TURTLES in the spotlight

By EMOSI LASAQA Mamanuca Environment Society The first journey of just-hatched fragile baby sea turtles, struggling to get to the relative safety of the ocean, is often fraught with dangers.
03 Jun 2012 10:45

Betani Salusalu (squatting left) tagging a turtle at Mana Island Resort. Photo: Courtesy of NAVINI ISLAND RESORT

Mamanuca Environment Society

The first journey of just-hatched fragile baby sea turtles, struggling to get to the relative safety of the ocean, is often fraught with dangers.
Imagine hundreds of baby turtles struggling out of their sandy nest and instinctively head towards the glow of the sea. It’s a sight familiar to many fans of nature documentaries, but seen less often with our naked eyes.
Birds and land mammals swoop down on the baby turtles, reducing by as much as 80 per cent the number of sea turtles that make it through their first day alive.
According to research, only about 25 per cent are likely to survive their first year in the ocean and only one of those hundred eggs reached their adult size despite all the spotlights from many conservation groups worldwide.
And then there are our local fishermen, who are required to present turtles in any traditional gathering to their chiefs. It is their obligation as demanded by some old age tradition.

Baby turtles breaking away from their nest along the sandy beaches of Navini Island Resort. Photo: Courtesy of NAVINI ISLAND RESORT

Over the years, thousands of sea turtles are slaughtered in the name of tradition in our communal community. The feast, as they say, is not complete without the turtle meat.
Even turtle eggs remain a delicacy in most coastal villages.
In the picturesque Mamanuca Group of Islands-littered with resorts, backpackers and private coves, the Mamanuca Environment Society (MES), which was formed in 2001, intervened.
The journey began in 2006, with Institute of Marine Research (IMR-USP) through an Australian Grant to do research on sea turtles in the Mamanucas.
Mr Salusalu said the outcome of the research highlighted that there was a need to initiate a project that would address issues like turtle harvesting, protecting nesting beaches and foraging grounds for sea turtle and creating awareness to stakeholders on the Mamanucas.
“So in 2008, MES in collaboration with IMR wrote in a proposal for a Mamanuca Sea Turtle Conservation project through the UNDP Global Environment Facility (GEF ) Small Grant programme for USD$50,000. That’s when the real deal started,” Mr Salusalu said.
The project code named The Mamanuca Sea Turtle Conservation was a two-year project, but it was extended towards the end of December 2012.
Mr Salusalu said the World Turtle Day, which is celebrated annually on May 23, and is a great day to stop, pause and think about the world’s turtle species.
As the society is approaching the end of the project timeline, he said MES had achieved the three major outcomes of the project which is:
n Best Practice Guideline Policy for Resort
n Community-Based Management Plan for Communities
n Community Strategy for implementing Awareness through Stake holders
“The Best Practices Guideline Policy document is the first ever to be created for any Sea Turtle Conservation around the Pacific Islands and also the first for the Fiji Islands. We are proud of that.”
As it is with other projects, the challenges Mr Salusalu said were many.
“Working with the communities and getting them to understand the project is a challenge itself knowing that this is something that is always part of their diet every day and is always hard to let go.  Getting them to learn and understand is another challenge which really makes this project very interesting and successful.
“But later in the progress of the project the people of Malolo and Mamanuca do realised the need to save these sea turtle from all these training and workshops.
“The next step toward the project is to implement the outcomes of the project through these stakeholders. These ancient creatures evolved before mammals, birds, snakes, or lizards. Biologists believe that turtles have managed to outlive many other species due to the unique protection provided by their shells.”
He said all species of sea turtles listed were threatened or endangered.

Traditional Fijian warriors escorting Betani Salusalu (front) with Lady Mana to the sea. Photo: Courtesy of NAVINI ISLAND RESORT

Two species that frequent the Mamanuca waters, either for foraging, nesting or just transiting, are the Hawksbill (vonu taku) – listed as critically endangered and the Green Turtle (vonu dina) – listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
“Please save our turtle,” Mr Salusalu says.

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