Tur­tle majesty

Island Life - - Contents - Story by Chan­tal Dun­bar.

Meet Van­u­atu’s Tur­tles.

In folk­lore, myths and le­gends, tur­tles de­pict longevity, sta­bil­ity and cun­ning. They are of­ten fea­tured in cre­ation sto­ries and have even been el­e­vated to su­per­hero sta­tus on kid’s TV. Sea tur­tles are the poster-chil­dren for marine con­ser­va­tion and one of the world’s most beloved marine crea­tures. So it’s a lit­tle ironic that our love af­fair with tur­tles has left them cling­ing to a thread for sur­vival. Of the seven sea tur­tle species in the world, Van­u­atu is home to two (pos­si­bly three); the Crit­i­cally En­dan­gered Hawks­bill (Eret­mochelys im­bri­cate) and the En­dan­gered Green (Ch­elo­nia my­das. Leatherbacks have also been sighted on some of the more re­mote is­lands. Tur­tle mon­i­tor­ing pro­grams ex­ist on Moso, Nguna and Pele is­lands and com­mu­nity ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes such as Van­u­atu Tag­ging Tur­tles for Tra­di­tion and Tourism at the Nguna-pele Marine Pro­tected Area pro­vide tourists a chance to tag and re­lease wild-caught sea tur­tles while en­cour­ag­ing tra­di­tional hun­ters to catch for con­ser­va­tion rather than con­sump­tion. Other non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Wan Smol­bag, use street theatre to get the con­ser­va­tion mes­sage across to lo­cal peo­ple in the com­mu­nity. Their play, ‘I am a Tur­tle’, led to the for­ma­tion of the Vanua-tai tur­tle mon­i­tor­ing net­work, which started in 1995 on the is­land of Efate. The net­work has grown from some 40 vol­un­teers to over 400 peo­ple in coastal vil­lages across Van­u­atu; ex­tend­ing its fo­cus to the land as well as the sea. While it’s com­mon­place for visi­tors to Pa­cific is­lands to get up­set about tra­di­tional hunt­ing prac­tices, it pays to re­mem­ber that there was a time (in re­cent liv­ing mem­ory) when tur­tles were rid­den for en­ter­tain­ment, har­vested in their thou­sands, and pro­cessed into tur­tle soup des­tined for Europe’s din­ner ta­bles. Ac­tiv­i­ties such as these re­moved ma­ture tur­tles from the breed­ing pop­u­la­tion, re­duc­ing the num­ber of eggs laid. It takes decades for tur­tles to reach re­pro­duc­tive age - and just one in a thou­sand hatch­lings make it to breed­ing age – so tur­tle species will take many years to re­cover.

Get­ting to know Van­u­atu’s tur­tles

The Crit­i­cally En­dan­gered Hawks­bill tur­tle weighs in be­tween 45 and 60kg and its cara­pace (shell) mea­sures around 90cm. The “pretty boy” of the marine tur­tle fam­ily, the Hawks­bill’s cara­pace is beau­ti­fully translu­cent and four large scutes (seg­ments that look like big scales) over­lap on ei­ther side. It is easily iden­ti­fied by its hooked, pointed beak and the skin colour­ing is brown (as op­posed to the En­dan­gered Green tur­tle’s olive hue). Hawks­bills live a rather soli­tary ex­is­tence, only get­ting to­gether with other tur­tles when it’s time to mate; once ev­ery two to three years. This may oc­cur be­tween April and Novem­ber (depend­ing on lo­ca­tions), with hatch- lings emerg­ing some 60 days later. Like Green tur­tles, Hawks­bills re­turn to their birthplace to nest and only the fe­males leave the wa­ter. They la­bo­ri­ously heave them­selves up on to the beach, in search of a suit­able dry place to lay their eggs and may ex­ca­vate a num­ber of po­ten­tial sites be­fore fi­nally set­tling on one that they deem dry enough to help the eggs in­cu­bate. With trails like trac­tor-tyre marks ex­tend­ing be­hind them to the wa­ter­line, the nest­ing fe­males set about lay­ing up to 140 ping-pong ball sized eggs into a pit that they have ex­ca­vated for the pur­pose; en­ter­ing into a teary trance as they grunt and huff through the task. In a sea­son, they may come ashore to lay two or three clutches of eggs; each time, sneak­ing ashore un­der cover of dark­ness. All around them, other marine life is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ac­tive; keenly await­ing the time of birth. Ap­prox­i­mately two months later, the tiny hatch­lings will be­gin to ‘pip’ and peck their way free from their shells, us­ing a spe­cial, tem­po­rary ‘tooth’ that is at­tached to their beak. They re­main un­der the sand, di­gest­ing the yolk and re­gain­ing their energy, await­ing the rest of the clutch. Then af­ter two to three days, they erupt en masse, push­ing up through the cool night sands be­fore mak­ing a mad dash for the ocean. Their co­or­di­nated es­cape is over in a mat­ter of min­utes as they scam­per to­wards the moon’s glow upon the wa­ter­line. They run the gaunt­let of

ex­cited hun­gry preda­tors such as dogs, sea birds, crabs and sharks, with only a lucky few mak­ing it to the open ocean. Their mad swimming frenzy may last two or three days un­til they find safety in a clump of float­ing weed. From this time on, un­til they reach din­ner plate size (about 35cm), this is the pe­riod known as ‘the lost years’. Even­tu­ally, when the tur­tles reach suf­fi­cient size, they trade in the open ocean for the reef sys­tem or rocky coastal zones. This is where we hu­mans will most of­ten en­counter them; swimming across coral gar­dens and hid­ing among rocky ledges and ship wrecks. It is es­ti­mated Van­u­atu’s tur­tle species live un­til 30 to 50 years of age in the wild, but fac­tors such as pol­lu­tion can bring about a pre­ma­ture death. Two of the favourite foods of the Green tur­tle are the jel­ly­fish and the sponge; both of which are of­ten con­fused with float­ing trash and bags. When ingested, the plas­tic blocks the tur­tle’s di­ges­tive or­gans and they starve to death in a slow and painful man­ner.

Another hu­man ac­tion that is ad­versely threat­en­ing tur­tle pop­u­la­tions is the re­moval of woody trees from the dune sys­tems, which re­sults in flat­ter beaches and fur­ther-reach­ing tides. With­out these safe, dry en­vi­ron­ments, the nests are at in­creased risk from the el­e­ments and preda­tors are able to un­earth the eggs with greater ease. Tur­tle em­bryos do not have sex chro­mo­somes and the gen­der of the hatch­lings is de­ter­mined by the tem­per­a­ture of the nest, so a re­moval of shade or in­crease in sea wa­ter in­un­da­tion can im­pact the out­come. Whether hatch­lings will emerge as male or fe­male de­pends on what’s known as the “piv­otal tem­per­a­ture;” if the nest tem­per­a­ture is be­tween 28 and 29 de­grees Cel­sius, then a mix of both males and fe­males will emerge, whereas tem­per­a­tures above this range pro­duce only fe­males, and colder tem­per­a­tures pro­duce only males. An im­bal­ance ei­ther way can have dis­as­trous con­se­quences. As it may take up to 30 years for a tur­tle to reach ma­tu­rity, changes to the nest­ing en­vi­ron­ment also present a threat. Beaches that were once-undis­turbed may have be­come un­suit­able due to noise and light pol-

lu­tion or gar­dens, houses and roads may have al­tered the beach pro­file. Reef de­struc­tion, fish­ing nets, pol­lu­tion, habi­tat loss, hunt­ing, poach­ing and hu­man ac­tiv­ity in known nest­ing ar­eas all place un­nec­es­sary pres­sure on tur­tle pop­u­la­tions. Lo­cal peo­ple, tourists, de­vel­op­ers and lo­cal busi­nesses all have a role to play in tur­tle con­ser­va­tion.

Pro­tect­ing Van­u­atu Tur­tles

One of the most im­por­tant things each of us can do is to dis­pose of our lit­ter prop­erly. Items such as plas­tic bags end up in the ocean, where tur­tles mis­take them for jel­ly­fish. Aban­doned fish­ing nets pose the risk of en­tan­gle­ment, so dis­carded fish­ing gear should be re­moved and dis­posed of when en­coun­tered on a beach or un­der wa­ter. Man-made light sources - such as beach­front light­ing, street lights, light from cars, camp­fires etc – pose a prob­lem too as hatch­lings use the nat­u­ral light hori­zon (usu­ally over the ocean) to guide them to the sea. Light pol­lu­tion can lead to dis­ori­en­ta­tion and cause hatch­lings to head in­land, re­sult­ing in ex­haus­tion and bring­ing them into fa­tal con­tact with preda­tors.

Watch­ing tur­tles nest or hatch­lings emerge from their nest can be a mag­i­cal and highly emo­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. Tur­tle flip­per-prints leave trac­tor trails across the sand as the hatch­lings strug­gle across seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cles. It’s hard not to get caught up in the mo­ment. When watch­ing tur­tles:

• Re­sist the temp­ta­tion to pick up hatch­lings and play with them. Your in­ter­fer­ence de­creases their chance of sur­vival and re­moves their abil­ity to im­print their birthplace into their mem­o­ries. You may pass on con­tam­i­nants such as in­sect re­pel­lent, which may make the frag­ile hatch­lings ill.

• Turn off out­side lights (in­clud­ing drive­way and veran­dah lights), and draw the cur­tains in your room at night when it is tur­tle hatch­ling sea­son.

• If ap­proach­ing a tur­tle that is com­ing ashore to nest, never walk be­tween her and the wa­ter. She may in­ter­pret this as a trap and will likely aban­don that night’s nest­ing ef­forts.

• Only ap­proach a nest­ing tur­tle once she has al­ready started lay­ing. At this stage, she will be in a deep trance and you can sit qui­etly be­hind her, tak­ing photos of eggs be­ing laid. Fi­nally, do not hunt or eat the tur­tles. If tur­tles are not pro­tected and left to live, Van­u­atu’s next gen­er­a­tion will lose yet another of its pre­cious species.

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