BY IAN KAUKUI
WHAT used to be a turtle slaughtering ground for a coastal community in the Solomon Islands in the past is now a safe sanctuary for the leatherback, the largest sea turtle species on earth.
The Haevo Khulano Integrated Conservation area in Isabel Province was established in 2013 following initial consultations between stakeholders in 2012 which include a local committee formed out from the Haevo Khulano Integrated Conservation area surrounding Communities, Isabel Provincial Government, Solomon Islands Government and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
TNC is one of the Global Environment Organisation in Arlington, Virginia, United States but has a branch in Honiara that deals with environment conservation including the different types endangered species they have such as the Leatherback turtle including others turtle species for that matter
Before 2013, local residents of Haevo usually harvesting turtle eggs and killing the turtle for its meat given the weak law enforcement on the part of the fisheries act and because it already become a normal practise they culturally grew up with to kill and harvest those turtles including their eggs, without realising it is one of the most endangered turtles species on earth and that it against the fisheries act to kill them
The 4.6 kilometres stretch of black sandy beach is situated in the north-east of Isabel Province and is amongst the few nesting sites for leatherback turtles in the Pacific region.
Following the establishment of the Haevo Khulano Integrated Conservation area in 2013, turtle monitoring training tagging, data collection and other technical aspects of the monitoring also started with the direct involvement of the so called Rangers.
Chief Hubert Haehathe from the nearby Buma village, situated at the western end of the Haevo turtle nesting beach is also an active member of the local committee who is part of the conservation initiative and also attended several leatherback trainings leading up to the conservation establishment.
He said the nesting beach was actually where they used to get turtles and their eggs for food when turtles came ashore for nesting.
“At first we didn’t mind about protecting the leatherback turtles but we only see them as food.
“Not until in 2013 when the conservation started and we managed to stop the practise.”
Haehathe said today, the leatherback turtles are now part of his community’s culture and identity.
“Some of us especially the older people are well versed with the knowledge and skills which we have developed in understanding the leatherback turtles’ behaviour such as mastering knowledge of the suitable nesting season for the year.
“It’s already becoming part of our culture which are not new, as our ancestors use to tell us about the nature and lifestyle of these turtles,” Haehathe said.
Following the establishment of the conservation effort, people in Haevo no longer slaughter the leatherback turtles and dig their eggs given they themselves have also agreed to conserve the turtle after several awareness and workshops has really opened their minds on the importance of that particular species and why it should be protected.
Currently movements of the certain leatherback turtles are tracked down by local Rangers who are manning the Haevo beach nesting ground inside the designated conservation area but only for those they put tags on.
These rangers are tasked to manage the beach both day and night and record any sighting of turtles on the beach.
Supervising Ranger Bryan Siama said their roles are to monitor and record the number of turtles coming in and how many actually lay eggs on the beach.
“We do assessment as to how many eggs are actually laid by each turtle and those surviving after hatching before swimming out into the Pacific Ocean.
“Interestingly, we now able to understand the movements of these turtles when we started recording them since their nesting until hatching of newborn babies. We can now tell when they will return for their next nesting season.
“We started with around 10 Rangers and sometimes we attended trainings conducted by TNC team as the leading body that supported the conservation program,” he said.
Siama said with the support from TNC, the Isabel Provincial Government, the Maringe Kokota Constituency and Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP), they managed to put up a two-storey iron roofing building as a hub for the Rangers and to provide accommodation for visitors and guests alike.
“As one of those who are currently on site, we normally provide security and work to help protect these leatherback turtles by assisting them during the process of laying of eggs, and transfer of eggs to safer places if urgently needed especially when their nests are close to the water mark.
“But the most challenging part of our work is the impact of climate change and threat caused by humans. Given the king tides normally experienced toward end of each year, it can destroy the turtles’ nests and so we have to relocate all the nests to a safer or higher ground to avoid being washed away by the high tides,” he said.
Siama added other threats to the conservation initiative are from lizards, iguana, crabs and other animals that usually dig up the turtles’ nesting sites and eat the eggs.
“Not only that, several people are still yet to fully understand conservation and sometimes harvested turtles’ eggs when they come across the nests on the beach.
“We see that there is a need to do more awareness so that our people can fully understand the purpose of turtles’ nesting conservation and what benefits it can bring to our communities,” he said.
Siama reiterated construction of new houses at the western end of the beach, also disturbs the turtles when they want to get ashore for nesting.
However, with regards to the conservation work, it really helps a lot in many ways to both the Rangers, the villagers, communities, the provincial government and NGOs because more achievements have already been achieved following its establishment in 2013.
Another Ranger, Benson Clifford said he is able to provide food for his family because he is paid for his work as a ranger under the conservation work.
Clifford said as rangers, they normally encounter turtles every night and one of the highest records they had was up to six turtles.
“This normally occurred during the peak season.
“Leatherback turtles normally have two seasons namely mid-year season from June to August and end-year season from October to March. The peak seasons are from June to July and November to January.
“As part of our job, we record how many eggs each turtle lays and how many eggs hatch. Each turtle can lay up to around 80 to 100 plus eggs.
“After going through some trainings, we’ve also been able to do tagging of the turtles, get their measurements, DNA samples, handling of eggs during relocation and record as much information we can get from the turtles,” he said.
In terms of the laws that governs the conservation of turtles, TNC officer in Honiara Madlyn Ero said only the Solomon Islands Ministry of Fisheries has the law that strongly prohibits the killing of Leatherback turtles than any other turtle species.
Mrs. Ero said Rangers only carry out the monitoring, and if anyone found breaching the laws by killing any leatherback turtles, they can only report to the Ministry and orders can be made for Police to carry out arrest.
She said the law strongly applies only to the leatherback turtles and not so much on the other species, like the Hawksbill and Green turtle as their population is much higher than the Leatherback turtle.
The law she referred to is the current management or protection of Marine Turtles in Solomon Islands which highlights issues regarding turtles, and their nests and eggs as well as protection of certain turtles in Solomon Islands.
Under the country’s national fisheries law on turtles’ protection, any person who sells or exposes for sale or buys or exports any turtle or part of any turtle or the product thereof, shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction liable to a fine of one hundred dollars or to imprisonment for three months, or to both such fine and such imprisonment.
Furthermore, any person who takes nesting turtles or eggs or destroys turtle nests or eggs during breeding seasons which are from June to August and November to January shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction liable to a fine of one hundred dollars or three months imprisonment or to both such fine and imprisonment.
The law also prohibits fishing for the leathery backed turtle or luth (Dermochelys coriacea); or takes, destroys, possesses, sells or exposes for sale, buys or exports any eggs of any leathery backed turtle or luth. Anyone found to be breaking this law shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of one hundred dollars or to imprisonment for three months, or to both such fine and imprisonment.
And for this reason, and with that conservation in Haevo, Chief Haehathe said up until today, they never harvested any leatherback turtle or catch people digging turtle eggs on the beach and also no body being arrested, fined for violating the law.
Former Minister for Environment, and Member of Parliament representing the constituency where Haevo nesting beach is, Dr. Culwick Togamana said Solomon Islands Government also supports the conservation of endangered species in the country including the leatherback turtles.
He added the key roles of provincial governments and communities in coastal resource management are also pivotal in the implementation of the Solomon Islands National Ocean Policy.
“It is through this government’s initiative that the government together with the Isabel Provincial Government in partnership with TNC and community representatives declared Haevo Khulano as a conservation area for the leatherback turtles,” Dr. Culwick said.
He said essentially, leatherback turtle management and conservation are a matter of national priority supporting the global effort to protect this majestic creature.
“Leatherback turtle remains a restricted species and its survival still is now under threat. In fact, the population of leatherback turtle has declined by almost 80% in waters of Western Pacific countries, Solomon Islands included so that the survival of this turtle species is considered critically endangered.”
Meanwhile, TNC Country Director-Solomon Islands Program, Willie Atu said they’re working together with relevant stakeholders to discuss improvement on current state of Leatherback Turtle conservation and management in Isabel Province.
He said TNC is also discussing the re-commencement of monitoring and management of the Leatherback nesting population in Sasakolo, at the the western end of Isabel Province, including signing of Memorandum of Understanding between relevant stakeholders.
He said over the past months, they have conducted workshops which brings together different leather back conservation groups within the Isabel Province covering the three constituencies on the island.
TNC Marine Conservation Scientist Simon Peter Vuto said 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.
He said satellite tracking have shown some stocks of leatherback turtles feeding as far north as California, USA would make a treacherous migration south just past the equator covering thousands of miles journey to nest on Haevo beach in Isabel.
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 favourite food, jellyfish.
He said there are estimated to be between 34,000 and 36,000 nesting females left worldwide (compared to 115,000 nesting females in 1980). The Pacific populations are facing extinction and the Atlantic population is being caught as by catch (living things caught unintentionally while fishing) at an unsustainable rate.
As the largest of all sea turtles, he said 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.
Vuto said records shows leatherback turtles after their eggs hatched and released, migrated to other parts of the ocean, before returning to lay their eggs on the same beach where their mother once laid them as mere turtle eggs.
There are seven different types of turtle species but Vuto said only three have been sighted and recorded in the Solomon Islands. The other two apart from leatherback are hawksbill and green turtle.
TNC Isabel Coordinator, John Pita said turtles come with different sizes. Some have a length of up to 2.5 meters and weighs up to 1000 kilograms. However, he said the record is no longer matched in any of the current nesting sites, which means their sizes and lengths have decreased over time.
Pita said currently the sizes in terms of length can reached up to 2.4 metres and 1.6 metres width and weights up to 400kgs.
He said leatherback turtles love to lay their eggs on hard black beaches unlike other turtle species who love white sandy beaches.
“Whilst other turtle species takes 30-40 years to reach maturity stages, leatherback turtles take only 10-20 years and they can leave up to 40 years which means they grow faster and die faster. Their main diet is jelly fish and each jelly fish contains up to 200 litres of food which leatherback turtles really need to feed on.”
On the Haevo turtle conservation beach, Ranger Clifford said it seems there is hope at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the current effort to conserve the leatherback species compared to the past.
“Increasing the population of the leatherback turtle is possible given there is no more consumption of leatherback turtles in Haevo or other parts of Isabel like it used to be in the past.
“Assisting with its nesting and looking after the eggs is also contributing to increasing the population of the leatherback turtle species in the wild.”
Ranger Clifford said he is looking forward to see and record more leatherback on Haevo beach. That to him would be the result of his contribution and commitment to the conservation work as a ranger.
The establishment of Haevo turtle nesting conservation area including Sasakolo and Arnavon islands in the western tip of Isabel Province and Rendova island in the Western Province, is already a positive sign for the future of the leatherback turtles.
Such turtle conservation effort in Solomon Islands can also be supported by stopping the consumption of turtles as it is still a delicacy for many coastal residents in the archipelago.
Collaboration from all stakeholders is also paramount to help address the issue of climate change as one of the main threats to the leatherback population. That is to come up with strategies and actions to encounter those risks.
* This feature story is produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) under its Special Story Grant Award.