Climate Change

‘It Hurts Us So Much’: This Chief Wants All Villages To Stop Turtle Harvesting

From eating turtles to protecting them, How Kavewa Island learnt a new way,
19 Jun 2022 18:49
‘It Hurts Us So Much’: This Chief Wants All Villages To Stop Turtle Harvesting
Clan leader and village chief Ratu Meli Silibaravi

The people of Kavewa Island on Vanua Levu have always had a special relationship with the sea turtle.

For generations, the turtle was a source of food, income, and an inte­gral part of traditional ceremonies.

But over the past 20 years, things have changed for this small island community.

Situated off the coast of the Macu­ata Province, the island, home to 22 households and 98 villagers includ­ing children, noticed the number of turtles decreasing.

And these days, instead of eat­ing turtles – or selling them at the market – they are championing the course of turtle conservation in the country.


A New Breed

It all began in 2009 during a visit by a team of volunteers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Pacific.

University students and non-gov­ernmental organisations travelled to the area to study turtle breeding areas.

Across from Kavewa, close to a five-minute boat ride, is Katawaqa Island, an uninhabited island where turtles breed.

kavewa island at sunset

kavewa island at sunset

Clan leader and village chief, Ratu Meli Silibaravi, 73, said he was part of the generation that grew up eat­ing turtle meat.

“We’re a family that has always been cooking up turtles because we have the Turaga na Tui Nadogo (Tui Nadogo is the title of the district chief) who has shouldered us with the responsibility of providing him with turtles at big events or func­tions in the district,” Ratu Meli said.

“We would be harvesting four to five turtles in one catch even during its breeding season.

“But it was not until 2009, when the WWF reached the village, that our awareness [of the impacts of har­vesting] increased.

“I had gathered the people of the village and pleaded with them to put a stop to it. And as a village, as an island, we have kept to that law of no harvesting of turtles very seriously [since].

Turtle Monitor

Today, Emosi Time, the chief’s son, is at the forefront of the turtle conservation programme on the island.

He is known as the Dau ni Vonu or turtle monitor on the island.

Emosi is known as the Dau ni Vonu or turtle monitor

Emosi is known as the Dau ni Vonu or turtle monitor

He is trained by WWF not only to record sightings, nesters and num­bers of eggs, but to monitor sea­grass health (their food) and even to attach satellite tags to captured turtles’ carapaces (shells) in order to track individuals as they jour­ney around the Pacific.

For Mr Time, it hasn’t always been easy — and the problems he encounters don’t generally come from his village.

“I get so angry when I see other villages going out and harvesting turtles when they are supposed to be conserved,” he said.

“Awareness needs to keep going, it should not stop, because once it stops, we will go back to our old ways, and we will slow down on our conservation work.

“Another thing is how we try and educate villagers, their perception and understanding on the issue needs to be sharp, they need to know why we do it. Only then we can reach a consensus.”

Climate change

Today, there is another threat that the people of Kavewa face.

In 2020, Katawaqa Island (the turtle breeding island) was rav­aged by TC Yasa. It stripped away a portion of its sand bank leaving behind rocks on a fraction of its seashore.

Adi WWF volunteer

Adi WWF volunteer

This impacts the breeding grounds of turtles, as the hatch­lings need sand to get to the ocean.

Further, according to a study con­ducted by the WWF, changes in climatic conditions and tempera­tures mean it is possible that the population of sea turtles could be completely female in the coming years.

Sustainable Fisheries and Sea­food Programme manager WWF-Pacific Duncan Williams said the sex of a sea turtle was determined by the temperature of the sand in­cubating the eggs.

“Water temperatures of 29 cel­sius produce females and cooler temperatures produce male,” he said.

“Increase in temperatures result­ing from climate change, means more females are born disturbing the natural gender ratio.”

A year ago, a group of WWF vol­unteers placed temperature loggers at 14 different sites on Katawaqa Island to monitor the temperature of the sand.

temperature monitor

temperature monitor

They buried them in different lo­cations around the island at depths of 60cm and 40cm in a range of shady, sunny and north-south ori­entations.

The goal of the study is to un­derstand the temperature profile for the entire island and provide feedback to the WWF’s worldwide monitoring project of turtle breed­ing grounds.

Mr Williams added that in gen­eral there was a decline in nesting events on Kavewa over the past five years.

wwf volunteer digging a hole]

wwf volunteer digging a hole

WWF-Pacific plans to conduct further nesting surveys over the next two to three nesting seasons (October-April) which co­incides with Fiji’s cyclone season.

From a woman’s perspective

Divuna Rukalesi, 65, is the oldest woman living on Kavewa.

She has lived through the many challenges brought about by cli­mate change — and being resilient in the face of adversity is what she’s learnt to do.

Divuna is on the right

Divuna is on the right

“My house was one of the houses on the island that was washed away when the tidal waves came to the is­land during TC Yasa,” he said.

“The intensity of cyclones keep strengthening, but I have learnt [to] adapt.”

And that adaption has evolved into the protection of sea turtles. She said in the past they would go and dig up their eggs to eat them.

“That has changed. We don’t do that anymore,” she said.

“Today we weave, and fish and we sell them. I am going to build my new house further inland now be­cause I know the chances of more tidal waves are still there in the fu­ture. It’s about being resilient and adapting to changes as they come.”

volunteers in canoe looking out to the island

volunteers in canoe looking out to the island

With the work carried out on tur­tle conservation on the island, the men of Kavewa now own yaqona farms in a piece of land on the mainland given to them by the Tui Nadogo.

Non-Governmental Organisations assist villagers on mangrove plant­ing, which also continues on the island.

Looking to the future

Ratu Meli said there were still some islands harvesting turtles close by.

Clan leader and village chief Ratu Meli Silibaravi with grandchildren

Clan leader and village chief Ratu Meli Silibaravi with grandchildren

He hoped that one day, they would understand why it was so impor­tant to conserve these special sea creatures.

“This hurts us so much,” he said.

“Just to see and hear them keep doing it despite [us] telling them the consequences of their actions.

“They do not look into the future; they do not have a vision.

“We do this for the future of our people and especially for our chil­dren who are growing up, I want this tradition to go on.”

  • The Fiji Sun would like to thank WWF Pacific, ABC International Develop­ment and the Australia Pacific Climate Partnership for their support for this story.


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