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Beach boys pledge to save the Hawksbill Turtle

Environment

Beach boys pledge to save the Hawksbill Turtle

Palau’s version of the beach boys take conserving the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle into their own hands.
GROWING up in Palau’s Southwest Islands, JR James would savour the taste of Hawksbill Turtle meat and their eggs regarded as a delicacy throughout Micronesia and the Pacific.
Fast forward a couple of decades and the 28-year-old now has a deep respect for the critically endangered turtles.
JR moved from his grandmother’s home to Koror, where he found work with the State government as a “beach boy”, or ranger, monitoring the untouched UNESCO World Heritage Site Rock Islands which make Palau so unique.
The quietly spoken JR is renowned in Koror as a master turtle tracker.
“Growing up in the Southwest Islands, I used to watch the turtles so we could catch them and collect their eggs, so I learnt how to track them,” JR explains.
Every fortnight for just over a year now, JR joins Palau Conservation Society (PCS) education awareness coordinator Yalap Yalap and several other rangers to the Rock Islands to monitor several Hawksbill Turtle nesting sites.
Eighty per cent of Hawksbills have declined globally during the last century, and it is estimated approximately 8,000 nesting females remain, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.
This decline is largely due to the trade of items, often jewellery and trinkets made from its shell – banned in many countries – and also the continued demand for its meat and eggs, despite it being classed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act since 1970.
Yalap says traditionally, turtle meat and eggs are widely eaten in Palau, while the shell is used to make a toluk – a plate owned and used by women, and presented at certain ceremonies.
“My 82-year-old mother Ebilreklai Gracia Yalap received a toluk when her mother Sechedui Asanuma passed away for example,” he says.
During the 15 years Yalap has worked for PCS, saving the rapidly diminishing Hawksbill Turtle has become a personal mission of his.
He endeavours to educate the Palauan people that Hawksbill Turtles are close to extinction, and to change their mindset about hunting Hawksbill Turtles despite it being a part of their culture.
After some heavy campaigning with the help of a Rare Alumni grant, PCS achieved a five year moratorium in 2010, banning hunting of Hawksbill Turtles and the collection of their eggs.
Another grant from the United States Department of State has enabled Yalap and the beach boys to monitor the moratorium and to continue awareness programmes in Palau.
The moratorium runs out at the end of this year however, and PCS is working hard to get an extension.
“You used to go into villages and see turtles flipped on their backs drying, waiting to be slaughtered … you don’t see this so much anymore, things are slowly changing but we need more time to see real results,” Yalap says.
Although there are 22 known Hawksbill nesting sites in the Rock Islands, Yalap and his crew only monitor five due to the high cost of fuelling their boat in Palau.
During one of the crew’s visits to the various sites in July, JR uncovers two new nests, both on the shore of the stunningly beautiful Ulong Island.
The master tracker walks the length of the beach looking for “disturbed” sand.
He discovers some that to the untrained eye looks untouched, and pokes a long stick into the sand to check if it is a nest.
When he withdraws it, the end is slimy and sticky – he has hit one of the eggs in a new nest.
The crew gently dig 80cm until the reach the top few eggs and measure the size of the nest, containing about 100 eggs.
“Turtles come onto shore at night during high tide every two weeks for three cycles at a time where they lay about 100 eggs,” JR says.
“They only lay every five years though, and only one or two of the 100 eggs laid at a time, survive – due to natural predators such as the giant monitor lizard and poachers and other factors such as pollution and loss of habitat.”
The other four nesting sites do not reveal any new nests, but one site shows footprints leading into the vegetation where turtles like to lay eggs, which Yalap says would most likely belong to poachers.
“Only locals are allowed on this island, and there is not much here apart from turtle nests so I would say that’s why they were here,” a disappointed Yalap adds.
Poachers are clever and camp out at night waiting for the turtles, while avoiding confrontation from rangers, he says.
Conservation has always been intrinsic in the Palau culture, with chiefs placing a bul – or moratorium on a depleted species of fish in the past in a society that largely depends on the ocean’s resources for their livelihoods.
However, increased tourism in Palau has impacted the nation of 21,000 in many ways.
Tourist demand for turtle-shell items continues, which means turtle harvesting continues.
The Palau Government collects approximately US$15 million from visitor permits to the Rock Islands (currently it costs each person US$50 to enter the Rock Islands and US$100 if you also visit Jellyfish Lake), and more of that money could go towards turtle conservation, Yalap says.
“We don’t see much of it … what we really need is a biologist here full time, to advise rangers and train them and we also need more boats to help with reinforcement.”
Although PCS and the State are trying to educate locals against harvesting turtles, until tourists stop demanding the production of turtle-shell items and purchasing them, poaching is difficult to stop.
It must stop however, if the Hawksbill Turtle is to be preserved – for the essential part they play in the eco-system and their sheer beauty and grace.
Email yyalap@palauconservation.org for more information about supporting the conservation of the Hawksbill Turtle.
Michelle Curran flew to Palau courtesy of Pacific Cooperation Foundation’s Media Programme (www.pcf.org.nz).
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