After decades of indiscriminate slaughter of leatherback turtles on the beaches of Trinidad, a band of villagers have finally come to their aid; trying to stop the carnage and protect nesting sites. The giant leatherbacks spend all their time in the open sea except when the females come ashore to lay their eggs. Many choose remote beaches in the north and east of Trinidad, like Matura, which account for more than 80% of leatherback nesting in the Caribbean islands and host the world’s second largest nesting colony.

Leatherback turtles are in a desperate battle for survival. Of the few that survive, we can imagine one; a female, heavy with eggs, swimming to the Matura beach, for her first visit back. Seventeen years ago, she would have dug herself out of her sandy nest, and along with other hatchlings, frantically waddled down that same beach as seabirds swooped in a wild feeding frenzy. A few made it to the sea, but they still would not have been out of danger.

Out in the Atlantic, they faced natural predators, fish, birds, and the even more hazardous marine pollution. Many choked on the drifting plastic bags that they mistook for jellyfish; their favourite food. Others drowned after being trapped in fishing nets.

This female was one of the lucky ones; she escaped all of these dangers. Unlike most of the group that entered the water with her, she survived to reach maturity, to mate and produce her first eggs; that she would soon lay on the same beach where she herself was hatched.

An inexorable decline towards extinction!

Turtles have been around long before humans; in fact since the age of the dinosaurs. In recent years though, as these ancient creatures have been exposed to new lethal manmade perils, their numbers have been plummeting and they could ultimately face extinction. The WWF  estimated that the global adult female population in 1996 had fallen to 30-40,000; down from 115,000 in 1982.

Much of the decline in numbers is the unintended result of marine pollution and fishing, but poachers are also contributing to the drop in numbers. They target the turtles when they are most vulnerable; as they come ashore to lay their eggs.

By 1990, poachers were slaughtering 30% of females arriving on Matura beach and raiding their nests. Money is tight in these remote coastal communities; unemployment is high and the youth have few prospects. The lumbering nesting female is tempting; easy prey and easy money. According to St Lucia marine biologist and businessman Ross Gardner, turtle meat can sell for up to 3 times more than fish.

A Trinidad & Tobago solution to save the Leatherback turtle

Towards the end of the last century, there was growing worldwide concern at the threat to the iconic leatherback. It was declared an endangered species and many governments set out to help save it. Trinidad and Tobago introduced new conservation regulations; one of which was to prohibit unauthorised access to the 8.8 kilometre Matura beach from March to August; the nesting season.

But what about the livelihoods of the villagers? They would lose the well needed cash from selling turtle meat and eggs. What were they to do? Well some residents came up with a brilliant and creative solution.

After discussing with wildlife officers, they organised themselves to manage protection; the poacher would now be the gamekeeper. Calling themselves Nature Seekers, they secured community wide support and set up nightly beach patrols to prevent poaching. They now study, tag and breed turtles and conduct tours of nesting sites for tourists and other visitors, who can watch and film hatching and the mother’s meticulous disguising of the nest containing her precious eggs.

The success of Nature seekers, headed by Dennis Sammy, is remarkable. Now 200 turtles nest nightly at Matura , the slaughter of egg-bearing leatherbacks has stopped and public awareness of turtle conservation has been raised with 11,188 local and foreign visitors. Nature Seekers employs 68 persons and the value of the integrated project to the community, far exceeds the income that it could have obtained from poaching.

The Caribbean Tourism Organisation commended Nature Seekers’ contribution to eco-tourism and rated it a best practice community project.

When the egg-laden turtle comes ashore on Matura beach, her reception, will be so different from what it would have been before Nature Seekers came to the rescue. Now, in 2015, it will not be poachers with axes and machetes waiting for her, just tourists armed with cameras and beach patrols to keep any poachers away.

Rolling out conservation projects to protect the Leatherback turtles

The experience and success of the Matura residents has prompted the formation of 14 similar community groups elsewhere in Trinidad and Tobago. And the model is being emulated in neighbouring islands. In St Lucia it is grandly named, “Implementation of Sustainable Marine Turtle Conservation Strategies through Education, Community Based Tourism and Community Participation”. In Dominica the name is even more of a mouthful; “Integrating biodiversity conservation through Community-based sea turtle and nature conservation with sustainable agriculture to generate economic activities for the Riviere Cyrique community through community tourism.”

Both St Lucia and Dominica have conservation legislation but still need to do more to win over the public. It is the taste for turtle meat and eggs that drives the slaughter and nest raiding. For it to end, the flesh of these iconic creatures must no longer be prized as food or aphrodisiacs.

The residents of Matura have shown how ordinary people can tackle environmental and economic challenges. Working together they have created a viable eco-tourism business, new jobs and income. True, Government support and legislation were critical, but success would not have been achieved without the commitment and involvement of the whole community.

By appreciating that the Leatherback turtle is of more value to them alive and actually doing something about it, these villagers have delivered a real service to the world in helping prevent the extinction of this iconic giant of the deep.