A second chance for Bali's marine turtles

Posted: 19 March 2007

For years, Bali has been a hub for Indonesia's illegal marine turtle trade, particularly in two coastal villages on Serangan islet in the southern neighbourhood of Denpasar, Bali's main city. And the economic downturn since the Bali bombing has not helped. But now an education effort is paying dividends. Olivier van Bogaert reports.

It's thought that between 500 and 1,000 turtles - mostly green and hawksbills - are illegally imported into the island of Bali each month where their meat is sold or used in religious ceremonies.

Poachers and traders claim that turtle meat is an essential part of Balinese Hindu sacrificial rituals, and blame conservationists and law enforcement agencies for being "enemies" of the island's cultural and religious heritage.

"Poaching marine turtles is a serious problem on Serangan," said Adnyana, who leads WWF's marine turtle campaign in the country. "It is obvious that killing turtles for religious ceremonies is often used as an excuse for covering up the trade or using the animals for personal consumption."

Marine turtles are under threat throughout its tropical and sub-tropical distribution range from meat and egg over-harvesting, and from being caught accidentally in fishing gear. An estimated 100,000 green turtles are killed in the Indo-Australian archipelago each year.

"This is not only reducing the turtle population, but also creating ecological strains in numerous sea turtle habitats around the country," Adnyana stressed.

Turtle education

To help educate communities on how turtle conservation can have a direct benefit on their livelihoods, WWF is working closely with Hindu priests to show that there is no need to kill the turtles for ceremonies. Support from the priests has been forthcoming. One high priest has gone so far as to publicly recommend replacing live turtles or turtle meat in ceremonies with turtle photos or turtle-shaped rice cakes.

Turtle Centre
Turtle Centre
A young visitor to the WWF-supported Turtle Conservation and Education Centre. Serangan, Bali, Indonesia. Photo © WWF-Canon/Marc-Antoine Dunais

The conservation organisation, with support from local government agencies and USAID, has also set up a turtle education centre a few kilometres away from the villages to educate people about turtle conservation issues and to encourage them not to consume turtle products. Donations from visitors help operate the facility.

The creation of the turtle centre sparked immediate interest because it became a potential source of jobs, a tourist attraction and an educational tool for Balinese schoolchildren all in one.

Local high school and university students often volunteer at the centre, helping to monitor the turtles' health, and collecting data that is both useful to turtle science and their own academic pursuits.

"This is my first job since graduating high school," said Made Sumetra, who liaises with scientists from a local university. "I consider myself an ecologist and I'm happy to be part of the research."

Turtle traders

Staff member Wyan Geria, a local village leader, was also attracted to the centre for his love of turtles. He remembers a time when Bali had a better image in regards to its treatment of wildlife, particularly marine turtles. Now his main duties include talking with visitors and the greater community about treating turtles with respect.

"We want to see an end to the turtle trade and the centre is one way to help inform the wider community," said Adnyana. "As the centre's staff comes from these communities, they can play a big role in trying to influence traders and others to support turtle conservation."

In fact, the centre now offers job training for many former turtle traders, helping them start new careers in sustainable seafood production. A recently signed agreement between the turtle centre and local supermarkets to sell these products has provided new income and opportunities for those who in the past were more inclined to catch turtles.

Turtle protection

The turtles housed in the centre are mainly green and hawksbill turtles that have been found ill or injured. Many of their nests have also been relocated to the centre from nearby beaches that are regularly visited by poachers in search of turtle eggs.

Most hatchlings will be released, while some will briefly be kept in the centre for exhibition and educational purposes. Others are provided to communities for religious ceremonies, only on the stipulation that they are released back into the sea.

Although green turtles have long played a significant, symbolic role in traditional Indonesian Hindu rituals and ceremonies, religious leaders have asked Balinese Hindus to stop using turtle meat in religious ceremonies until the turtle population is stabilized.

WWF is working with Indonesian authorities to reduce the: loss and degradation of critical marine turtle habitats; negative impact of bycatch; and unsustainable use and illegal trade in marine turtles and turtle products. At the same time, the global conservation organization is conducting extensive research on the species and their habitats, and developing effective eco-tourism, which helps provide alternative livelihood options for turtle traders.

"Thanks to Serangan's turtle conservation and education centre, there is hope for the species," he added. "For marine turtles ending up on Bali, this would mean a second chance."

Oliver van Bogaert is Senior Press Officer at WWF International.

Note: Six of the seven of the world's marine turtles are found in Indonesia, including: green (Chelonia mydas); hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricta); loggerhead (Caretta caretta); leatherback (Dermochelys coriacae); olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacae); and flatback (Natator depressus). All six species are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

Related links:

Malaysia's turtle island faces uncertain future

The State of the World's Turtles website is atwww.seaturtlestatus.org

For more about Indian Ocean and South East Asian turtles, see: www.ioseaturtles.org

On this website, enter 'Turtles' in the Search PATP feature (top right).