


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