How to save sea turtles–and why the species conservation approach is failing

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2004:

VISAKHAPATNAM–The Malaysian cargo ship MV Genius Star-VI,
carrying 17 crew members and a load of timber, on April 13, 2004
sank in rough seas 180 miles southeast of Haldia, West Bengal.
Chinese crew members Gao Fuling, Wuxun Yuan, and Zhu Yuan
went overboard together, Gao and Wuxun with life jackets while Zhu
clutched a plank, wrote Jatindra Dash of Indo-Asian News Services.
For the next 34 hours they swam for their lives.
“Gao and Zhu described how two turtles met with them and
tried to help them,” Indian Coast Guard Commander P.K. Mishra told
Soon after the sinking, the first turtle tried to help Gao
lift a floating box that he thought might be used to wave in the air
as a signal to aircraft or other vessels.
“When the turtle failed, he pushed me up to the box so that
I could latch on to it,” Mishra said Gao told him. Later, when Zhu
lost his plank, “Zhu said a turtle swam with him for hours and
brought the wood plank back to him,” Mishra added.
All three men were eventually rescued by Mishra’s vessel.
Twelve other men were picked up by other merchant ships. Two were
never found.

On the far side of the globe, New York City sculptor Katrin
Asbury found herself looking toward Indian Ocean green sea turtles
for salvation of a different sort. A visiting assistant professor of
sculpture at Herron College, Asbury has for about five years enjoyed
growing recognition as an artist, yet has found the art world
“competitive, stifling, frustrating, and painful” despite her
successes, the most notable of which was an installation exhibit
mounted as a fundraiser for the Cryptozoological Society.
Cryptozoologists seek rare mythical beasts, sometimes
discovering or re-discovering seldom seen endangered species, other
times finding plausible explanations for improbable sightings.
For example, the underwater grazing habits of moose, only
recently identified by science, could account for the many sightings
of horned “monsters” with horse-like heads in lakes Champlain,
Memphremagog, and Pohenegamook, Quebec.
“My interests and focus have changed dramatically in the past
five years,” Asbury told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “While I have never stopped
being concerned about animals,” a passion since childhood, “and
have been a vegetarian for 17 years, I concentrated entirely on
being a successful artist until I began to realize that the other
life I had imagined for myself as a child, of being someone who
works for the betterment of the lives of animals and toward greater
human understanding of nonhuman animals, was not going to
materialize unless I made some big changes and reconsidered my
Asbury began taking pre-veterinary courses. She gave up an
art residency opportunity in Finland to volunteer for the Orangutan
Foundation in Indonesia.
Now she is preparing to volunteer for the Visakha SPCA sea
turtle conservation program in Visakhapatnam, India.
Asbury has difficulty explaining her attraction to sea
turtles, but it may be associated with wanting to get to know them
before they enter the realm of cryptozoology.
“I expect that sea turtles have been referred to as gentle giants as
often as orangutans,” Asbury mused, but added that she will not be
surprised to find that wild sea turtles up close are very different
from those she has seen as screen images and aquarium exhibits.


In both Hindu and Native American myth, the earth rests upon
the back of a sea turtle. The oldest large charismatic megafauna on
earth, sea turtles may for millions of years have been the most
intelligent species on earth, long before even the distant ancestors
of birds and mammals crawled out on land.
Now they need human help to endure against the onslaught of
humans who are increasingly numerous around their nesting beaches and
increasingly desperate to wring livings from the fished-out oceans.
Law enforcement catches just enough sea turtle and turtle egg
poachers to hint at the size of the problem.
On May 1, less than three weeks after the two sea turtles
helped the shipwrecked Chinese sailors, Malaysian marine police and
the Sabeh Fisheries Department caught a Chinese trawler near Pulau
Menga-lum with the remains of 150 hawksbill and green sea turtles
aboard, plus three live turtles.
Earlier in 2004, an unarmed 22-member anti-turtle poaching
team reported that at least 60% of the turtle eggs laid at San
Valentin beach, near Acapulco, were excavated by 10 heavily armed
bandits who arrived on horseback, clubbed to death hundreds of
female turtles they caught on the beach, and also rustled cattle
from nearby fields.
Since 1982, the Mexican population of nesting leatherback
sea turtles, the largest and oldest sea turtle species, has fallen
from 115,000 to barely 20,000.
“We could lose leatherbacks in a very short time,”
environmental prosecutor’s office director of field operations Oscar
Ramirez recently told Will Weissert of Associated Press.
Mexico first adopted a sea turtle protection law in 1988,
strengthened in 2003. Acting under the 2003 amendments, Mexican
environmental agents arrested 59 turtle egg, shell, and meat
traffickers by year’s end, confiscating 231,975 eggs and 1001 other
products made from sea turtles. Twenty-three nesting beaches are
now patrolled, environmental prosecutor’s office chief inspector
Luis Fueyo told Weissert.
As many as 27,000 sea turtles per year were poached in Bali,
Indonesia, during the late 1990s. The Bali toll has dropped steeply
since then, partly because of stricter law enforcement, partly
because the sea turtle population has plummeted.


As damaging as poaching is, however, shrimping and fishing
kill more sea turtles, as accidental bycatch.
Indian sea turtle conservationist Biswajit Mohanty of
Operation Kachhapa in Bhubaneswar told Prafulla Das of The Hindu in
March 2004 that more than 6,000 olive ridley sea turtles were killed
by trawling nets along the Orissa coast during the 2003-2004 nesting
season. The toll has often topped 10,000 in previous years.
About half of the world’s population of olive ridley sea
turtles nest along the Orissa, Andrha Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu coasts
along the Indian Ocean. As many as 380 modern trawlers and 50,000
traditional small-boat fishers cast their nets in the same waters.
“Mohanty said that patrolling at the Devi river mouth,”
where 591 dead sea turtles were counted on March 22, “stopped a few
weeks ago owing to lack of funds. Without fuel, the Fisheries
Department boats lay idle,” Das wrote.
The Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary released more than 4,000
olive ridley hatchlings in 2004, but because of the high rate of
predation on hatchlings would have had to release 150 times as many
to begin to compensate for the losses.
The U.S. State Department on January 26, 2004 lifted
embargoes on shrimp from Honduras and Costa Rica, imposed because
their shrimpers were not required to use turtle excluder devices
(TEDs) in their nets. Honduras and Costa Rica were certified as now
meeting the U.S. import standard. At the same time, the State
Department embargoed sea-caught shrimp from Nigeria. On May 14 the
State Department reinstated an embargo on sea-caught shrimp from
Thailand that was previously in effect from 1997 to 2000 because Thai
shrimpers were not and are not pulling TEDs.
While enforcing the TED requirement, as demanded by
TED-pulling U.S. shrimpers who argue that they otherwise would be at
an economic disadvantage against foreign competition, the U.S.
government during the George W. Bush presidency has relaxed
regulations meant to protect sea turtles from longline fishing.
On March 30, for instance, the Western Pacific Regional
Fishery Manage-ment Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service
jointly reopened longline swordfishing in Hawaiian waters.
The action was denounced by Sea Turtle Restoration Project
founder Todd Steiner and EarthJustice Hawaii representative Paul
“Leatherbacks are teetering on the brink of extinction in the
Pacific, and the reopened fishery will push them even closer,” said
NMFS reopened Hawaiian waters to longline swordfishing based
on tests in the Grand Banks using round hooks instead of the
traditional “J”-shaped hooks. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration in January endorsed the finding of Aquatic Release
Conservation Inc. and the Bluewater Fisherman’s Association that the
round hooks reduce sea turtle bycatch by from 65% to 90%.

Turtle tourism

“Sea turtles are worth more to local communities alive than
dead,” says Carlos Drews, World Wildlife Fund coordinator for sea
turtle conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Drews recently headed a WWF study that compared revenue from
killing sea turtles and collecting their eggs at nine locations with
sea turtle tourism revenues from nine similar locations in Africa,
Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Altogether, the Drews team found, sea turtle toruism is
worth about three times as much as sea turtle and egg poaching.
About 175,000 people per year travel to view sea turtles at more than
90 sites in 40 nations, the Drews team reported. The most
successful sea turtle viewing venue, Tortuguero National Park in
Costa Rica, realizes turtle-related tourist income of $6.7 million
per year.
Sea turtle tourism is miniscule compared to whale-watching,
which according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare attracts
11 million people per year, who spend more than $1 billion to see
whales, but whale-watching just 30 years ago was no larger.
“Developers, politicians, and community leaders should
start to see marine turtles as a valuable asset, generating revenue
and jobs,” Drews concluded.

A different view

But that is how sea turtles have always been seen. What
Drews appeared to mean, yet perhaps could not say as a WWF employee,
is that sea turtles should be seen as natural wonders, not as
“renewable resources” to be exploited in accord with the WWF doctrine
of promoting “sustainable” consumptive use of wildlife.
Only after whales ceased being seen by most of the world as
“renewable resources” and began to be seen as unique individuals did
whale-watching soar to popularity. In the ten years following the
1993 release of Free Willy!, the first of a film trilogy focused on
the life of one fictional orca, making almost no mention of
conservation of species, global participation in whale-watching
For more than 50 years, beginning with the campaigns of the
late Archie Carr and Ila Loetscher to protect sea turtle nesting
habitat along the coasts of Florida, Texas, and Mexico, the
emphasis of most sea turtle advocates has been upon conservation of
species, with scant attention to the plight–and charisma–of
Carr (1909-1987) was a university-trained zoologist who
never really did understand the importance of giving sea turtles
individual names and faces.
Carr in 1947 discovered the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting
beach at Rancho Nuevo. Then the last nesting site for the species,
it attracted as many as 40,000 nesting turtles per year. After 30
years of conventional conservation efforts, however, poaching had
reduced the nesting population to 300.
Loetscher (1905-2000) was a flamboyant pioneer aviator who
took an entirely different approach when she turned to sea turtle
conservation in 1958.
Reinventing herself as the Turtle Lady of Texas, Loetscher
led the successful effort to return Kemp Ridley sea turtles to Padre
Island National Seashore. Though friendly with Carr, Loetscher
constantly jangled his sensibilities. She talked about conservation,
but emphasized teaching generations of young people to view sea
turtles as hard-shelled, leathery-skinned fellow Texans.
Providing Kemp’s ridley sea turtles with a second and better
protected nesting beach may have saved the species. While the Rancho
Nuevo nesting population is recovering, the Padre Island population
has now spread to Galveston Island.
The more nesting sites the turtles have, and the more
communities take pride in having them, the better chance they have
of longterm survival.


Mainstream turtle conservationists continue to work in the
Carr tradition, still tending to view activity emphasizing
individuals as a threat to the limited existing pool of funding,
rather than as a chance to expand it.
For example, ANIMAL PEOPLE recently tried to facilitate
introductions among sea turtle experts in several nations on behalf
of Nantarika Chansue, a member of the veterinary faculty at
Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.
Nantarika Chansue and several of her students are trying to
develop prosthetics for four sea turtles who have lost flippers.
They wanted to know if anyone else anywhere had done anything similar.
Responded Wildlife Trust director for conservation medicine
Alonso Aguirre, DVM, “Funding and efforts focusing on sea turtles
are better spent in conservation education or involving the community
in sea turtle protection projects.”
Blue Ocean Institute director for the Pacific region Wallace
Nichols agreed.
Jakarta Post writer Slamet Susanto recently described the
sort of sea turtle conservation project that the conservation
establishment currently favors: former turtle poacher Rudjito, 45,
of Samas, Indonesia, has formed the South Sea Turtle Conservation
Forum to hatch sea turtles. So has Riyanto, 42, of Parangitis.
Between them, they have released more than 300 hatchlings since 2002.
Few if any of the hatchlings are likely to reach reproductive
maturity. The real value of involving Rudjito and Riyanto in
hatching turtles is that the work is building their emotional
involvement–and that of their families and friends–with the animals
they used to eat or kill for sale.
Conservation education begins, for most people, with
developing a sense of identification with individual representatives
of the species of concern.
Further, as professional fundraisers know, and use in
writing appeals for species conservation as much as for fundraising
to support individual animal rescue, most donors to animal causes
are chiefly motivated by preventing suffering.
For example, empathy felt toward Keiko, the now deceased
orca star of the Free Willy! films, raised more money during the
1990s than the sum raised on behalf of all other whales, wild and
captive. Donors cared about Keiko. They didn’t feel they knew any
other whales personally.
If sea turtles have a future, the financial and political
base for it, including for projects like those of Rudjito and
Riyanto, will have to be built by story-tellers like Loetscher.
They will have to learn to make use of incidents like those
of the shipwrecked Chinese sailors to encourage feelings like those
that have motivated Katrin Asbury to turn away from success in one of
the most prestigious art markets in the world to help save turtles on
the far side of the globe.

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