Turtles emerge from a small crater in the sand, pausing briefly to sense their surroundings before dashing to the ocean in a fight for survival. With no defence mechanisms, the 130 hatchlings from this nest must brace themselves against predatory crabs and birds while they struggle to reach the relative safety of the water.
But these remarkable creatures, measuring about three centimeters in length, must also contend with more unnatural hazards. Egg harvesting, poaching and loss of nesting sites continue to threaten the endangered species.
Only one in a thousand green turtles that hatch on Dar es Salaam’s South Beach will reach sexual maturity and breed. A grassroots conservation group attempting to protect Tanzania’s sea turtles wants to bring an end to poaching and boost turtle population numbers in the region.
“Communities believe there are medicinal properties from eating turtle meat,” she says. “They believe it can cure many illnesses such as stomach infections, asthma and ear infections. One of the most widely held beliefs is that consuming turtle meat helps with fertility, because they live so long and lay thousands of eggs.”
Tanzania’s coast is home to five sea turtle species including green, loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill and olive ridley. After hatching, turtles will travel thousands of kilometers to forage for food while they reach sexual maturity — a process that takes decades. Once they are ready to breed, they instinctively return to the beach where they were born to begin the cycle again.
West says a research program at Sea Sense allows the organization to monitor migration patterns. Tanzania’s turtles have travelled as far as northern Somalia before returning home to nest, while turtles hatching in the Seychelles have travelled to Tanzania’s coast.
“Most communities now are eating turtles,” West says. “If a fisherman catches a turtle in his net, the turtle is virtually never released alive even if it’s a juvenile.”
Currently Sea Sense operates in seven districts — an expansion of conservation projects that started on Mafia Island. The organization’s strategy includes education programs, robust research and close monitoring of the turtles and their nesting sites.
West says one of the most successful initiatives has been hiring former poachers to become conservation officers. These men now patrol the beaches where they once hunted for turtle eggs.
Officers know a nest will hatch about 48 hours before it happens because the turtles slowly crack through their shells, creating a divot in the sand.
“Most of our beaches are inaccessible to guests … in the nighttime crabs are very active. Hatchlings get pulled apart. That’s natural predation,” West says.
Since Sea Sense was established in 2001, turtle egg harvesting at monitored sites has declined substantially.
“At that time there was a very high level of poaching of turtle eggs and of slaughter of nesting females,” West says. She adds that within three years, less than one per cent of eggs were lost to poachers, down from 80 per cent.
But the endangerment of turtles is a regional issue. West touts the importance of a regional task force that is working on a long-term conservation strategy.
“We are all sharing the same populations of turtles,” she says, adding that there is a Memorandum of Understanding covering the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. “Tanzania is a signatory for marine turtle conservation. Activities are related to nest monitoring, awareness, national committees and increasing the capacity of governments.”
West says healthy turtle populations are essential to maintaining the ocean’s biodiversity.
“The loss of any species in an ecosystem is very sad,” she says, adding that turtles play an important role in nutrient recycling.
“Through foraging habits, turtles are able to maintain the integrity of the systems,” she says. Turtles eat seagrass, helping to maintain the health of the plant. “Seagrass communities are the nursery grounds for many commercial fish species.”
She adds that turtles also feed on sea sponges which, left unchecked, can overwhelm and damage coral reefs. The degradation of coral reefs contributes to the erosion of coastal communities.
“If you remove a coral reef, there is nothing to break down that wave energy.”
West attributes the drop in turtle egg poaching to dedicated conservation officers, who are recruited from the communities near the nesting grounds, and a focus on community building.
Sea Sense is investing in ecotourism, asking tourists pay a fee to watch a turtle nest hatch. Proceeds are split between tour companies and Sea Sense, which then donates a portion to local communities.
West says the initiatives have contributed to community projects involving solar panels, water systems and maize production.
“Biodiversity conservation is helping the communities to develop,” she says.
While turtles nest all year round, the peak season is from April to May. After two months of incubation, turtles will hatch, making June to August the best time to see the process.
Boniventure Mchomvu, projects officer, says the results of conservation efforts are encouraging, but there are still setbacks.
Hotel development on beaches near Dar es Salaam has disrupted turtle nesting behaviour. Light and noise can prevent the turtles from nesting successfully, he says. When a turtle’s nesting beach is inaccessible, she will release her eggs into the ocean and kill the potential offspring.
“People don’t have the knowledge of why sea turtles are important to them,” he says. “We raise awareness targeting specific issues to promote a dialogue in the community.”
He adds that on a local level, education is the only way to safeguard turtle populations.
“Lots of the communities eat turtles. They believe it cures diseases and say it’s a delicious meat, so we have to tell them about the importance of conservation.”
Mchomvu says that Sea Sense uses community theatre to dispel myths, including the idea that a nest will contain more than just turtles.
“Most community members believed when a nest hatched, other animals could come out like lizards and frogs,” he says. “And we learned it’s because they never gave the nest a chance to hatch, they always took the eggs. Now we convince them to protect the nest so they can see it hatch.”
Temu Pastory, monitoring and evaluation officer, says community theatre is the most powerful tool to spread awareness.
“It’s a participatory activity,” he says. “All of these people, they get together to discuss and find out a common solution for environmental issues. It touches every angle: gender, youth, elders and the local government authorities.
“You can have 500 to 1,000 participants, so yes, it is costly, but look at how many people you reach in terms of awareness.”
Pastory says he has noticed behavioural changes in coastal communities where Sea Sense works.
“For instance, there have been citizens taking action, reporting illegal activities like sea turtle slaughtering. Citizens are also engaging in peer-to-peer education, buying into the idea of conservation,” he says.
Both Mchomvu and Pastory say they have lost count as to how many hatchings they have seen — but the experience is still magical.
“People who see the hatching are surprised to see turtles intuitively dash to sea,” Mchomvu says. “They get out of the hole, they spread out, they have to fight for their survival.”
He adds that turtles will grow to about 1.5 metres.
“It’s an amazing experience to see a newborn sea turtle quickly adapt to their environment,” Pastory says. “This natural behaviour leads them to come back to the same beach after 30 to 50 years.”
“It’s a cool experience.”
This story was originally published in The Citizen, Sept. 26.